Lorne Michaels invited Donald Trump to host Saturday Night Live in 2015 and nothing has been quite the same for the comedy institution since. The episode was one of the lowest points in the history of SNL, if not its nadir—at this point, it could be considered historically unfunny. It was a no-win situation that left the writers and actors in a creative ditch where they were forced to help an avowed misogynist and racist look cuddly and in-on-the-joke, and this was after he had already kicked off what would become a successful run for president. SNL may not have gotten Trump elected, but they were complicit in giving him the veneer of respectability at a time when that was actually in question.
Then came the double-edged sword: in the years since, the writers and cast have felt compelled to go into extreme overdrive to try to make up for that mistake by having their political sketches become the dominant form for this SNL era. When Alec Baldwin first started playing Trump in the fall of 2016 for a series of debate sketches with Kate McKinnon's Hillary Clinton, it felt like legitimate must-see-TV—it was lightning-in-a-bottle ala Tina Fey's Sarah Palin caricature. This was both because of the underlying message to its audience (of course Trump is a menacing buffoon who couldn't possibly win) and the fact that Trump seemed to react in real time to the mockery.
But once Trump was elected, Baldwin's impression seemed to curdle almost overnight into a wilting, lazy impersonation. It's now objectively terrible. Yet the subsequent political sketches seemed to multiply in number by the week, even as it became clear that they were mostly regurgitating the talking points of whatever the biggest news story of the week had been to comedically-empty effect. I started to dread watching the cold opens, which have become the worst parts of any given episode—with maybe the exception of Matt Damon's appearance as Brett Kavanaugh in the season premiere, there hasn't been a single funny cold open in over two years.
It's appropriate to bring up Damon now, as something wondrous happened with this weekend's new episode of SNL, which he hosted—it was really enjoyable! It was really...good. It had funny sketches, it had surreal sketches, it had sketches that were throwbacks to SNL's deep history of original characters, it even had some sweet sentimental bits that weren't cloying. The cold open was still a righteously unfunny snoozer focused on Trump experiencing an It's A Wonderful Life-type scenario, but the rest of the episode was blissfully free of attempts at political satire.
I'm not saying SNL should completely stop from writing sketches about Trump—that would be unrealistic, and to completely ignore him would be too tidy a resolution of all this—but rather that episodes like this one crystallize what this current iteration of SNL does and doesn't do well: they excel at silly, specific, punchy sketches, and they stumble at attempts at political commentary. Their best Trump sketches have mostly occurred when the show has had to work around Trump in some clever way (most memorably in the first person Through Trump's Eyes sketch), rather than just reiterating the kookiest stuff Trump has done this week. I just wish Lorne Michaels would allow them to stop with the stale, mandated, lifeless Trump cold opens and just let the best sketch of the week lead things off, regardless of topic—save the Trump stuff for only when they really have a gut-busting idea.
So let's run through what SNL did great this week: first up, Westminster Daddy Show has a lot of funny things going on (dog show parody, daddy commentary, play-by-play weirdness, funny trots), but the thing that puts it over the top is Kenan Thompson repeating, "Tweedy daddy come here, Tweedy daddy right here." He belongs in a comedy hall of fame just for that.
Pre-taped sketch Best Christmas Ever walked the line between sentimental and sarcastic and ended up being incredibly sweet, which is not a tone SNL seems to go for very often, but worked well here.
Cecily Strong put on a tour de force performance in Jingle Bells. We should talk more about how great she is!!!
Yes, there really was a sketch about people arguing over whether Weezer suck now or not, which is as good an encapsulation of Internet arguments as anything I've ever seen:
No Christmas is complete without putting Christmas Ornaments on the tree, especially if it includes unwanted ones like a macaroni turd, a malformed angel, and a vintage Rudy Giuliani:
Heidi Gardener has become my favorite new castmember in the past two seasons, and Angel, Every Boxer's Girlfriend From Every Movie About Boxing Ever may be her best character so far:
I've been pretty critical of Weekend Update hosts Michael Che and Colin Jost since they took over the desk, but even I can admit that they've gotten into a much better rhythm with each other this season, and have started throwing in some new comedy bits that go beyond just reading jokes off cue cards. At the end of Update this weekend, they Swapped Jokes for what may be the funniest thing I've every seen them do. I was legitimately laughing out loud as I watched:
You can check out the rest of the sketches from the episode below, including a Brexit/Theresa May sketch, Oscar Host Auditions (damn Aidy Bryant is good), Damon's touching and short monologue, Cop Christmas, and performances by Miley Cyrus & Mick Ronson (who performed John Lennon tune "(Happy Xmas) War Is Over" with Sean Lennon on backup vocals). And no, I have not included the Trump cold open, because no one needs to watch that...though regardless of how mediocre the cold open was, it still rankled the President enough to get him to threaten legal action!
Happy Christmas, Britain:
Oscar Host Auditions:
Matt Damon Monologue:
The first half of Weekend Update:
Miley Cyrus & Mick Ronson perform "Nothing Breaks Like A Heart:"
Miley Cyrus, Mark Ronson & Sean Lennon perform "(Happy Xmas) War Is Over:"
And a cut-for-time ad for Glitter Litter: