Saturday Night Live has a Jim Carrey problem. He gives a bad Joe Biden when the country has never needed a good Joe Biden more.
It sounded like a great get at first. Here was a big-time star that could balance out the heft of Alec Baldwin’s Trump. But after three episodes, Carrey still hasn’t managed to break through. Maybe he’s too physical a performer, or too needy a showman, to capture the flapjack earnestness of the former vice president. It makes a person pine for Woody Harrelson and his chew gum dentures. Harrelson managed to imbue his Biden impersonation with both a car salesman’s glint and his own Woody Boyd guilelessness. Meanwhile, Carrey seems stuck doing uncomfortable schtick at half speed. You can almost feel him bristling to push the bit further into some exaggerated insanity, which will only grate worse. He’s a monkey tasked with playing a tortoise.
The disconnect weighed down Saturday Night Live’s latest cold open, which of course spoofed Thursday’s dueling town halls. Kate McKinnon played “surprise badass” Savannah Guthrie. (Don’t you love it when folks are so caught off guard at how great a woman is at her job?) She batted Baldwin’s grumpy Trump, breaking from her pleasant smile as she pressed him to disavow QAnon and more of his Twitter treats. “It’s a retweet,” Baldwin’s Trump shrugged, ”which is short for really smart Tweet.”
Switching in between NBC and ABC, Carrey’s Biden cozied up into Mr. Rogers’ red sweater and led a Bob Ross painting lesson—while Guthrie took a wrestling chair to the President’s chest. It was a part of the joke, but the sketch still lost all energy every time we switched back to Carrey. Biden by nature is a tough character to play; his decency, his gaffes, his tendency toward hokum and verbal meandering aren’t juicy Achilles heels to dig around in for sport. But it’s time for either the show or Carrey to pivot.
On to gorgeous Issa Rae, the night’s host, who’d been originally booked for March—when she was promoting two movies and the end to a most excellent season of Insecure. These days when people ask her what’s she been working on, Rae speaks for all of us: “Puzzles, bitch. I don’t know.” She was clearly nervous during her monologue, enough so that I wanted to hand her a glass of water through the screen. It would’ve helped if that damn audience had any life in them. There wasn’t one whoop or cheer when she mentioned her start back on her web series The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl. When Rae announced, “I got to hold it down because I’m the first Black person to host SNL, y’all!” those folks applauded like, “okay, sure, I could see how that’s possible, Black Lives Matter.”
Rae delivered a winning monologue, if not a particularly funny or daring one. Oddly, she went on to feel like almost a nonentity throughout the episode. She played a French Canadian reporter assigned to the Drake Watch beat; she got to spoof her “I’m rooting for anybody Black” line on a local Chicago politics show; there was a forgettable dinner date sketch. The one time she got to really tap into her brand of awkward magic was during a bit with Kyle Mooney where the two fantasized about being musical guest Justin Bieber’s backup dancers.
The best sketch of the night was Beck Bennett lamenting his inability to understand the pain felt by Black people in this country. If only there was a way to relate! Enter Kenan Thompson’s voiceover selling the new magical elixir, 5 Hour Empathy. One shot down the hatch, and you too can enjoy “a complete intimate understanding of years of systemic oppression and ever-present racism.” Ooh, tempting, Bennett says, but… yuck. But it’s not like he’s a racist. Nor his wife either, she’ll have you know. She begged off taking a nip off 5 Hour Empathy, because “I’m a woman, it’s basically the same.” Bill Burr would like a word with you, ma’am.
It was a good night for Weekend Update, especially Michael Che, who got the episode’s sharpest joke. “NBC held a town hall for President Trump. What can I say? We have a type,” he smirked uncomfortably, as the screen showed images of Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, and Trump. Mikey Day and Alex Moffat’s Trump boys came on to brag about their Daddy. Nothing convinces me that Moffat is a more underused player than his marvelous, simpering, almost compassionate play on Eric Trump. “Don, Don, who is that lady?” he whispered to his brother when Chloe Fineman’s Tiffany sat down next to him. “Hi Notvanka,” he said after being introduced. Also, I could watch an entire movie starring Heidi Gardner’s famous 80s cocaine wife Carla, preferably if it was a buddy comedy co-starring Che and not directed by David O. Russell.
It can be difficult to keep up with whether Justin Bieber is more twerp than actual talent at a given moment. But he did beautiful, humble work Saturday night, and seemed genuinely grateful to have been invited back to SNL. Growing up is the best. And there’s just no one more effortlessly charismatic than Chance the Rapper, one of last season’s top 3 hosts, who performed “Holy” with Bieber. Bravo, boys.
In the meantime: I miss Aidy Bryant, who’s been away filming the third season of her Hulu series Shrill. Come back, Aidy. There simply can’t be undecided voters left at this point, and if there are, they don’t deserve you.
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