Jake Gyllenhaal's Game Goofiness Can't Rescue a Limply Written Saturday Night Live

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Jake Gyllenhaal's Game Goofiness Can't Rescue a Limply Written <i>Saturday Night Live</i>

And your host…

Jake Gyllenhaal’s best moment in this resolutely so-so episode of SNL came when, in his monologue, the Ambulance actor admitted that his whole past Method phase was some bullshit. “Acting is a really stupid job,” Gyllenhaal stated, happily, “It’s pretend, and it’s fun, and it should be filled with joy.” Recalling his abortive mission to lose 48 pounds and win an Oscar for Nightcrawler, the actor admitted to gradually walked things back to losing 36 pounds and winning a Golden Globe. And if Gyllenhaal’s eventual promise to not lose weight and not care about awards might look like sour grapes, the actor is such a genial and game performer that it’s a shame this episode was sort of a mess.

Reprising the musical conceit of his 15-years-ago monologue, Gyllenhall (no slouch either as a Broadway or comic crooner), belted out one long, sustained high note before segueing with practiced wobbliness into the next verse, a nimbly endearing little bit of professionalism that had my hopes up. Gyllenhaal’s not just a goof, he’s a fully committed goof, which makes this episode seem like a series of missed opportunities. The wobbles all night weren’t practiced or calculated. They were just wobbly.

Speaking of singing, and Jake Gyllenhall being a charming goof, his best showcase was the unassumingly sweet and silly Singers Four sketch. There, he, Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, and Bowen Yang reunited to sing their cabaret anthem about finding just enough to admire in yourself to get by, “That’s Enough for Me.” Amidst the supper club banter (“I see some beautiful waters and breads in the crowd”), Cecily’s singer sets the premise by stating, breezily, “Not everyone can be great, some of us are just walking around.” A sketch like this sinks or swims on the specificity behind the one joke, and all singers four found the perfect pitch of low-rent performers’ chutzpah and low-key existential near-despair as they belted out a paean to using up an entire tube of lip balm without losing it, and once meeting a guy from the first season of The Real World. Finding little accomplishments to hang your hat on is all too relatable for depressives and the world-weary (believe me), and the four actors here never waver in asserting that there’s merit in actually making your bed every day, or, as Gyllenhaal’s singer claims, unashamedly and graphically, being able to complete the physical act of love, when the occasion arises. It’s not a showstopper, but it’s not trying to be—as the sketch winningly makes the case, there’s value in just getting up and singing at all. It’s sweet.

The Best And The Rest

The Best: I’m damning with faint praise here in saying that the choice between the Singers Four and the HGTV home remodeling show came down to a sigh and a shrug. Still, this sketch had Kate as the mother-in-law to Heidi Gardner’s understandably exasperated wife, a hateful old biddy with a 27-year-old cat (with no kidneys), who scuttles Gardner’s plans for a custom-designed dream home. The jokes about the disparity between Gardner’s open-space modernist domicile with McKinnon’s cramped and dour 1970s olive drab cat lady chic are funny enough in their escalating absurdity. The den is taken up by an emergency suite’s worth of MRIs and other gizmos necessary to keep decrepit kitty Charles-David ticking, while the yoga studio is now home to McKinnon’s collection of creepy ceramic mobster cats. But it’s all about Kate’s dead-eyed misery-monster, as she berates feeble son James Austin Johnson for letting Gardner “[steal] your sweetness,” and accusing “Skinny Minnie” Gardner of, for example, wanting a bright and window-walled bathroom so “tuggers and perverts” can watch her “make dirt.” Again, not the sketch of the century, but Kate can imbue a grotesque with startling immediacy. Plus, that cat puppet made me laugh. Sue me.

The Worst: More candidates than usual for the bottom spot tonight, sadly. If nothing really hit it out of the park, there sure were a lot of feeble grounders to second. (Shut up, I’m happy baseball is back.) Still, though, I’m going to bench the god-awful saloon sketch, and only partly because it conclusively proves that nobody, whether at home in our COVID bunkers or sitting on their hands in Studio 8H, is ready to watch somebody hack up massive gouts of blood and lung matter onto everyone in sight. Seriously, I’m open to some bold and ingenious comedy writers finding a way to craft a brilliant gross-out sketch around a character grotesquely dying of a highly contagious lung ailment. After all, the issue is never “Can I joke about X?,” but, “Am I good enough to joke about X?”

But this riff on the Doc Holliday Old West tubercular idea is as artless as it gets, right down to poor blocking revealing the stage hand stationed under Kenan Thompson’s saloon bar, preparing to launch another salvo from the phlegm-cannon. Gyllenhaal isn’t at fault, really. Nobody could have done any better with a sketch whose central premise is that gross bodily functions are gross, with a side of shit jokes. There’s just no grace behind all the spatter, with bad guys and bystanders alike merely expressing understandable concern and disgust that dapper gunfighter Holliday is expelling every conceivable fluid all over them. Again, I’m prepared to salute the person who can really land a COVID-era body horror comedy sketch, but this thing was just foul. (Cecily did her best introducing the thing in a variation of her Jeannine Pirro voice, but even that was a poor person’s Cinema Classics.)

The Rest: I apologize for musing earlier in the season about whether SNL was going to squander Sarah Sherman. Hiring online cult figure “Sarah Squirm” looked ready to be a waste of weirdness akin to that time Saturday Night Live had no earthly idea what to do with Chris Elliott. Or Tim Robinson. Or Mark McKinney. Or Jenny Slate. Or Natasha Rothwell. Or Bob Odenkirk. Or, you know, a lot of brilliant comic minds too uniquely hilarious for Lorne’s supposedly “edgy” TV empire. And, hey, it still might happen. But between the meatball people from the Oscar Isaac episode and tonight’s twisted take on killer doll Chucky, I think it’s looking good for Sherman to make her mark as SNL’s resident purveyor of Michael O’Donoghue-esque off-putting grotesquerie.

While there’s nothing especially shocking in this filmed piece about Sherman’s puppeteered Chucky stalking his office coworkers apart from seeing Sherman’s scarred head on Chucky’s dolly body, there are enough original touches around the fringes. The swerve that Ego Nwodim, Melissa Villaseñor, and Chloe Fineman’s bathroom gossips get in trouble not for talking smack about the unseen Chucky, but for daring to compare him to office pariah Janet (Aidy, always eating tuna at work) is a nice way to jump start things. But it’s the sight of Sherman’s Chucky sullenly plying his trade in stabby violence while HR rep Gyllenhaal gamely tries to spin things toward superficial resolution that engages the premise on an appreciably compelling weirdo wavelength. It’s no meatball people, but any time SNL actually follows through on turning loose one of their more ambitious talents deserves encouragement.

Another game show sketch is never going to thrill me in the abstract, but Why’d You Like That? was one of two sketches tonight where Chris Redd stole the show with a specifically effective brand of mugging. The premise (Kenan’s host devilishly unravels exactly why each contestant liked an Instagram post) is a one-joke affair. (Spoiler: It’s always about hoping someone will sleep with you.) But the tortured logic Kenan gets everyone to reveal at least makes a relatable kind of dumb sense—Fineman’s player scrolled through five years of her ex-boyfriend’s sister’s pictures so that, just maybe, she’d be reminded of how neat Fineman was and remind her brother, leading to “raw-dogging in a Starbucks bathroom.” Gylenhaal, meanwhile, was blindsided by the show’s premise (and, one imagines, the seeming psychic abilities of the buzzer-happy judges), much to in-attendance girlfriend Nwodim’s displeasure.

But here’s to Redd, who, immediately upon sussing out just how much trouble he’s in, greets Kenan’s questions with a beaming and hopeful, “Pass.” Before the season, I predicted that Redd would break out this year, and, while that hasn’t come to pass entirely, he’s awfully good at a lot of things. Always a killer in the show’s pre-taped musical numbers, here and in the flower garden sketch, Redd exhibits the sort of confidence that comes with knowing you can land your moment. I wasn’t all-in on either sketch, but dammit if Redd didn’t make his horny flower’s anticipation of every kinky concept his flower bed’s tormentors offered his own. As for the flower sketch itself‚ eh. It was a big swing, I’ll give it that, with Gyllenhaal, Redd, Cecily, and Sherman’s just-bloomed spring flowers having to cope with Bowen Yang’s far-too-into-it bee, Kyle Mooney’s choke-happy weed, and a pissing puppy. When SNL successfully goes big and gross and juvenile, it’s a hoot. When, as here, nothing quite comes off, it just makes me feel sort of bad for everybody. And then there’s Redd, whose commitment to the bit as the most good-to-go flower in the bed just pops.

In a cast with 21 people in it, Punkie Johnson was going to have a hard time. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Saturday Night Live has traditionally not been the most welcoming environment for, say, a Black woman who also happens to be a lesbian. The show’s come a long way in some areas, but not that far. Still, here’s to Johnson anchoring a sketch—as a Black woman who happens to be a lesbian. The concept (Johnson’s seemingly capable couple’s therapist can’t keep her tumultuous private life from interfering with her job) might not be the most flattering portrayal, but Johnson’s able to shift between her personal and professional demeanors with a nifty energy. Still, as with many of his sketches tonight, Gyllenhaal never quite found a groove as the manga-loving husband (“It’s only the most important art form of the 21st century!”), and Melissa got even less to do as Johnson’s shrink increasingly escalated things with her partner over the phone. Escalation is key in sketch comedy, and I did appreciate how Johnson kept leading her irate partner closer and closer to where the bewildered couple sat in her office. But, wow, were there a lot of fish = vagina jokes throughout this thing, which is never the sort of snicker-bait anyone imagines it is. A nice chance for Punkie, but some lower-rung stuff.

Weekend Update update

Jost and Che. Che and Jost. Colin Jost and Michael Che. I’m not stalling while I look for anything to say about this week’s lackluster Update, you are. I like the guys. The guys are funny. Sometimes, though, they’re the story rather than any of the jokes, and this was one of those nights. Jost leading off with a take on Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings (where the GOP showed their whole racist, sexist asses, along with their rube-baiting culture wars strategy for the all-important 2024 midterms)? How about a J-Lo/Ben Affleck joke? The symbolically on-the-nose setup of a rabid fox attacking lawmakers in Washington D.C.? Eh, drawing a Fox News parallel is probably too hard. Even Jost and Che’s signature buddy movie smack talk was half-hearted. Not to bore my new Paste readers so soon, but if you’re a political comedian and you can’t fill eight minutes with above-average material about the rise of white supremacist fascism as embodied by this gaggle of hypocritically inept hate-ghouls, then it’s time to take a step back from the Update desk.

At least it’s not Secret Word—Recurring Sketch Report

I like Bowen. I love Aidy. So why don’t I care about the trend spotters? Maybe I’m old and cranky (I am), but mocking “influencers” seems like clubbing really hacky baby seals. It’s not terrible—I’m always a sucker for bits that seem to have grown out of two people just riffing with each other in somebody’s office, and Aidy and Bowen make a nice team. But I really only laughed at Aidy’s overbearing influencer manhandling Michael Che’s kisser as she tries to shush him. But I guess I just need a little more from my sketches mocking overdramatic, superficial ding-dongs. It was fine.

“Do I sound like Jim Lehrer? And do I look like Jim Lehrer? Then don’t try to fuck me like I’m Jim Lehrer. ”—Political Comedy Report

Last week, I wondered if I’d ever get tired of James Auston Johnson’s Trump. (All signs point to “no.”) His Biden, on the other hand, isn’t as strong a characterization. That might be a function of this president not being as farcically hateful and stupid as the last, but it’s looking more like SNL just doesn’t have any point of view on Joe Biden other than “old.” Jason Sudeikis’ Biden thrived the more Sudeikis leaned into the Onion-spawned, meme-worthy Uncle Joe persona, which may not have been any deeper as characterizations go, but was much funnier. I’m getting a whiff of Jay Pharoah’s Obama in how a technically proficient impression can run dry without an original hook or a satirical point of view behind it.

