James Austin Johnson's President Biden has one solution to the rampant spread of the Omicron Covid variant: "Stop seeing Spider-Man." -- plus, "SNL" again cut its best sketch for time, but thankfully it lives on online.
“Saturday Night Live” kicks off a new year without a major Covid outbreak shutting down the show. It did, however, cost the show its original musical guest, with Bleachers stepping in for Roddy Rich after he tested positive.
As we’ve seen throughout the season, it seems to be a hit-or-miss game each week as to which cast members will be on the show. Kate McKinnon, who missed most of the start of the season, was there, but missing were her veteran female cohorts Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong.
We also didn’t see Punkie Johnson or Aristotle Athari (though he might have had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in a sketch that was cut for time -- and wound up the best sketch of the night). With a cast this big, Lorne Michaels giving them some flexibility is probably helping with fatigue and burnout.
“West Side Story” star Ariana DeBose was the host and she brought as much of her talent as she could, but it wasn’t enough to make up for a night that was lackluster overall, with several sketches just feeling like they kept going and going and going.
Usually, “SNL” comes back from a long break refreshed, regrouped and stronger than ever, so maybe it was the Covid outbreak that left them rattled. A lot of tonight’s sketches felt half-baked, like there was a potentially great idea in there, but no one took the time to finesse it into truly funny material.
Don’t get us wrong, there were a few very strong sketches, including a hilarious appearance by Chloe Fineman as Elmo taking that viral feud with Rocco to the next level. James Austin Johnson continues to refine his Joe Biden, while we got to see a very unexpected Pete Davidson’s Biden, as well. Blame Spider-Man and the multiverse -- Biden did!
We also got to see Chris Redd settle into a hilariously bizarre and obnoxious parody of New York mayor Eric Adams. When doing a local politician like this, the impression has to be even better to appeal coast to coast even to people less familiar with the original, and Chris is well on his way to pushing this one to that level.
As usual, we're ranking all the sketches from worst to first, including the Monologue, Cold Open, "Weekend Update" and any sketches that were cut for time but made their way online. We'll skip the musical guests, because they're not usually funny -- unless Ashlee Simpson shows up. We wrap up with a look at the cast-member who had the strongest week.
A silly premise that could have been funny if it hadn’t gone on so damned long! Having an entire NBA team out with Covid replaced with fans and staff is great, and we could have gotten some fun visuals or moments. There was maybe one or two legitimate laughs throughout. Having Bowen Yang portray Yao Ming as a guest panelist added nothing, just as he did almost nothing. It was as if the cast was vamping for time because they had just way, way, way too much of it.
Monologue: Ariana DeBose
A monologue that turned into a drawn out tribute to Broadway and “West Side Story” featuring Kate McKinnon, who was definitely hamming it up. She did get Ariana to break and laugh at one point, but the overall monologue ultimately fell flat. It was neither impressive as a musical showcase or funny. It didn’t even work as an icebreaker to get the audience at ease with Ariana taking the lead for the next 90 minutes. We did get to see that she can sing, which we already knew, and she was comfortable in front of an audience. But this isn’t an audition; we wanted to enjoy this for what it was.
Another sketch that went on a bit too long, with Ariana DeBose and Kate McKinnon playing it very straight as two lesbian “translators” faking translations of supposedly lost Sappho works from the Ancient Greeke isle of Lesbos. Instead, they were airing dirty laundry from their own personal lives. Mikey Day was shoehorned in as the straight man (so to speak) who was into it, then doubtful, then with a few Indigo Girls lyrics all in. We get what they were going for her, but it just wasn’t strong enough or funny enough. If we’re going to translate this many lines in the sketch, they need to be a lot stronger and edgier than this, or at least read with more oomph. Kate tried to save the sketch with body language, but even that wasn’t enough.
Of course there was going to be a musical parody with Ariana DeBose hosting, but this “Sound of Music” take was pretty terrible. The only part of the song lyrics that we enjoyed was when they used Queen Latifah for La, Ti and Fa (because that’s pretty great) and when Kenan Thompson came in at the end with his fast-food inspired performance. The rest of it dragged on way, way, way too slowly. If Ariana was going to be incompetent and stupid as the new governess, they should have gone further into that for bigger laughs. This was a little too hesitant most of the way, which made it feel overly long.
Cold Open: Spider-Biden
You have to give it to Joe Biden (James Austin Johnson). He knows exactly what the problem is in America and why we can’t get a grip on Covid. We keep going to see the new Spider-Man film. James has really settled in well to this roll, taking a commanding lead through the nonsense of arguing that it’s all Spider-Man’s fault, so to speak. He never loses character, keeps it fun and engaging and even makes you think. Could we be living in a multiverse? “Doesn’t that make more sense than whatever the hell our current world is?” We’re just saying, points were made.
While it dragged a bit at times, we still found ourselves laughing pretty steadily throughout. Pete Davidson seemed to be channeling Adam Sandler in his line deliveries, while Chloe Fineman was over-the-top as his wife. Andrew Dismukes, though, was all in as their doofy son who’s awkward in every way possible. That he was part of their pitch for selling high school dance ensembles as the date that would never deflower your daughter was pretty clever, but it was the attention to detail like the stuff on his lips, his random obsession with “Get Low” and the horrors when he turned around that really made his character work even better than his parents. The testimonials didn’t really add as much as we would have hoped.
A character driven piece with Heidi Gardner’s messed up use of “lurr” breaking the other three performers. Ariana DeBose was having a hard time keeping it straight with James Austin Johnson’s commitment to his redneck and Andrew Dismukes leaning heavily into his accent. By the time Alex Moffat came into the scene, the nonsense talk “at the end of the day” was nonstop and we were impressed that everyone was able to keep with the semblance of a plot through to the end. The whole thing was deeply weird, but had a strange sweetness to it underneath.
Eric Adams Press Conference
We needed Chris Redd’s version of new New York mayor Eric Adams to be even more unhinged with his responses, and he finally got there when responding to Heidi Gardner asking about unskilled workers being unable to perform desk jobs. There was too much early emphasis on swagger, which worked fine as an intro to his confidence and bravado. But the meat of the comedy was in him not knowing how to talk without putting his foot deeper in his mouth. Chris did a great job of constantly backtracking and rephrasing and finally blaming everyone else for him “misquoting” himself. Chris does overconfident idiocy better than anyone and when he finally got rolling in this character we were loving every ridiculous thing he said and did.
Inspired by “Bel-Air,” this gritty, street level “Modern Family” is actually pretty damned clever, though we’re a little surprised there was no place for Punkie Johnson in this one (Mrs. Winslow, anyone?) considering every other Black cast member was in it, including the host. