So the second episode of the 46th season of NBC's Saturday Night Live said goodbye to season premiere host Chris Rock and musical artist Megan Thee Stallion and welcomed actor/comedian Bill Burr and country music artist Morgan Wallen to Studio 8H. At least that was the plan until midweek when video surfaced of Wallen showing he couldn't keep it in his mask, violating SNL COVID health and safety policies. So it was Wallen out, and Jack White from The White Stripes in (and a damn fine replacement, too). Was that a sign of things to come? Depends on how you look at how the whole thing played out, and what you think is and isn't appropriate topics for stand-up or sketch comedy.
Before I take a look at three segments that caught our eyeballs, just an observation on a wise move I think is going on this season. Two episodes in, SNL has slowly been maximizing its strengths more and more when it comes to actual airtime- and what's getting the biggest chunk? The political Trump/Biden sketches, "Weekend Update," and the musical performers. With the opening monologue and commercials thrown in, that eats up a decent piece of the approximately 90-minute pie. Smart move: concentrate on the areas that can easily be copped up and shipped out on social media.
From another excellent Kate McKinnon portrayal (this time, debate moderator Susan Page) to Maya Rudolph taking Kamala Harris' mid-debate facial expressions to a just-extreme-enough level (and some great lines) to Beck Bennet bringing just the right amount of "quiet, seething sociopath" to his Mike Pence portrayal, this was a sketch that could've gone so wrong in so many ways. What saved it was something we praised Jim Carrey for not doing during his initial turn as Joe Biden, but a move that works this time: go all-in on the crazy and the absurd.
Because before we know it, we learn that Biden was actually the fly on Pence's head: the sad, tragic result of an attempt on Biden's part to go the Jeff Goldblum route and "The Fly" his way onto the debate stage- only to be left fuses with a fly's body and (proving the show does read social media) the personality of Goldblum himself. With us so far? Good, because then Kenan Thompson shows up as Herman Cain in resurrected fly form looking to let the people know the truth about Trump and Pence: "These fools, Trump and Pence, killed me, man! They invited me to a rally with no mask, said 'Everything is fine, Herman'…. the White House doctors checked me out and said 'Everything is fine Herman! Three days later, I'm gone! Don't trust this white devil about this 'rona!" Just before Harris finds a very appropriate way to "swat" the sketch away and start the show.
A more than appropriate ending to a rare return to SNL's bizarre, more absurdist upbringing.
From Sizzler going under to Donald Trump trying to convince us that he's not an unhealthy, 70-plus-year-old, experimental-drug taking mess who shouldn't be tying his own shoes let along running the country, SNL "Weekend Update" anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che have this segment down to a science without it losing that sense of the unexpected or that either Jost or Che are pulling their punches (far from it). Pete Davidson taking on J.K. Rowling's transphobic comments is yet another reason why I need to be more of a Davidson fan, but it was McKinnon yet again earning the spotlight. Her Dr. Wayne Wenowdis was worthy enough, but to see McKinnon break character laughing and then addressing us as herself had us balancing between laughter and wanting to give her a hug. McKinnon was speaking and feeling for all of us, and it showed.
This would normally be the part where I'm supposed to tell you how "great" or how "horrible" Burr was for his opening monologue, but that's a game I'm not going to play. For me, I appreciated his effort to target both side of the political and social issue spectrum and a good chunk of it was legit funny. All of it? No, and some of it left me staring at the screen, slightly shaking my head. But that's the case with pretty much every stand-up act- but I did find myself laughing way more often than not. But the bigger issue here is that we need to start having a conversation about comedy because freedom of speech and expression in comedy is essential for it to grow and thrive.
Opinions about what's funny and not funny are timeless and important, but when we start assigning laws and policies about what is and isn't acceptable speech based on the level of discomfort it creates? Well, then we have to start having the conversation about who gets to be the "gatekeepers," who sets the standards- and that's when things get really scary. That said, stand-up comedians using the stage and mic to peddle a bunch of pent-up hate and then using the "But I'm a stand-up!" excuse doesn't work anymore, either. This is why a decent, brutally open and honest conversation needs to happen- not 280 character piss-fests. Oh, and one last thing? Those of you labeling Burr's opener as "worst monologue ever" need to do a bit more deep-diving into SNL history because it doesn't even come close.