Saturday Night Live: Kanye West controversy trumps lame sketches

Hot-buttons were brushed, if not fully pushed, and the sketches were more miss than hit on the season opener

There was no way the cold open of Saturday Night Live’s 44th season premiere wouldn’t revolve around the Ford-Kavanaugh Senate hearing, even though the allegations of sexual assault central to it made for highly volatile terrain. With that in mind, the show couldn’t really be blamed for taking the easy route and simply playing up the absurdity of Kavanaugh’s testimony.

Matt Damon stepped into the role, playing Brett Kavanaugh as a coked-up frat-boy and the “loudest, drunkest virgin you’ve ever seen”.

It was an entertaining if not particularly memorable portrayal, though Damon did almost all of the heavy lifting save for a short turn from Kate McKinnon as an irate Lindsey Graham. Rachel Dratch’s cameo as Senator Amy Klobuchar seemed to serve little purpose.

The sketch hit all the expected targets – “boofing”, “Devil’s triangle”, Alyssa Milano’s random presence at the hearing – while avoiding the potentially triggering subject matter at heart. Again, it was hard to fault the show for not jumping head first into such dicey territory, but there was something off-putting about sidestepping the more disturbing aspects to this particular political sideshow, only for the sketch to conclude with Damon shotgunning a beer while yelling: “LIVE FROM NEW YORK!”

Adam “Designated” Driver is a seemingly random but welcome choice to kick off the new season, though he gets off to a rocky start with his opening monologue. It is not so much that the bit – in which he grows increasingly angry at having to listen to various members of the cast describe their boring summers – is bad, as much as it is … nothing. There is no pay-off, save Pete Davidson quickly teasing his engagement to the pop star Ariana Grande. But as soon as he appears he’s gone, with the monologue ending just as abruptly.

The first sketch proper doesn’t do much to right the course. In Fortnite Squad, Driver plays William McTavish (username WilliamMcTavish1972) – a middle-aged dad who takes up Fortnite in order to bond with his estranged son, though mostly he just wants to show up the kid’s new stepdad, Rick. He joins a team of online players, all teenagers, and promptly gets their onscreen avatars – portrayed via split screen –killed off. Most of the humor is derived from Mikey Day as Driver’s avatar, as he flails around in a silly blond wig, carrying a giant pickaxe. It’s definitely the weakest sketch of the front half of the show, and arguably of the entire episode.

In the first Digital Short, New Look, Kyle Mooney vows to make a bigger splash this season, only to have his thunder immediately stolen by the newly engaged Davidson. This leads Mooney to undergo a drastic makeover, through which he turns himself into a Davidson clone. He cuts his hair and dyes it platinum blond, gets a celebrity girlfriend (Wendy Williams), and starts taking prescription medicine to deal with his new “mental problems”. His efforts pay off as he gains popularity, much to Davidson’s dismay.

Just as the short starts to get interesting, though, the Single White Female vibe is jettisoned and Mooney and Davidson have a silly sword fight. Mooney is quickly impaled but a pratfall makes Davidson laugh and just like that they’re buddies again. Ostensibly a sketch about Mooney, it becomes clear at this point that the writers intend to milk Davidson’s new high profile for all it’s worth.

Things don’t exactly pick up in the next segment, Coffee Shop, in which a marketing test group made up of three couples is tricked into trying a new coffee from Burger King. Everyone’s fine with it save for a trashy rich east coast couple played by Driver and Strong, who are as furious over the subterfuge as they are confused about the set-up. Driver makes for a good Jersey Shore/Long Island meathead but the sketch only serves to remind fans of the far superior Chris Farley-starring Schillervision Hidden Camera.

The next Digital Short, 80s Party, concerns a frat party that, 30 years down the line, will lead to a number of criminal accusations and political fallout for the blissfully unaware college kids attending it. The idea of decadent 80s college romps like Revenge of the Nerds and Bachelor Party becoming prequels to criminal investigations is brilliant, but it requires a sharper edge. Done right, it could cut to the bone. Here it barely draws blood.

The biggest draw of the night is obviously musical guest Kanye West – or Ye, as he apparently wishes to be known from now on. He performs I Love It, a song off his new album, while dressed as a giant bottle of Perrier water and alongside rapper Lil Pump, visibly uncomfortable in a Fiji water bottle get-up. The whole thing has a real try-hard feel to it and doesn’t come off as bizarre or surreal so much as silly. Kanye rubberneckers needn’t worry though – by the night’s end he will be the main talking point.

Returning for a fourth year as Weekend Update hosts (and a second as co-head writers), Colin Jost and Michael Che pick up where the cold open left off, covering the “she said, he yelled” debacle of the Senate hearing. Once more, the entirety of the humor was (wisely and appropriately) directed at Kavanaugh’s past indiscretions and baffling behavior – per Jost: “He kept a calendar the same way the guy in Memento got tattoos.” There are also a couple of quick jokes at the expense of Bobby Brown, the new mascot for the Philadelphia Flyers and Bill Cosby.

Jost and Che are then joined by a series of guests, starting with McKinnon’s punchy, sprightly Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who holds court on the Kavanaugh hearings, or as she refers to it, “the portrait of the judge as a young D-bag”. She is followed by Leslie Jones as a still-fuming Serena Williams and Pete Davidson as himself, talking about his crazy summer of love: “You remember when that whole city pretended that kid was Batman because he was sick? That’s what this feels like.”

The next sketch, Career Day, sees Driver play an aged and decrepit oil baron named Abraham H Parnasis, who gives a demented lecture about the nature of power to his embarrassed son Mordecai’s middle school class. This was the clear winner of the night, a rare case where the studio audience was fully onboard with high-concept weirdness. While the dialog deserves no shortage of praise – “One man came close to breaking me: HR Pickins. He did not succeed. For I CRUSHED HIM INTO THE GROUND!” – the lion’s share of credit goes to Driver, who is finally able let loose and display his true comedic chops. Driver takes the eccentric part and goes the whole hog, basically playing Daniel Plainview by way of Vincent Price.

Kanye then takes the stage for his second musical segment, performing the song We Got Love alongside Teyana Taylor. Gone are the earlier theatrics, but unfortunately the catchiness of the track is hampered by low energy, noticeably off-key singing and more than a few missed cues.

The final sketch of the night, Neo-Confederate Meeting, is exactly what it sounds like – a group of white nationalists listen to their leader (Beck Bennett) describe his dream of a new “Caucasian paradise”, only for one of the attendees (Driver, dressed like his character from this summer’s BlackKklansman) to continuously point out he’s just describing Vermont, a state where “the leaves change color but the people never do”. It’s a rough sketch of a sketch, and it would have made for a forgettable ending to the night were it not for what happened next.

As the cast gathers to say goodnight, Kanye gives a rare third performance, of the song Ghost Town, while the credits roll. He does so while sporting the red MAGA hat that he wore during earlier promos for the episode. Unfortunately, it was only after the cameras stopped rolling that the real drama unfolded, with West going on a rambling pro-Trump tirade that earned vocal ire from the audience and visible annoyance from members of the cast.

Thus ends the season opener for Season 44. The hot buttons were brushed, if not fully pushed, the sketches were more miss than hit, Driver made for a game and likable host, and Kanye Kanye’d.

Contributor

Zach Vasquez

The GuardianTramp

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