Benedict Cumberbatch and Saturday Night Live Pull Off a Self-Assured and Funny Episode

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Benedict Cumberbatch and <i>Saturday Night Live</i> Pull Off a Self-Assured and Funny Episode

And your host…

In his goodnights, Benedict Cumberbatch called this a great season. And while I’m not here to argue with the esteemed actor and occasional sorcerer (wizards have robes), he certainly seemed to mean it. Look, any SNL season has its ups and downs—you just look for the peaks to be high enough that the inevitable plunge into the trough has its own queasy momentum. Overall, I’d say this has been the best season in a while, despite the absurd quantity of underserved cast members and a Kardashian or three.

But Cumberbatch sort of killed it in his second hosting stint. Like last time, his monologue was charming as hell, with the accomplished stage actor looking quite at home as he was uniformly dapper and self-effacing. Plus, it was the annual Mother’s Day show, which gave Cumberbatch ample opportunity to make everyone watching think, “What a nice, sweet, goofy boy.” Getting the MCU plugging out of the way with a joke about him playing dress-up while his wife was giving birth, Cumberbatch struck the Doctor Strange pose, made some circles in the air and announced smugly, “Yeah, I just opened a portal. You’re welcome.”

Taking the mickey out of your corporate mouse overlords is always a good look, and Cumberbatch joked/probably not-joked that all the SNL writers had for him were Doctor Strange sketches, with Lorne scoffing at the actor’s futile attempt to bring a little Power of the Dog to his episode. That said, Cumberbatch did get to play something of a cowboy in an outstandingly acted sketch alongside Heidi Gardner as a couple of focus group ice cream testers whose flavor-inspired reminiscences are evocatively bittersweet enough to bring them to melodramatic passion. It’s a corker of a piece, an actorly showcase for the two of them to delve, unblinking, into their similarly haunted characters.

The sketch is given time to build, and even when the premise emerges in Cumberbatch and Gardner’s long-ago anecdotes of childhoods (and siblings) lost, their commitment never lets the sketch flag. (Mikey Day remains cursed to be the guy in the sketch who comments on how others are acting all funny, but even that can’t distract from how good this is.) In their Western twang, the two performers evoke a long-ago memory of the restaurant sketch where Alec Baldwin’s drifter and Jan Hooks’ waitress channel their own Sam Shepard play, all in the diner lingo of coffee and pie. Here, when the two taciturn but long-winded tasters finally come together, it’s another little character-driven masterpiece, Gardner’s grudging entreaty, “Let me nap with your hurt,” becoming the slogan for the company’s newest flavor. Gardner’s been getting lost in the scrum this season, and it’s damn nice to see her get the space to do her thing once more.

The Best And The Rest

The Best: The best was the cold open (see below), which is something I haven’t said in about five years. The second-best was the ice cream sketch, and it’s a very close second. After that, and because I’m a big momma’s boy, I’ll go with the short, “Just Like You,” another of SNL’s prickly but sentimental paeans to moms everywhere. Chloe Fineman, Cecily, and Kate play three generations of women, each telling the same lies when it comes to disciplining teenagers. Busted for drinking (and receiving that eggplant text, which Cecily’s harried mom totally understands, thank you very much), Fineman complains that Cecily’s now-responsible mother doesn’t understand what it’s like to, for example, be known as “Sloppy Sandy” when binge-drinking to Chumbawamba.

Just the right blend of rude and knowingly sweet, the sketch (in which we see, in flashback, Strong accidentally blowing her now-husband’s college roommate, and Kate’s granny hurling her panties at David Bowie), ends with the legend, “You may not have been a perfect person, but you’re a perfect mom.” Manipulative? Sure is. But I’m visiting my mom today.

