By Andy Hoglund
September 28, 2019 at 11:58 PM EDT
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Welcome, fellow Coneheads! Straight out of the box, welcome to SNL in Review! I’m looking forward to recapping this unique pillar of pop culture — an unrivaled American institution — with you this season, warts and all. The 45th season of Saturday Night Live is finally underway after a tumultuous summer which saw the exit of Leslie Jones, the hiring of the show’s first Chinese-American cast member, Bowen Yang, and the hiring, then swift firing of Shane Gillis. Lest we rehash the politics around “cancel culture,” and the controversies surrounding Gillis’ unprecedented and high profile dismissal, let’s zero in on tonight’s season premiere.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Woody Harrelson" Episode 1768 -- Pictured: (l-r) Musical guest Billie Eilish and host Woody Harrelson during promos in Studio 8H on September 26, 2019 -- (Photo by: Rosalind O'Connor/NBC)
Rosalind O'Connor/NBC

Woody Harrelson is an out-of-the-box and refreshing choice to kick off season 45. Yes, he’s appearing in two somewhat wide releases this fall (Zombieland 2: Double Tap, Midway), but he’s hardly at the peak of his powers in the zeitgeist. Put it this way: outside his appearances in obligatory assembly-line blockbusters, Harrelson’s last two starring roles (in Rob Reiner’s Shock & Awe and the LBJ biopic) grossed less than $2.6 million at the domestic box office combined.

For additional context, Harrelson first hosted SNL in 1989 during the heyday of Cheers, which featured him in his first breakout role. (He also hosted in 1992 and 2014.) At 58, he is the oldest person to host an SNL season premiere since Alec Baldwin kicked off season 37. Minus Harrelson and Baldwin, the average age for an SNL season premiere host this decade is 34. Hitting you with the facts!

Also, moving forward, I wanted to mention a (hopefully ongoing) feature of my show recaps: when possible, I will be incorporating color commentary from an SNL alumni to weigh in on various sketches and show tropes. Tonight I will be joined by Gary Kroeger, who appeared as a cast member on SNL from 1982-1985 alongside the likes of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Eddie Murphy! Think of it akin to how pro sporting events will invariably enlist former athletes into the announcing booth, i.e. John Smoltz giving broadcast insights during the World Series, etc. Welcome, Gary!

Cold Open

Naturally, we start with Baldwin-as-Trump. Yes, the same Baldwin who has repeatedly said he’s done with the role. This is an ignominious start to the season, mostly toothless stuff — SNL mostly showing off its gallery of grotesque Trump associates. It’s like the MCU but, ya know, awful. The whole sketch can be summed up by Liev Schrieber’s unenthused LFNY. And away we go!

(Side note: “You mean Jesus, sir?” Beck Bennett truly is the show’s unsung player. And as predictable as it was for SNL to reintroduce Yang as Kim Jong Un. And Chris Redd’s Kanye stays incredible. And it was nice to see Kenan Thompson join him, dusting off his solid Don King; he previously played King in 2016 and way back in 2005.)

Here is some additional table setting from Gary on what it takes to appear in a season premiere and cold open: Season openers are always the most anticipated and the most prepared for shows, so they are a big deal. The “tenor” of the season and how new cast members will be received is sort of established. However, that sort of sets the tone for weeks to come. If someone is a hit…you feel that status from then on. Being in the Cold Opening — for me, anyway — was the goal. It meant you were identified with the show and regardless of how stupid the bit may be, it meant that YOU opened the show and were at the center of the universe for that minute or two…those moments were when I felt like a part of it all.  There was no special preparation, just a special exhilaration.

Monologue

We see here: Harrelson, the seasoned pro. The fashionista. He’s in his element here, gamely putting his foot in his mouth. Is this some meta-commentary on the show’s touchy fans (and critics?) getting riled up over Gillis? The way he cautions viewers to keep watching — as if they may be offended — was clever and wry. “I’m Asian – CAUSASIAN!” Love problematic dad humor.

When Woody, the Texan, says Billie Eilish, it definitely comes out like Billy Idol, who was the musical guest in season 9 with Don Rickles as the host. (Idol was also famously impersonated by Sting during one of Phil Hartman’s classic Sinatra Group sketches.)

And here is Gary Kroeger on the secret sauce behind the monologue: Good monologues are when the hosts commit. That doesn’t mean they have to be funny or even good: just committed. Most hosts aren’t comedians and the opening terrified a lot of them, but when they came out and established that they are the host and that the evening is going to be fun, it just kind of worked. In fact, I’d say the non-comedians made it better because it established that they are doing a comedy show and that is not what they usually do. That is the magic of SNL, putting big stars into unconventional situations.

