Jack Harlow Hosts an SNL That Would Have Been Better with a Host

Comedy Reviews Saturday Night Live
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Jack Harlow Hosts an <i>SNL</i> That Would Have Been Better with a Host

And Your Host…

Look, I don’t want to come off as flip. Or like a crabby old coot. But Jack Harlow? Okay, I admit that I have had to do some research this week, and I have nothing against mumbly white boy rappers, even if they have to essentially add a “no homo” tag on their monologue jokes about collaborating with Lil Nas X. All the carefully vetted self-deprecating lines about how Jack Harlow doesn’t look like he should be hosting Saturday Night Live (or that he looks like “someone tried to draw Justin Timberlake from memory”) can’t disguise the truth as displayed by tonight’s episode that Jack Harlow should not be hosting—and musical guesting—Saturday Night Live.

Harlow himself wasn’t an embarrassment as host. (As musical guest, I’ll cop at this point to not getting his whole thing and move on.) But he was certainly nondescript, hesitant and alternately off-rhythm and cue card-desperate. It’s not that Harlow didn’t perform his roles adequately, in the sense that the necessary information was delivered to move the sketches along. But if that’s the bar SNL wants to set, well, there’s such a thing as grading on a curve, or degree of difficulty. Literally anyone could have done the baseline of what Harlow managed here, and unless my week of old man Googling misleads me, it’s not like Harlow is the sort of cultural touchstone performer that traditionally lands the coveted SNL double-duty.

And it’s a shame, since there were a couple of genuinely well-written sketches that could have been even better with a stronger host at their center. The AA/Pixar sketch (see next) is a wonderful little conceit that worked despite the blandly halting Harlow driving it. If Harlow had a decent performance all night, I suppose it was in the wedding sketch, where he, along with Heidi Gardner, Andrew Dismukes, Chloe Fineman, and Sarah Sherman, got to ham it up amusingly in the broadest of southern accents. Harlow actually appeared to be into the silly bit, in which Dismukes’ best man looks to the congregation for validation of his Joker costume at a Halloween night wedding. And he is helped out that most of his dialogue (along with everyone else’s) revolves around attenuating the word “Joker” in unique and funny ways. It wasn’t much, but it was the best we got from the not very threatening double threat.

The Best And The Rest

The Best : The AA meeting just needed a real comic actor to nudge it higher, but it’s a very funny premise, well-executed, where Harlow’s reticent recovery group member finally speaks up, only to reveal that all he’s interested in is a particularly catchy Pixar movie treatment about talking lost luggage. The seed of a sketch idea is just the promising first step, though, and plenty of good-looking bits are stunted by lazy, clumsy, or rushed execution. Here, I loved how Harlow’s would-be writer (who admits in passing to Bowen Yang’s moderator, “I had a drink recently, by the way”) wins over the downtrodden group members one by one, with Harlow chiming in a delighted “I literally wrote that in a Google doc” after one suggests Jason Bateman for the voice of the uptight briefcase character. Kenan brings a little weird flavor to things with his character’s repeated requests for a female suitcase with boobs (he’s worked up some sketches while they were talking), and Cecily (welcome back!), as a suspiciously Cathy Anne-style addict, objects that Harlow hasn’t included an Oscar-baiting musical number—right before she produces a keyboard from out of nowhere and belts out the triumphant ditty, “Pack yourself with love.” And, hey, if everyone’s talking Pixar, then you can’t begrudge Lorne calling in a favor and getting Tom Hanks into the room (he’s researching a role—and may also be an alcoholic) to pitch his ready-for-recording luggage catchphrase, “That really snags my zipper!” Sure, the show’s timing was probably thrown all out of whack by the extended applause break for Hanks, but SNL really should have that sort of thing factored in by now.