The Worst: The other Mother’s Day sketch (see below), a recurring bit with no juice left. After that, and keeping in mind that Cecily Strong was the MVP tonight, I can’t say the knockabout period piece justified busting up all those props. A Downton Abbey-esque setup where Alex Moffat’s university boy breaks the news that he’s signed up to fight in the WWI trenches, the enterprise is just a setup for Cecily to, well, bust up a whole mess of props. (Many of them winding up on butler Mikey Day’s livery.)

There’s an art to falling down. And while Cecily is a gifted physical performer (as well as every other kind of performer), there’s such a gracelessness to the chaos here, as Cecily (and then Cumberbatch) succumb to some elaborately destructive fits, taking literally every breakable thing in their drawing room down with them. It’s fine. I like a bit of Carol Burnett-style slapstick mayhem, but when that’s all there is, it all comes off as just a waste of good sugar-glass.

The Rest: There’s something perverse in Saturday Night Live’s DNA that sees a distinguished British actor walk through the door and immediately tosses them into a poop joke. It’s not a bad thing, just an observation. Here, the commercial parody sees Cumberbatch’s impossibly gravelly and suave rebel burst into a class all about how to go number two (uncomfortably and rigidly), and scowlingly promising he’s there to “change everything” as he drops trou and demonstrates the new, super-cool reclining toilet. If you’re going to make a shit joke, at least go all the way with it.

The 80’s band sketch should have been the closer tonight, its lavishly drawn-out musical conceit the sort of odd/offputting idea seemingly meant for the final slot. Still, Cumberbatch and Bowen Yang made a funny team, their 1980’s new wave duo called in at the last minute when a chain eatery’s animatronic animal band goes on the fritz. It never quite achieves liftoff (despite Cumberbatch displaying an impressively silly falsetto), but there’s a sheer doggedness to everyone’s commitment to the bit that ultimately earns a measure of respect. Toss in Cecily as a dying carrot, lamenting the lonely life and death of the establishment’s unvisited salad bar, and Aristotle doing a funny little dance out of nowhere, and you’ve got the sort of 10-to-one overindulgence of someone’s weirdo idea that the show always needs more of.

The chain gang sketch saw James Austin Johnson, Kenan, Chris Redd, and Cumberbatch all in fine, all-in form as their rock-breaking work song gradually sees Cumberbatch reveal that he’s the rat who keeps selling them out to the warden. It’s a little thing, but I appreciated the sound design and prop work, the prisoners’ hammer blows providing an impactful rhythm as all four performers committed to singing the hell out of their song. Heidi Gardner and Kyle Mooney were all-in, too, an indication that everything was clicking in the lead-up to the episode, and that the writing was solid enough for performers to score in even the smallest roles.

Weekend Update update

Attitude can make all the difference. Jost and Che were on tonight, with solid jokesmanship inspiring tight and intermittently biting delivery. The Supreme Court fiasco was the initial push, with Jost wishing female viewers a happy Mother’s Day, “whether you wanted to be one or not.” Che joined in, his signature “naughty Che” joke about being able to just call Lorne in the middle of the night when he knocks someone up building off of a setup reminding viewers that poor people are about to have their lives made that much harder.

Update under Che and Jost purrs along when the guys have some true and uncomplicated villains to hit. Jost, reporting unverified rumors about Russian dictator and GOP pinup boy’s recent cancer scare notes, “Hey, I never thought I’d say this, but good luck, cancer.” And Che got the groans he lives for when, after a report on a massive diamond, marveled, “Can you imagine the size of the child who mined that?” (There was a lot of product integration in sketches tonight, but I get a little charge when NBC’s sales department has to un-ruffle some feathers. Good luck on those jewelry chain sales calls.) Similarly, Che punctured rose-colored complacency by reporting on a record-setting baseball bat once used by Jackie Robinson, noting that the color-line-breaking hall of famer not only used the bat in an All-Star Game, but that he famously had to use it to get to his car safely afterward.