So it was doubly refreshing (to the extent that it was) to see Johnson’s Biden step aside in order to give the cold open, and the Oval Office, over to Ego Nwodim’s newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Jackson’s contentious confirmation (thanks to entrenched and spurious Republican horseshit) is big enough news to warrant a sketch of her own, even if Ego’s judge got stuck playing straight woman to a series of ghosts. Kate stole the show, as her returned RBG got off one final Ginsburn on bloviating blobfish Ted Cruz (R-TX) for his shameful bad-faith confirmation shenanigans. Kenan had fun playing late Justice Thurgood Marshall, disappointed that him breaking the SCOTUS color barrier didn’t exactly open the floodgates for Black jurists. Punkie Johnson was a spectral Harriet Tubman, advising Jackson that that whole “serve for life” idea sounds like a trap. And fellow barrier-breaker Jackie Robinson was more concerned with how even bad MLB players make millions of dollars these days. As he did all night, Redd did a lot with what he got, his deadpan assessment of his experience as the first Black major leaguer landing with the loaded laugh, “Being the first is kinda fun…”

When all else (like a coherent political take or an insightful angle) fails, SNL falls back on simply restating the latest right-wing nonsense. Which is… a public service, I suppose? Ego’s Jackson telling Biden, “Well, I was happy to do my part—work twice as hard as a white man my entire life, and then spend a week listening to Ted Cruz call me a pedophile,” spends a few seconds of network airtime holding the worst people in government (or, you know, Earth) up for contempt. But this Justice Jackson is never established as a character in her own right, something that sort of undermines the sketch’s assertion that the first Black woman on the Supreme Court is worthy of her own show-opener.

Not Ready For Prime Time Power Rankings

No Pete tonight, as SNL’s apparent policy of allowing its biggest stars to check out whenever they want in order to keep them around until Season 50 continues.

Of the people who were technically here, Aristotle Athari got nothing, while Kyle at least got to play a weed into choke sex. Yay?

Here’s to Melissa for having two medium-sized roles. They weren’t great roles, but at least they existed.

I’m giving the top spot to Redd. Kate, Bowen, Aidy, Kenan, Cecily, and even Punkie Johnson had more stage time, but sometimes it’s all about making the most out of your moments.

“We’re up here, we’re defenseless and we’re small, we’re adorable and we’re chewable!”—10-To-One Report

At the end of this final sketch, Aidy hops in front of trucker/singer Gyllenhaal’s 18 wheeler and does a funny little dance. That’s almost as good as a punch line, and god bless Aidy Bryant for giving it her all. Even in this wheezy parody of truck stop-specific, CD-only trucker ballads, with Aidy’s trucker extolling the virtues of Gyllenhaal’s amusingly named Johnny Goblin, and his greatest hits album, Truck You, You Truckin’ Truck. That’s cute enough, as is the bumper sticker that travelers Kyle and Ego find, reading, “My other car is a gun.” (If I haven’t seen that one in the wild, I probably will now.)

Here, though, the escalation sputters along, with the jokes about accidentally drinking pee, causing accidents with well-intentioned horn-honks, and the occasional hitchhiking ghost trucker or Mexican drug lord never quite kicking into gear. Honestly (and since I’m up late enough that they’ve gone up online), either of the two cut for time sketches would have been better to close this one out. (Especially since Gyllenhaal seemed to be having more fun playing Richard Burton than he did in any of the actual sketches tonight.)

Parting Shots

I only hope that the bumper photo of Gyllenhaal playing with a giant soap bubble was a reference to Bubble Boy. Bubble Boy? Anyone?

Camila Cabello didn’t bring along Ed Sheeran to duet on “Bam Bam,” but I was surprisingly into the striking pairing of Cabello and Willow Smith on “Psychofreak.”

Next week: Our third live episode in a row sees Lizzo pulling the rare and difficult double-duty as both host and musical guest. I’m optimistic, frankly.

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.