By Adrienne Onofri
February 10, 2019 at 05:52 AM EST
Rosalind O'Connor/NBC
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Back after taking Super Bowl weekend off, Saturday Night Live welcomed Halsey as both host and musical guest—and there was some online chatter before the show about her perhaps not having the name or face recognition (at least among those over 30), or the acting experience, of previous hosts who have pulled double duty. But Halsey may be all anyone remembers about this episode, which was weighed down in the first half by hacky political sketches. Whether it was her sheer joy about hosting, her appearing in almost every sketch, or her performances of her latest hits, “Without Me” and “Eastside,” you had to be impressed by Halsey. And that’s before you get to her two true coups of the evening, painting a portrait on the ground while she sang “Eastside” and telling us all—without speaking a word—that her ex (presumably, G-Eazy) was a chronic cheater.

Cold Open

There was a time when the idea of somebody saying “penis” on Meet the Press would have been enough to get a laugh, but that time was before Nov. 8, 2016 June 16, 2015. Still, SNL gave us a Meet the Press spoof that was basically Chuck Todd (Kyle Mooney) and his guests talking about Jeff Bezos’ penis. And ultimately it just made pundits Eugene Robinson (played by Kenan Thompson) and Peggy Noonan (Cecily Strong) the target of the joke, as they proved only too amenable to dropping their high-minded journalism discussion to speculate about Bezos’ private parts (whereas Donna Brazile, as portrayed by Leslie Jones, remained appalled). As with the political material later in the show, SNL didn’t seem to know where to go with this setup, so it trotted out Kate McKinnon as commerce secretary Wilbur Ross again. This is a good impersonation—but McKinnon-as-Ross just ended up talking about penises too. For the final Meet the Press guest, a member of the Trump administration made his SNL debut: acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker, played by…Aidy Bryant! Can’t say that saved the sketch, especially since Bryant had only a couple of lines (one of them penis-related) before Todd/Mooney interrupted Whitaker to return to the Bezos story, but loved the casting and how Bryant looked. The only other highlight of the skit was this suggestion for a newspaper headline about the Bezos scandal: “Your Amazon Package Is on Its Way.”

Monologue

It was short and sweet. Some quick jokes about her angsty music and her New Jersey roots, some fangirling-out (“when I was a kid, I was absolutely obsessed with SNL; I watched it every week”), and then Halsey made a nice tribute—and an excellent point: “I especially admired the women on this show. They never cared what they looked like, what they sounded like, or what anybody thought of them—they were just funny.”

Musical Performances

These were more memorable than the sketches, so let’s get to them first. Halsey sang “Without Me”—not a surprise, given its recent No. 1 spot on the Billboard chart. The surprise was her backdrop: a wall on which were graffitied the words “Ashley, I Cheated in Minneapolis,” “At home in Los Angeles,” “In Austin,” “More Places I Can’t Even Remember,” and the names of more places. Ashley, as you may know, is Halsey’s real first name. “Without Me,” many have surmised, is about her breakup with G-Eazy. This, I believe, is what one calls spilling the tea.

Halsey changed from see-through black lace to white overalls for her second musical performance, and as she sang “Eastside,” she painted an oversize sort-of-Tupac-resembling portrait on the floor. Did she actually just trace a stencil, as some Twitter killjoys insisted? Maybe, but as with “Without Me,” she theatricalized a part of the show that’s usually somebody standing with a mike singing. And as with the “Without Me” performance, it got the tweets flying.

Those weren’t Halsey’s only musical performances of the night. In a short, she sang (with Bryant and McKinnon) “I Don’t Wanna Think of You,” a song about how platonic acquaintances like your boss, your dentist, your mother should not be giving you Valentine’s Day cards and gifts. And as a tutu-clad sorority pledge, she karaoked 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” in a bar-set skit.

Sketches

For a show where the word penis was uttered no fewer than a dozen times, dare I say the humor was flaccid? (They joked about a bald man looking like a penis in two different sketches!)

There was another fake trailer for Them Trumps, the Empire-like TV series chronicling President Darius Trump (Thompson) and his family. In it, the presidential limo gets pulled over by cops even though the black president isn’t even driving. And…that was it. It was like the writers couldn’t come up with anything funny beyond that premise.

The sketch dealing with Virginia’s blackface controversy had a similar problem: It depended on one joke—that white people don’t understand that blackface is always unacceptable, and was unacceptable back in the ’80s, and is unacceptable when it’s for a Halloween costume, and so on. Of course, the other problem with the sketch is that this punchline is the real-life problem: Governor Northam and Attorney General Herring did think blackface was okay in the ’80s and because it was for a costume.