The Worst : The bartenders sketch is exhibit number one of how a real actor might have salvaged a middling premise. Bowen Yang does his best as one of a pair of flamboyantly trendy mixologists, the sort who make a big show out of mixing your drink right there at the table. With four people playing straight man as the customers, we’re treated to a quadruple dose of that longtime favorite joke structure “Wow, those odd gentlemen sure are behaving oddly, what with dancing around to that same song and splashing our drinks everywhere but in the glasses. How odd.” Harlow can’t match Yang’s energy or dance moves, and his line deliveries barely register as attempts at jokes. Yang does what he can, calling their signature beverages “cockt”s and so forth, but it’s a losing battle. On a night where I might be critical of how many damn cameos the show makes time for at the expense of the (still overstuffed) cast and host, it’s hard to get too worked up at the prospect of less Jack Harlow on screen, honestly.

The Rest : The post-last call Halloween adult costume red carpet was a fun little idea, aided immeasurably by the returning Cecily as one of a pair of interviewers breathlessly announcing the arrival of such drunken, disheveled mainstays as “wasted white girl who can’t find her Uber,” to “guy whose costume no one got” (Devon Walker can’t get why nobody understood his “slapped Chris Rock”), to Jack Harlow dressed as a tampon and asking if anyone has any coke, because why wouldn’t he be? Nothing stellar, but man is it good to have Cecily back, and here’s to Molly Kearney, whose dangerously drunk and pants-less Dora the Explorer can only repeat a drunkenly enigmatic “Tom Brady!” We’ve all been there.

Weekend Update update

I was recently working on a long Saturday Night Live-themed piece for another publication (sorry, Paste—we’re cool, right? [Sure, man! No worries. Get paid as much as possible.—Ed.]), when I stumbled on an old Update where Norm Macdonald straight-up centers back-to-back jokes about the Marv Albert sexual assault incident on how unattractive he finds the women involved. No other spin, no subversive slant—just “Ugly chicks, amirite?” boorishness. I liked Norm on Update, and RIP, but it was a pretty shocking and ugly thing to rediscover. And then tonight, we get another dose of Michael Che doing some “Women, amirite?” schtick in a story about an incompetent bus hijacker. Che loves to get gasps, groans, and assorted other reactions from audiences with woman jokes like that, while counting on his “can’t you just take a joke?” “edgy” persona to blunt what is, at heart, exactly what it says on the tin. I like Che on Update, but this side of his comedy is beyond old, especially considering how decidedly not-jokingly Che claps back at/attacks female critics who call him out on it. I get it, Mike, everyone’s become so uptight and you’re just pushing people’s buttons, and you’re a naughty little guy and all the rest. The jokes suck, though.

Anyway, Update had plenty to work with after yet another fun and fascist-infested week in America, and Jost and Che did a C-plus job with all of it. Recent SNL host Elon Musk got a mild ribbing for buying Twitter, opening the floodgates to every racist Gamergate incel banned under the old regime, and promising advertisers he doesn’t intend for the social media site to turn into a “free-for-all hellscape.” (“That’s his plan for Mars,” jokes Jost.) Che had some good jokes, too, finding an angle on the multiplying Herschel Walker abortion jokes by noting that Walker’s frustrated “I’m done with that nonsense” also applies to his use of condoms. Jost’s jokes about recovering stroke victim and Pennsylvania senate candidate John Fetterman are as lazy and lousy as anything scraped off of Musk’s Twitter, though, with the smirking Jost mocking Fetterman’s willingness to engage in a televised debate despite battling stroke-related speech issues. Gonna go ahead and not hold my breath waiting for SNL to invite Fetterman onto Update for a Dan Crenshaw-style “sorry for mocking your disability” appearance.

Drunk Uncle is in the building. I miss Bobby Moynihan. (I mean, he’s still working at NBC and all, but you get me.) As far as point of view goes, Moynihan’s miserable, right-wing alcoholic uncle character is lightly political in essence, I suppose. Moynihan’s resentful ramblings and blurted, sometimes tearful non-sequiturs could pass for the not-so-secret inner monologue of the average white grievance sufferer. And Moynihan, as ever, performs the neat trick of rounding his slurring blowhard of a killjoy into something approximating a sympathetic, or at least understandable, character, his perpetual litany of grievances a smokescreen obscuring the obvious unhappiness that’s driven him to this sorry state. “Tom was too good for Gisele,” he says feelingly upon being awakened by Jost after passing out momentarily, a whole raft of criss-crossing neuroses and prejudices emerging in an unguarded moment.

“Don’t direct me, you tie rack.”—Recurring Sketch Report

A glimpse inside this reviewer’s brain during tonight’s show: “Hey, Hanksy! Nice to see you, pal. Must be in town promoting something. Always nice to see Hanksy. Drunk Uncle!? Hey, I’m never going to say no to a little Bobby Moynihan drop-by, and Drunk Uncle was a bit I never truly got tired of, so good on you. The beard looks good, by the way. [Sees spooky carnival ride set in commercial bumper] Hey, wait… Hanks. Moynihan. Hallowee—oh no. They wouldn’t just bring it back… [Five minutes later] They brought it back. And changed exactly… nothing. I mean, it was funny—last time. And so I remembered laughing, at the same jokes, which is almost like laughing for real this time? Oh, the exact same button on the gag, huh? Okay? Well. That existed. Nice commitment on the branded horror icons, though.”

“Yeah, I’m like a horsefly. You know, I bite hard and I look like a horsefly.”—Political Comedy Report

The fake movie ad centered on Democrats’ unease that now 79-year-old Joe Biden may be American democracy’s only hope in 2024 is an example of political comedy done with some wit and style, for a change. “Joe Biden = old” is far too often the only Update joke Jost and Che have about the current US president, but there are some more complex fears and challenges ahead for those not clamoring for a Ron DeSantis-led theocratic dictatorship, and the horror movie idea was executed with a deft touch (and a judicious use of the John Carpenter font). The sketch goes out of its way to give Biden his due (student debt relief, infrastructure, standing up to Republican pin-up fascist Vladimir Putin), while its increasingly panicked friends, with thunder and lightning crackling ominously all around them, edge up to the queasy thought that a then-81-year-old Biden might have to hold the line for another four years of coups, attempted MAGA political assassinations, and assorted treason-adjacent treachery. Running through the possible alternatives only increases the mounting fear (“Kamala?,” one suggests, getting a quick slap for his trouble), before a possessed, mouth and eyeball-bleeding partygoer hisses out, “Hillary.” (Punkie Johnson does a fantastic fright take when the word “Bernie” similarly drips down the wall in letters of blood.)

Political satire in a sketch doesn’t have to take on everything about a particular issue, and those who suggest that this one is glib about the rest of the Democratic field’s chances might have a point, but, well, that’s not the point. The sketch goes all-in on one sliver of the current blasted and godforsaken political landscape and fashions a funny and extremely stylish joke about it. Yes, there are much bigger and more terrifying problems facing American democracy and the future of human rights in this country right now. And, hey, maybe SNL will approach those with as astute an eye toward meaningful satire. It could happen. But this one is this one, and it’s really good.

On the other side, the cold open is… fine. It’s more of what generally passes for political comedy on Saturday Night Live since the 2016 nightmare. Lots of references to essentially beyond-parody real-life hateful, ignorant, and ludicrous Republican bullshit, this time with Heidi Gardner’s Judy Woodruff bringing GOP senate hopefuls Herschel Waker, Dr. Oz., and Kari Lake to the PBS News Hour. (Or “your sweet little show of lies,” coos Arizona election denier and grinning bigot Lake, played by the returning Cecily Strong.) The formula is to highlight some of the most egregious, disqualifying-in-any-functional-democracy nonsense each candidate has said and done (Walker’s abortion hypocrisy and domestic violence, Oz’s TV hucksterism and fake Philly carpetbagging, Lake’s embrace of armed voter intimidation and threats of anti-democratic election tampering), and call it a job done.

It’s fine for what it is—putting these names and facts out there on live national TV a week before the all-important midterms isn’t nothing, I guess. But this formula is awfully flabby and impotent when it comes to actually addressing the bigger picture, or, more germane to a comedy show, writing outside the usual lines and attempting more than just quoting news stories verbatim while the performers put a little mustard on things. Kenan can do this sort of characterization in his sleep, but it’s funny when he, (barely) mischaracterizing the anti-trans propaganda that is now official GOP policy, suggests that democrats are turning kids into Pokémon. (“They certainly ain’t no Snorlax, that’s just science.”) And the gag about how former TV host and person who’s personally “sent back over 2000 salads” Lake beams in her interviews so she can employ a “‘90s Cinemax soft core porn” filter is funny enough. (Plus, it threw me a curveball, making me think the remote-interviewed Cecily was still out of New York. It was a relief when she actually showed up live in the studio.)

The Skechers ad was one of many, many jokes about the fact that Kanye West has gone pure anti-Semitic MAGA in the past week, with various employee spokespeople both proudly supporting their company’s recent rejection of the Adidas-shitcanned rapper and shoe mogul’s attempt to bum-rush Skechers corporate HQ, while also using the opportunity to rack up some free publicity for their courageous stand. Again, it’s a nicely layered joke that highlights how such acts of corporate principle must also pay homage to the great god Capitalism. Points, too, for Punkie’s employee taking her colleagues to task for just catching up to the ridiculous and hateful stuff West has been spouting for years, especially toward the Black community.

Not Ready For Prime Time Power Rankings

Cecily’s back! I was honestly pretty worried when Strong’s name and image weren’t included in the first three episodes this season, which seemed like a deliberate departure from SNL protocol. People have missed multiple sequential shows in the past without being excised from the opening rundown. Anyway, Strong reinserted herself with authority, jumping the queue to take her rightful and wonted place at the center of several sketches. With all the drop-bys (including a questionably necessary Jeff Probst as himself), there was a dispiriting return to the form of the last number of years, with high-profile names elbowing an already-underserved cast aside at Lorne’s whim.

The four new kids all got some decent face time this week, although not in any memorable roles; really, James Austin Johnson keeps asserting himself as a low-key voice guy with potential (adding pillow pitchman and loopy seditionist Mike Lindell to his roster), while Heidi and Chloe had some juicy roles to sink their teeth into. Honestly, considering the cameos, the ball was passed around pretty equitably this week. I’ll take it.

“The rest of the interview will be centaur questions.”—10-To-One Report

Man, we’re going to keep doing The View, huh? It’s been, what, more than two decades of mining that daytime chat-fest. I can remember when Cheri Oteri’s Barbara Walters was making Debbie Matenopolous jokes, for crying out loud. Anyway, Ego Nwodim does a creditable Whoopi, and Sarah Sherman is clearly having a blast (in her second over the top caricature of the night) as Joy Behar. But without Aidy Bryant around to mock the petulant conservative “Don’t you know who my father is?!” Karen-ing of the departed Meghan McCain, there’s not a lot of meat on those bones. (Punkie and Chloe are along for the ride as those other two hosts who Whoopi and Joy ignore/make fun of.) But Harlow, playing Jack Harlow hitting on Whoopi, is the pits, his hazy delivery of his lame come-ons generating negative comic energy. And if Ego wants to go for laughs with references to the long-celibate Goldberg’s “dusty cave,” well, some people seemed to enjoy it. Especially coming in the last spot tonight, this limping thing was an almost complete disappointment.

Parting Shots

My wife and I are quite fond of Maria Bamford’s short-lived but brilliant Netflix sitcom Lady Dynamite where, in one episode, the stood-up Maria is made increasingly elaborate cocktails by a bearded bartender named “Garloft.” Thus, in our house, all trendy mixologists are named Garloft.

Next week: Amy Schumer returns for her third time as host, alongside musical guest Steve Lacy.

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.

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