“Welcome to Bad One-Man Reviews…”—Recurring Sketch Report

A recurring sketch has legs the less it relies on the joke, rather than the performance. The few (so, so few) returning sketches that never wore out their welcome might rely on the same premise each time, but a powerhouse comic turn as a well-realized character can make the sketch in question a perpetual motion machine. The funny sign sketch is not that kind of premise. The first time out, the joke was the escalating surprise of the increasingly personal and hurtful gifts. Here, with Aidy Bryant’s matriarch receiving a parade of so-so cutesy signs from her extended family, the surprise is all wrung out before she opens the third gift bag.

Aidy being comically nonplussed is never a bad thing, and some of the jokey signs stretch for a long-in-coming chuckle about mom’s secret drinking and so forth. But, like the overly wordy signs themselves, this sketch just drags on and on, straining to recapture something that was better off a one-and-done.

“Can we just move on? I mean, I want to be president, but—not like this.—Political Comedy Report

“Now, I don’t want to go off on a rant here…”—Tracy Jordan

I’ll get to the rant part of the cold open in a second, but before then, I want to give it up to literally everybody in this show-opening sketch. It’s rare that a host appears in the cold open, let alone anchor it, as Cumberbatch does here. As the gloriously be-wigged 13th century orator whose opinions on abortion and women’s rights are now officially Republican policy, Cumberbatch gave off some seriously confident and funny Blackadder vibes. (If you know me, that’s a serious compliment.)

Matching him were James Austin Johnson and Andrew Dismukes as the hose-sporting menfolk nodding along with Cumberbatch’s smug assertion that they’ve really nailed it on every issue (from genital amputation for poaching to tossing left-handed children into the river). Same goes for Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon as the two women daring to suggest that, maybe, men who shit out of a hole in the wall and believe that the sun is the moon when it’s happy might not have all the answers. (Chris Redd, too, joins in as a Moor suspecting this isn’t his century.)

Of course (and here comes the rant), this is all in response to the recent unsurprising but still shocking news that the Supreme Court (packed, if one recalls, with three ultra-conservatives by a twice-impeached Russian asset) is about to overturn Roe v. Wade. Cecily made one hell of an impression earlier this season, when she delivered a blisteringly personal comic broadside about abortion on Weekend Update. Here, all that darker-than-dark comic energy is channeled in a more controlled fashion, with Cumberbatch doing his best Hugh Laurie as the preening dipshit (one of several cited by Alito) held up in that leaked opinion as the greatest thinker on the subject of women’s rights and bodies the 1200’s had to offer. It’s admirably well-crafted and consistently entertaining for a sketch written and performed by people who’d most likely be more inclined to seize a live mic and call for the GOP and its cabal of smirking and woman-hating cretins to be burned to the ground.

Political comedy might be much more impotent an agent for change than political comedians imagine it to be. But it’s more potent the more the anger behind it can be crafted into something that stands on its own. And this was filled with fine fillips of originality, as when Cumberbatch takes Johnson’s hypothetical, donkey-related punishment for women terminating a pregnancy all the way to the 13th-century scientific quandary of human-donkey hybrids becoming king. “The prophecy!,” Dismukes and Johnson squeal in horror, compounding the sketch’s underlying premise that our ancestors didn’t know shit. You know, and that anyone relying on the arguments of patriarchal Dark Ages thinkers to strip hard-won human rights away from fully half of the 21st century’s population is shitting into a moat. Philosophically speaking.

Speaking of channeling, here’s to Kate McKinnon. Her Update piece as Supreme Court Justice and under-qualified right-wing ideologue Amy Coney Barnett was about performance first, even as McKinnon delivered a roundhouse blow to the woman poised to play Supreme Court Aunt Lydia in setting back women’s rights to 1950’s level. Again, here comes the rant, but when the GOP has maneuvered American governance in accordance with an atavistic agenda of bigotry, greed, and woman-imperiling hatred and ignorance, well, give it up to the women of Saturday Night Live for their professionalism.