And then there was another political sketch that had no real payoff: “Women of Congress,” a trailer for a new crime-fighting show (or superhero movie, or maybe pro wrestling circuit). “They wear white, but they’re not all white,” the announcer blared before introducing a cast including Nancy “Madam Clapback” Pelosi and Alexandria “I Say What I Meme” Ocasio-Cortez. (Halsey played Rashida “Impeach the Motherf—er” Tlaib.) But then they all just began yelling when they heard Trump boast—as he actually did in the State of the Union—that during his presidency more women than ever have been elected to Congress. Just like with the Virginia sketch, this isn’t really funny because it’s what happened in real life.

Unfortunately, the nonpolitical sketches weren’t too sharp either. In one, parents (Halsey and Beck Bennett) on a phone call to their adult son (Mikey Day) keep asking about his new grill and a girl they saw on his Facebook page yet only mention in passing that mom was shot, dad broke both his legs and they’ve reunited with the son’s identical twin brother who was given up for adoption. In another, a dad (Thompson) casually informs his family (Halsey was the son’s girlfriend) that he’s been making money posting on a gay amateur-porn site. In both of these, the humor revolved around certain characters nonchalantly reacting to news that freaks other characters out. SNL has used that premise before.

The last sketch of the night looked like it was going to be a Riverdale sendup (with Halsey as Lili Reinhart as Betty) but turned out to be a showcase for Pete Davidson as a British Method actor playing a corpse. You know the, like, five different episodes of Friends where Joey gets a nonspeaking role and then overacts in it? It was that.

So what was my favorite sketch? It might have been the Black History Month segment—if it had remained the earnest retrospective it started out as. The four black cast members—Jones, Thompson, Chris Redd and Ego Nwodim—stood together and said they wanted to “take a moment to talk about some great African-American entertainers who’ve contributed to the legacy of Saturday Night Live,” mentioning original cast member Garrett Morris, iconic first-season guest Richard Pryor and first-ever musical guest Billy Preston, among others. Then Mooney and Bennett burst on stage, acting oh-so-woke and lecturing the others about overlooked black entertainers (Thompson: “It really means the world to us that you Googled all those names”). This would have landed better if the show hadn’t already gone to the clueless-white-people well for the blackface-related bits. And that it concluded poignantly underscores that they could have just stayed with the serious. Thompson remarked that they “stand on this stage thanks to all the people who stood here before us,” with Jones adding, “It’s gonna be a better tomorrow.” (Side note: She was wearing a “Free 21 Savage” T-shirt during the curtain call.)

Weekend Update

Michael Che ridiculed Virginia’s blackface problem, tying in Liam Neeson’s racist revelation and 21 Savage’s arrest with it. Then Colin Jost took a circuitous journey through some okay jokes about the blackface situation to get to a better one (he even cracked himself up): “Maybe Virginia should take a cue from the Oscars and just go without a governor this year…. Or they can come full-circle and make it Governor Kevin Hart.”

I also liked this one from Jost: “A zoo in Texas has launched a Valentine’s Day promotion that lets people get revenge on their exes by naming a cockroach after them and then feeding the cockroach to a meerkat. So, that’ll show them…that they were right to break up with you.”

But I thought the rest of Update was pretty weak, despite the range of subjects Che and Jost riffed on: Gucci’s “blackface” sweater, the State of the Union, Trump’s tax returns, new emojis, the jogger who killed a mountain lion with his bare hands, marijuana, Delta Airlines and more.

Melissa Villaseñor came on to do a Grammys preview, looking—in a platinum wig and white suit—suspiciously like Lady Gaga. But she kept rejectingJost’s suggestions that she’s a Gaga fan even while dropping phrases like “born this way” and “monsters” into the conversation and repeatedly breaking into “Shallow.” (According to Jost, Villasenor’s been trying to get her Gaga impression into the show for a while.)

That was more entertaining than the other two “guest” segments. Heidi Gardner and Day were cute as “Instagram couple” Bree and Nico, but, ho hum, the joke was that their relationship is more tumultuous than it looks on Insta. And Alex Moffat as Guy Who Just Bought a Boat was actually Guy Who Misinterprets the Lessons of #MeToo and Makes Sex Puns and References to His Penis. Yep, that again.

Next Week

Don Cheadle hosts for his first time. Gary Clark Jr. is the musical guest.

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The original late-night comedy sketch show from the one and only Lorne Michaels.
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