SNL Is Best When It Doesn’t Take Itself So Seriously

For a few merciful moments during last night’s episode of Saturday Night Live, viewers were offered rare distractions from the fact that the nation is barreling toward a chaotic election. When Issa Rae, the evening’s host, stepped onto the stage for her opening monologue, I breathed a sigh of relief—in no small part because that meant the “Dueling Town Halls” cold open was over. That skit had eased the audience into the night’s antics with another satirical installment of conflict between presidential candidates: The narrator described the split-screen viewing experience as “trying to decide between a Hallmark movie and an alien autopsy.”

The segment delivered on its characterization of President Donald Trump’s town hall as a “thirst trap” laid out for him by NBC—midway through, viewers got a bizarre replay of the moment when a South Florida voter began her question for Trump by telling him, “You’re so handsome when you smile.” But even with Kate McKinnon’s Savannah Guthrie lodging pointed questions about the President’s refusal to condemn QAnon, Maya Rudolph’s Sen. Kamala Harris joking about mimosas, and Jim Carrey’s Vice President Joe Biden breaking into an impromptu Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood singalong, the skit felt much like the rest of SNL’s recent political commentary—tepid, tedious, and woefully inadequate given the cataclysmic state of the country. As my colleague David Sims wrote of the Season 46 premiere earlier this month, “the show’s return to a standard format makes clear that its brand of topical satire simply won’t be enough for the chaotic months of pandemic and election uncertainty that lie ahead of us.”

Enter Issa Rae. After such a droll cold open, the host’s sunny demeanor enlivened last night’s episode and ushered in a handful of sketches that diverged from SNL’s standard political fare. The Insecure creator began her monologue as many SNL presenters do, by emphasizing the honor of standing on the stage where many of her comedy heroes, including Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, have performed. She then exclaimed that she’s scared she “might throw up [but] I’m gotta hold it down because I’m the first Black person to host SNL y’all!” Rae quickly informed viewers that this alleged milestone isn’t true, but that claim was just one of several jokes last night that poked fun at Hollywood’s ongoing struggle with diversity. (SNL has had a particularly abysmal record in this regard; Tiffany Haddish, for example, was the first-ever Black woman comedian to host the show, just three years ago.)

Rae’s monologue was delightfully self-aware, peppered with jokes about industry racism that felt fun and fresh even though it drew on familiar material. It’s hardly news that Black people in Hollywood and other predominantly white industries are often confused for other people who look nothing like them—I’ve certainly had it happen to me—but I still chuckled when Rae adopted a solemn tone to tell audience members, “If the show goes bad tonight, just blame it on me: Mary J. Blige.” Rae’s approach to tackling political comedy was similarly rooted in her own uncomfortable experiences. Insecure premiered four years ago this month, and Rae explained the awkwardness of having had a major personal breakthrough happen in the run-up to the last presidential election. “It was rude for me to be peaking right when democracy was collapsing,” she said, adding that it “feels weird to say ‘Thank God for what happened in the fall of 2016.’” Such remarks felt self-deprecating rather than boastful, a posture Rae has successfully spun into relatable comedy for much of her career. Her show is, after all, called Insecure.

Elsewhere, Rae brought Francophone humor to a skit about news in Montreal, playing a broadcast anchor named Awa Sene whose entire job is to man the program’s “Drake Watch” segment. Rae (née Jo-Issa Rae Diop), the daughter of a Senegalese-born father and Louisiana-born mother, hardly exhibited an authentic French accent, but it was still charming to see her in a comedic role that nods to her heritage. Rae’s enthusiasm about the pursuit of local hero Aubrey Graham was outlandish in its intensity, a callback to the earlier part of the 2010s, when Drake could seemingly do no wrong. And a scene that took her to the top of Toronto’s CN Tower reminded me of the rapper’s own SNL stint, during a much simpler time. SNL’s Canadian jokes are predictably stale—French! Cigarettes! Weird bagels!—but the skit was also an amusing tie-in for the evening’s musical guest, Justin Bieber, another Canadian national treasure. Bieber’s performances, one of which included an assist from Chicago’s Chance the Rapper, were both remarkably earnest, a strange but not-unpleasant diversion from the rest of the show’s tone.

A series of topical sketches, many of which included Rae, brought levity and insight to the U.S.’s social climate without leaning too heavily on horse race-style political jokes. A skit called “First Date Exes” saw her seated across from Chris Redd, preparing to eat dinner outdoors because the restaurant they’re frequenting is already at “two-percent capacity” inside. A string of former flames keeps coming up to their table and interrupting the pair, an absurd sequence that nonetheless captures the incredible awkwardness of pandemic-era dating. A later segment about a fictional “5-hour Empathy” product puts a fantastical spin on the liberal hand-wringing that followed the first wave of racial-justice protests this summer. In a 2020 corollary to Queen Latifah’s famed “Excedrin for Racial Tension Headaches” bit, Beck Bennett played a suburban man who insists he wants to know about the nation’s history of discrimination against people of color, but who refuses to actually drink the magical elixir that would provide him with … well, five hours of empathy.

In perhaps the most devastating sketch of the night, a parody commercial for eBay encourages viewers to just give up and sell the hobby equipment they purchased at the start of quarantine—when people naively thought they’d use the time at home to start needlepointing, read The Odyssey, or learn a new language. “Don’t be shy—if you admit that it’s unused, you’ll get more money,” a narrator tells characters who are contemplating the sale of their early quarantine purchases. An important caveat comes at the end: “This commercial doesn’t apply to you if you worked or had kids.”

That such skits would be far more effective than SNL’s traditional political commentary isn’t surprising. The entertainment landscape is already saturated by politics—whether it be the debates or town halls themselves, cable news, podcasts, a West Wing reunion special, or baffling celebrity chatter. President Trump’s state of mind alone draws constant coverage, to say nothing of his recent COVID diagnosis. As SNL’s creator and longtime producer Lorne Michaels told Vulture ahead of the Season 46 premiere, “So much of news coverage is, “Do you believe he did this?” “Do you believe he said this?” And somehow or another, he ends up being the thing everyone’s talking about … We try to get to the truth of it.” Last night’s episode attempted that with mixed results. The bulk of “Weekend Update” was packed, as ever, with groan-inducing one-liners, and portrayals of Donald Trump, Jr., Tiffany Trump, and Eric Trump did little more than paint the siblings as buffoonish sycophants. But I was genuinely surprised to hear Michael Che deliver a line that criticized SNL’s own network for hosting the president’s town hall: “What can we say, we have a type,” he intoned, with a triptych of Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, and President Trump being shown on-screen.

Even so, none of the night’s overtly political sketches packed as much humor as the one in which Kenan Thompson played the host of a talk show called Your Voice Chicago—and Rae played an NAACP lawyer who’s “voting for everybody Black,” a witty callback to the actor’s now-infamous comment at the 2017 Emmys. Joining the show alongside a journalist from The Root played by SNL’s Ego Nwodim, Rae’s character attempted to endorse the Black candidate in various political races despite an escalating series of flaws. Of a Black city comptroller hopeful who had to give up the strip clubs he managed after being arrested for tax fraud, she noted that his familiarity with financial loopholes could be beneficial: “It’d be like hiring Wesley Snipes to do your taxes.” Rae’s character also forgave a billionaire and two conservative bloggers modeled after the real-life YouTube duo Diamond and Silk. But no matter how gracious or community-minded she might be, there’s one candidate she just can’t get behind: “Kanye? F him.”