Saturday Night Live recap: Stranger Things star David Harbour turns things upside down
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Welcome back to SNL in Review, fellow Coneheads! Saturday Night Live season 45 continues onto its third week. This weekend’s episode features host David Harbour (Stranger Things) and musical guest Camila Cabello.
Harbour has already demonstrated his comedy chops for those of you who watched his Netflix special Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein. He will hopefully follow in Jon Hamm’s footsteps as a host: a rugged-jawed actor who, behind his traditional masculine vibes, is deeply silly and absurd. Three years ago, Harbour was impersonated by Beck Bennett during the show’s stellar Stranger Things spoof. If nothing else, this is a great opportunity for SNL to get spooky, amirite?
This recap’s guest commentator is former SNL featured player Matthew Laurance, who has been a Duke basketball broadcaster and now hosts a show on ESPN SportsRadio 1300. So he’s no stranger to play-by-play work, or being a color man. You may also remember Laurance from Eddie and the Cruisers, and portraying David Silver’s father on Beverly Hills, 90210. Welcome to the Thunderdome!
Alex Moffat kicks things off with his very stellar Anderson Cooper — alongside the real Billy Porter (cameo alert no. 1!) — at the CNN LGBTQ town hall from earlier this week. I guess they’re committed to Colin Jost as Mayor Pete, which is exciting… and might have an extra level, as I believe Jost and Buttigieg went to Harvard around the same time together.
Kate McKinnon also returns with her incisive take on Elizabeth Warren. She even drops in some RBG energy before removing her wig. Laurance says Kate is “an absolute genius… and I don’t use that word very often. Every single character she plays in a sketch is done in a way that no one else could do it. Totally committed and range that’s unbelievable. Men, women — does not matter.” Her energy level does seem to exist in a separate universe from the rest of the show most of the time.
So… cameo alert no. 2!: Wonderfully, SNL has apparently listened to recent criticism regarding its snub of Julián Castro and brought in former host Lin-Manuel Miranda for its obligatory take on “Latino Obama.” Wild to see turmoil bubble up online, and for the show to respond, huh? Clearly, they’re aware it’s time to put Alec Baldwin in a box for good.
Woof, cameo alert no. 3! Is Woody Harrelson locked in as Joe Biden for the foreseeable future? Not a great impression, and not a great take on the character. As long as these cameo “impressions” generate YouTube clips/ad revenue for NBC, I suppose that’s what matters. (Bowen Yang kills with his “sure,” however.) I do like the positive “woos” from the audience when Harrelson’s Biden asserts he’s our guy. Probably hopefully! Just bring back Jason Sudeikis, maybe.
Laurance describes the feeling cast members have as 11:30 p.m. rolls around as: “An incredible mix of nervousness and excitement. You focus on what you’re supposed to do, and not think about the fact that millions of people are watching.”
You know, I was recently thinking the show does not do enough walk-around monologues like they used to during the ’90s heyday. Harbour stumbled into a Stranger Things spoof, which he’d initially resisted. This is mostly sharp — I like the Barb references and, of course, the return of Pete Davidson. And the return of Lorne Michaels! It’s been a while in both cases. There have been murmurs about Kenan Thompson eventually taking over SNL, as there were when Tina Fey was still lurking 30 Rock. So his exchange with Michaels is cute in that sense.
Little Miss Teacher’s Friend
This is a great showcase for Aidy Bryant — funny premise, likely relatable to some of you out there, and lands relatively well, a rarity for sketches of this ilk. Overall, this is promising and fun. Teacher’s pets were a very specific and contemptible type of student growing up. This captures them well, and utilizes the cast in a good way in the process.
Grouch (Joker spoof)
This is classic — an excellent blend of unnecessary origin stories, comic book movies in general, and, of course, Sesame Street. The appearance of Guy Smiley is some hilarious attention to detail. Everyone is perfectly cast, and really captures the self-serious weirdness of Todd Phillips’ new Joker movie. This is the kind of viral material the show should be aiming for, as opposed to [insert celebrity] and [insert Trump associate] manatee syndrome. I suspect this will get a rewatch down the road.
Soul Cycle Auditions
A half-hour in, Cecily Strong pops up! Yang — who would totally have saved Lincoln — kills his moment, as does Heidi Gardner. Is Bowen the best new cast member in a minute or what? Certainly the most distinct new male featured player if you think about it. Overall, this is very on-brand for anyone who has gone to Soul Cycle-style spin studios before. Another good one.
Camila Cabello — “Cry For Me”
Former Fifth Harmony member Cabello evokes Marie Antoinette in her performance of “Cry For Me,” the third single from her upcoming second studio album Romance. It’s well-produced pop, and great set design, even if Cabello’s vocals sound a bit off.
As middling as the sketches can sometimes be, there’s no denying SNL acts as a time capsule, especially for live music. Of course, the acts being booked are not nearly as adventurous as, say, when Fear performed at John Belushi’s behest, or even during the early ’90s apex. During Laurance’s time on the show, he saw some of the all-time greats up close like Aretha Franklin and James Brown: “One of the absolute best things about doing [SNL] was getting to see the musical guests. On Friday, when they did sound checks, some of them would do a couple songs. Some just did a few notes… it was magical.”