Impeachment Town Hall

So, clearly this was planned to be the cold open, and likely should have remained. Baldwin aside, the show had resisted its instincts to include celebrities as political figures. That changes here. Larry David is back as Bernie Sanders. Harrelson is Joe Biden — notably not Jason Sudeikis. …and Maya Rudolph as the star of TNT police procedural KAMALA feels like the show is tipping its hand, giving Senator Harris a boost at a time when Senator Warren has been challenging VP Biden in the polls. I’d love to count the airtime SNL gives Rudolph here. It’s a warm, but not entirely fawning portrayal of a candidate who has slipped amidst charges of inauthenticity. In other words, there’s some nuance here. My real question: is Ego Nwodim wondering why she wasn’t given a shot to impersonate Harris?

Love Colin Jost’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo as Mayor Pete. I love when SNL taps Update anchors to fill gaps in their political coverage, like when Dennis Miller pinchhit as Gary Hart during the 1988 Democratic primary debate sketch. More importantly, I love when the show is forced to get creative with its resources — there is something inherently more interesting and funnier about a show utilizing what it has, instead of helicoptering X celebrity to play Y political figure of the month. Meanwhile, I wish new cast member Chloe Fineman was given more time to breathe as wacky Marianne Williamson. She killed it, as did Bowen Yang as Andrew Yang and Alex Moffat as the tragic Gen Xer, Beto O’Rourke. Next!

The issues with this sketch, and the cold open, are long critiques of the recent show’s political takes: it tends to rattle off recent headlines. And, honestly, it’s such a crazy time in politics – so fast, so surreal – accurately capturing the moving target in satire must be an immense challenge. I will say though: Biden’s comparison to plastic straws is apt.

Sun’s Out Nevada

SNL settles into a groove once it shifts away from politics. Harrelson plays the caretaker of the World’s Biggest Cheeto exhibit. Blasting the studio with Cheeto dust is nifty and, in a sense, more horrifying than the show’s limp portrayal of Trump. It’s silly, and sometimes that’s all SNL needs to be. I will need to fact check this (Reddit!) but this feels like a Mikey Day piece.

Billie Eilish – “Bad Guy”

Billie Eilish injects a goofy, raw energy with a gravity-defying performance of “Bad Guy.” DUH! As much as SNL tends to muck up live musical performances, this is an impressive and trippy stage work. Sometimes SNL’s musical guests feel perfunctory — this is in-moment. Outside of Lizzo, this was her summer of pop.

Also: Woody Harrelson’s enthusiastic introduction of the “incomparable” Eilish recalls Patrick Stewart’s assertive Salt-N-Peppa intro way back when. Great stuff. Welcome back, SNL.

Weekend Update

And we are back with SNL political takes! Jost, boosting a snazzy grey suit, looks nearly distinguished. Truthfully, I have never felt Jost has truly settled into the Update chair, even now. Not like Michael Che; they have a kind of chemistry, largely driven by Che’s playful contempt over Jost’s entitled stiffness. And, potshots at Biden’s age aside, this iteration of Update has a habit of vicious digs. Was the hit at the Weitz Brothers warranted? Who knows!

The segment immediately bounces back with the return of Thompson’s Big Papi. A great impression, and a wild true story. Big Papi feels like he’s carrying the torch for early Update fixture, Chico Escuela. Remind me to swap out my wife’s turkey paddies with a Possible Burger next time we go to Trader Joe’s.

This is Gary on what it’s like getting an original character on Weekend Update: Update was like getting a cold open. It meant you could be light in the show but still have a featured presence… In my day, Update was less political — although politics have always been part of SNL — and more popular culture derivative.

Locker Room

It is so great to see Heidi Gardner as Trinity, leading her own sketch here. Previously, Gardner has killed on Update. She has real chops – as an actress and a comic – and gives her characters a funny, down-to-earth charm. It also works as a fun spoof of inspirational “locker room” pep talks.

“Yeah, coach, what’s up with your thing?” — only Thompson can deliver a line like that. BTW, Kyle Mooney is such a good sport for continuing to play these secondary roles, after suffering so many of his odd/brilliant sketches being cut.

