The veteran comedian helmed a politically charged episode

By Christian Holub
April 09, 2017 at 01:34 PM EDT
Will Heath/NBC

Louis C.K.’s fourth time hosting Saturday Night Live felt a bit like the comedian’s latest stand-up special, 2017. Having performed both formats several times, C.K. was confident and kept things running smoothly, even if the comedy didn’t always feel quite as insightful or provocative as it did a few years ago when he really commanded the comedy zeitgeist. C.K. even lampshaded the ratio between success and experience in his monologue, noting that “I’ve been doing this for 32 years now, and it’s been going great for four years.” It’s well-known that comedians have trouble staying funny after becoming super successful because their newfound bubble of privilege separates them from the realities of mundane life they once mined for comedic insight, and C.K. highlighted his own struggles with that in the conclusion of his monologue, where he tells the story of a recent incident at a fancy hotel.

C.K. admits that most of his career was spent in “those motels right by the highway that you drive by like, ‘Who’s inside that?'” But now his success has given him access to nicer hotels, and the resulting high expectations make him unhappy. For instance, he recently got angry at hotel staff for not returning his laundry in time. In telling the story, C.K. ruthlessly mocked himself for the condescending manner he treated hotel employees and his attempt to use his own white privilege as a lever in the argument — “It’s wrong that white people get preferential treatment, but as long as they do, what’s going on at this hotel?” — until finally realizing that he had not, in fact, even given them laundry to do.

That white privilege line (which resembles a classic bit from his 2008 special Chewed Up) is not the only time C.K. poked at racial material in the monologue. He started the whole thing off by putting an unsettling turn on a classic joke: “Why did the chicken cross the road? Because there was a black guy walking behind him.” C.K. then went on to deconstruct the racial anxieties of this hypothetical chicken before also joking about giraffes, goats, and moose (“Every moose looks like a dude who just got turned into a moose right before you looked at him”). Not C.K.’s best SNL — that would probably be his controversial 2015 spot, which felt legitimately edgy by SNL standards — but still entertaining and thought-provoking. Stand-up monologues might be the best monologues.

As for the episode’s political humor, I’ve criticized Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump impression before, but, wow, this week’s cold open was one of the best I’ve seen in awhile. SNL finally seems to have found a good lane for biting criticism of Trump. Until now, it’s mostly been a remix of old “lol our president’s so dumb” George W. Bush jokes and hyperventilating about Russian conspiracy, neither of which seemed to capture how the American population at large was experiencing the Trump presidency. But this week, SNL finally fixed that by showing Baldwin’s Trump callously fail to connect with his supporters, and made the most of this week’s events. Like the real-life president, Baldwin’s Trump could talk about his recent bombing of Syrian airfields (for which he received rapturous praise from the real-life media). When Kentucky constituents tried asking about their health care or their relatives’ painkiller addiction, the only answer Baldwin’s Trump had was further stripping away his voters’ essential services. Just as I was ready to give up on Baldwin’s Trump, they really raised the commentary up a notch.

Best Sketch: “Pepsi Commercial”

One of the biggest pop culture topics this week was Kendall Jenner’s controversial Pepsi adSNL put their twist on it by imaging Beck Bennett as the mastermind behind the commercial, informed mere minutes before shooting began that his idea was actually incredibly tone-deaf. Benett’s character ends up fleeing the scene even before his star arrives. The sketch effectively mocked the original commercial’s failure to accurately read the pulse of the culture.

Best Short: “Thank You Scott”

SNL also mocked fake-activism with this digital short featuring C.K. as a couch-bound “slacktivist” named Scott. As the 2016 election proved once again, many Americans experience politics mostly through posting on social media (just ask our president and his beloved Twitter account). “Thank You Scott” mocks the assumed self-importance of these posters, who think sharing an article or putting “Black Lives Matter” in their Twitter bio is an actual accomplishment they should be lauded for (“You ended racism, Scott! Now we’re all equal, Scott!”). It also includes a pretty hilarious juxtaposition of Scott’s bare minimum performance and the extravagant musical number celebrating him.

Weakest Sketch: “Soda Shop”

The trope of an older adult going to a school dance with a student has been ruthlessly mocked by so many sitcoms in recent years (from Review to BoJack Horseman) that sometimes I wonder whether it even really existed in original form at all. SNL, too, tried mocking the trope with this sketch featuring C.K. as a creepy soda shop manager. The ’50s costumes were on point, but so many wires got crossed that by the end it was hard to tell who the real humor target was.

Weekend Update Highlights

The sharp mockery of Trump’s Syrian strike that started in the cold open continued into Weekend Update, as Colin Jost noted “the only thing scarier than Donald Trump acting un-presidential is Donald Trump acting ‘presidential.'” Co-host Michael Che then jumped in by comparing the complex array of factions in the Syrian Civil War (from Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed government to rebel forces to ISIS) to the Three Stooges all hitting each other at the same time.

In the second half, Kate McKinnon showed up for some non-political humor, mocking the creator of the recent Cristiano Ronaldo statue. She impersonated Cecilia Gimenez, the woman who made the infamous Jesus recreation that blew up the internet a few years ago. McKinnon was not a huge presence in the episode, but she’s a better Weekend Update guest than anybody else right now.

Best Musical Moment: “Break Up Every Night” by The Chainsmokers

The Chainsmokers felt a little lethargic while performing their hit “Paris” but really picked up the energy when they returned for their second number. The mash-up of a veteran comedian host and a young up-and-coming duo was kind of funny in general, too.

Cast MVP: Alec Baldwin

He’s not a regular cast member, but Baldwin thoroughly dominated this episode. After pulling off one of the better Trump cold opens in some time, Baldwin reprised the role later in the episode for an interview with himself as Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, currently embattled by charges of sexual harassment. Baldwin is excellent at pulling double-duty, mocking both O’Reilly’s scandal and Trump’s paranoid narcissism.

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