“There was Prince before he was the mega superstar. He came out on stage in a weird weird costume, started singing and went into really weird gyrations and stuff. All of us laughed, especially Eddie [Murphy], that loud laugh he’s famous for. We couldn’t believe it while we were watching… he was supposed to do two songs and Jean Doumanian cut it down to one.”
I hate to say this but sometimes this iteration of Update resembles a kind of political Talk Soup. After playing several clips of President Trump, Jost lands a dig at Biden’s memory. When Secretary Castro attempted something similar during the last debate, he was roundly criticized for ageism.
We also saw the return of Bailey Gismert, the teenage film critic, played by Gardner. She’s one of the best original Update characters since Stefon. Is that over-the-top to say? Like the Teacher’s Friend sketch, Bailey really nails a very specific teenager. This is her fourth Update appearance, and her first since the Emma Thompson episode last season. As always, Gardner kills it — even slips in a reference about the departure of Leslie Jones before shouting “The Joker director was right! Comedy is too woke!” as Che looked on, approvingly.
Finally, on the subject of STDs, Davidson returns to the Update desk. “Does everything in my generation have to be a reboot,” he asks as Jost giggles. I may be alone here, but it might be time for Davidson to move on from SNL. He has multiple film projects in the works, he tours. It feels like his appearances always have the same beats, and, really, he mostly stays to Update anyhow. Seeing him next to Jost and Che is a reminder of just how bro-ey and self-satisfied Update is these days.
Here’s what Laurance had to say: “I know how hard Weekend Update is to do. Colin and Michael are fantastic… A lot of times it’s not the actual writing, but the way it’s delivered, and the way you handle the audience’s reaction. And with everything going on now, people sit there and wait to see how they will handle all this horror?”
PBS Folk of the Past
This has been a good episode for Moffat tonight. He opens this sketch as the smug ’60s-era variety show host before introducing folk group Peter, Paula, and Murray. It’s silly and kind of gross, and, really, after The Folksmen, I think this terrain has been covered on the show before, and better. Bryant and McKinnon really are Hall of Famers, and their performance of “Five Long Years” is another reminder of how effortless and talented they are.
Father-Son Podcast Microphone
Kyle Mooney and his dad issues! Very strange, and I’m here for it. Well-written, great performances from Mooney and Harbour as a father and son connecting over their shared love of doing a podcast. Funny, I was just thinking about all the excellent SNL podcasts that are out there. (See below.)
Wow, this episode is full of throwback vibes, including cross-dressing. Some of you will remember Chris Farley and Adam Sandler in the Zagats sketch. This is like that crossed with Il Cantore or Hub’s Gyros. Harbour and McKinnon are having a time here — to the point where this does not feel entirely scripted. Maybe a studio executive is watching this sketch and realizing they could be the next buddy comedy. If Kumail Nanjiani partnered with Dave Bautista in Stuber, why not a film letting McKinnon and Harbour rub sauce over one another? Just spitballing.
Camila Cabello — “Easy”
“Easy” is the fourth song released from Cabello’s new project. She said on Instagram about it: “I wrote this song about the kind of love that makes you love yourself more, I think before you open up to someone you always feel scared that once they see all the stuff you don’t like about yourself, all the things you’re insecure about, that they won’t like you anymore — and when someone sees those things and loves you not only in spite of them, but because of them, it makes you feel truly seen for who you are, and loved for who you are too.”
Her SNL performance is competent, elegant. The show complements the song’s poppy R&B motif with moody blue backdrop lighting. Anything else?
Strong gets to play off Harbour and McKinnon here, as well as a few cute cutaways to some canine defendants. Naturally, the pug causes Strong to struggle. A personal aside: Moffat as the looky-loo weirdo charged with visiting dog parks without owning a dog rings very true. Who are those people? Nothing unsettles me more.
-I appreciated some of the throwback elements of this episode, and Harbour conducted himself quite well. We saw a lot of McKinnon, Bryant, and, later, Strong. It makes me wonder if at some point this season, we will see one of them eventually depart. But what did you think? Vote here or tell me below, pals. I read them.
-Thank you to Matthew Laurance for his insights tonight! We did not see too much of new featured player Chloe Fineman this episode. Laurance says: “For me, as a featured player, I always wanted to do more. But I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity to do something live as big as that was.”
–SNL returns on October 26 with — checks notes — Chance the Rapper pulling dual duty. Sure.
-I wanted to introduce a new semi-regular feature to these recaps: recognizing some of the great work celebrating SNL and what makes this show so fun. This week I’d like to highlight the good people over at the SNL Standby Line podcast. Have questions about the logistics and etiquette involved in obtaining tickets to a show? Amanda and Jill are your people. It’s a truly immersive (and fun) look at the in’s and out’s involved with line culture and how to actually see a show in-person. Check them out!
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