And this is a great conception. (So to speak.) Not as flashy or goofy as her dancing RBG, McKinnon’s ACB is presented as a blasé gender-traitor, “jazzed and juiced” to undo reproductive rights while hand-waving the concerns of any woman not ensconced in a lucrative and powerful lifetime sinecure. McKinnon’s depiction of Barnett is of a blandly destructive hatchet-person, blithely telling the untold women about to face dangerous and uncertain lives stripped of basic human rights that they should just, “Do your nine and plop.” Taking a specific cue from Barnett’s one recorded question on the upcoming decision (about how women can just leave unwanted children at the local firehouse), McKinnon’s jurist is a portrait of disconnected, bureaucratic cruelty, her admonition that lesbians should be happy for the flood of unwillingly carried-to-term adoptable infants. (“Until we ban that, too,” she purrs, with equal dispassion.) Things are about to get very, very ugly for American women, especially poor ones. As McKinnon’s judge airily muses, it’s all good, “unless I’m missing something about class in America.”

Not Ready For Prime Time Power Rankings

The week’s MIA: Pete. Lorne. Buddy. I know you’re fixated on the idea that your biggest stars should hold on until the big 50th, but this is not tenable. Pete, Kate, Aidy, Cecily, and Kenan (plus Jost and Che) are already halfway out the door. Send them off gracefully and let the show breathe again.

Apparently, Punkie had an Update piece as Russian-detained WNBA star Brittney Griner cut after dress, so she got the very last line of the night, and that’s all. (Just a reminder that if Steph Curry were being unjustly held in a Russian prison right now, it’d still be front page news, and male NBA fans would be screaming themselves hoarse with outrage that every governmental resource wasn’t being deployed to bring him home, like yesterday.)

A solid showing from most everyone else, though, even if it’s Cecily all the way.

“Yer father has hung himself.—10-To-One Report

I’d have swapped the filmed Chloe Fineman piece and Bowen Yang and Benedict Cumberbatch’s 80’s singers sketch. For one thing, the last sketch should always be live. For another, Chloe’s showcase, as good as it was, was just too cozy a premise to end on. 10-to-one is the place for weird and puzzling and, more often than not, half-baked but bracing. Still, Fineman must have been thrilled to get her own Kyle Mooney-sytle behind-the-scenes piece, where she reveals that she’s the go-to understudy for every cast member. And that she has a solid impression of most of her female cast mates. (Ego Nwodim cuts Fineman off before she can start, with Fineman nodding a chastened, “And I thank you for that.”)

I liked this a lot. Chloe, like Melissa, was hired largely for her skills as an impressionist, and it remains baffling how little SNL uses them for that. (Here I’m being a bit hypocritical, as nobody is more annoyed when the show trots out a celebrity impression and calls it a sketch.) Still, she’s on-point with nearly everyone, and there’s even a fun little swerve when her Scarlet Witch-costumed Elizabeth Olsen is interrupted by a popping-by actual Elizabeth Olson, with a baffled Cumberbatch murmuring, “The multiverse is real.”

Parting Shots

Che, reporting that Dolly Parton, Eminem, Carly Simon, and Lionel Richie are all being inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame: “Which begs the question, ‘What is rock and roll?’”

Arcade Fire was great. Their new album is great. The unexpected emergence of that forest of inflatable dancing dudes was great. Also great: They, much of the cast, and Cumberbatch all sported “1973” on their shirts and gear, commemorating the year that Roe v. Wade was decided. Buckle in, folks.

Next week: onetime musical guest Selena Gomez makes her first hosting gig, alongside her musical guest, Post Malone.

Dennis Perkins is an entertainment writer who lives in Maine with his wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, (Special Agent Dale) Cooper. His work has appeared in places like The A.V. Club, Ultimate Classic Rock, and the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. You can find him on Twitter, where he will anger you with opinions, and Instagram, where you will be won back over by pictures of Special Agent Dale Cooper.