Inside the Beltway

Wow, it’s 12:30 a.m. and the show returns to impeachment! I do love politics, but they’re sure emphasizing it tonight. Still, it’s a showcase for Thompson (“Ain’t nothing going to happen!”) as well as Cecily Strong, both of whom were rumored to be leaving SNL at the conclusion of season 44.

This sketch may have taken a little while to find its footing, yet the premise ultimately makes it the show’s best take on the current situation in D.C. to date. And “Ain’t nothing going to happen” sums up a lot of the nagging feeling of indifference and frustration that’s out there.

You can hear a lot of laughter from the cast here, due to some technical hiccups. Well done, ya’ll.

Downton Abbey spoof

This is a fun spoof of Downton Abbey’s enduring appeal among white people — with a solid twist at the end. (Though, I wonder, ripping into Joker’s incel leanings may have been a better target.) At least we (briefly) got to see Kate McKinnon’s Maggie Smith impression. I assume SNL will give McKinnon more to do, at some point. She remains their north star, but sometimes seems to exist in a different universe than the rest of the cast.

Billie Eilish – “I Love You”

Now we get the acoustic, somber second performance. This song has charted #53 on the U.S. charts, but curious why she did not follow up with “All the Good Girls Go to Hell.” Still, this is a tender and moving performance. She was an excellent choice for the season premiere — an artist in her prime, just crushing it.

Is anyone else disappointed the under-utilized Melissa Villaseñor was not given an opportunity to show off her top-notch Billie Eilish impression tonight?

Dad

YES, A KYLE SKETCH MADE IT TO AIR! This feels like it is taking its cue from a very specific/look of a Saved by the Bell episode (“Rent A Pop”?). Those early ’90s pastel colors, the cell phone.

“Also, I’m not popular and girls don’t like me.” This is amazing. The Dem debate/Trump cold open will get the clicks this week, but this is the season premiere sketch that deserves to go viral. It even gives Chris Redd a chance to display his stellar rapping abilities.

Chickham’s Apple Farm

This a spiritual sequel to last season’s Romano Tours, ribbing the kinds of local commercials seen on New York TV. And Bryant is still laughing! Even McKinnon is cracking up. This cast has been together long enough — and likely eyeing the exit — that it actually works to see them break this way. “My hair has been in one braid for forty years!”

Goodnights

A very nice shout-out to Greta Thunberg by Harrelson at the end. This will be one of those moments — when it’s replayed on Comedy Central in 20 years — younger viewers may not grasp the context or significance of his shirt. Will there be an SNL in Review to explain it to them? Perhaps! Thanks for reading, everyone.

And thank you to Gary Kroeger for his insights into the show. Gary, that goodnight banter real? Totally real. There is a collective sigh of relief when it’s over. You don’t get a lot of downtime with the guests or musical acts and so standing up there shaking hands could be the first time you connected without pressure.

Final Thoughts

-A messy but overall enjoyable SNL. The issues remain, mostly on their hard swing political takes. From the looks of Twitter, the big burning question is: WHERE WAS PETE DAVIDSON? (Was he one of the masked teens in the Chickham’s Apple Farm sketch?!

-A brief elegy for Leslie Jones. She was never the most versatile cast member — in fact, her line readings sometimes caused show faithful to groan — but Jones brought a distinct stand up-honed perspective to SNL at a time when the theater kids have run amok. She will be missed.

-I can’t resist: this Shane Gillis affair, more than anything, raises questions around SNL’s vetting policies and, honestly, how their communications team preps for new cast member rollouts. Granted it’s NBC, and SNL is likely accustomed to positive press, but the swift backlash to Gillis signals there must be more strategy when unveiling news moving forward. Hell, I was able to uncover Gillis’ interview on Louis CK and Trump hours before Seth Simons broke the dam with the infamous podcast clips. All it took was brief research on Google. They’ve got to prepare a bio, clips, and conduct a thorough SEO audit for cast members (wearing my strategic comms hat, clearly) and not lean into so many punches. New world order.

-Back to Harrelson, I recently rewatched his hosting debut from 1989, featuring David Byrne as the musical guest. The episode leans heavily on Harrelson’s country bumpkin persona as Woody from Cheers but also gives him two opportunities to sing. (Other recurring motifs: Harrelson as a cowboy, Harrelson’s vague connection to the New York Mets.) It’s been nearly 30 years but nice to see he has expanded beyond those early caricatures. Also: time will tell, but Harrelson may become the only host in the show’s history to have performed alongside both Jon Lovitz and Bowen Yang.

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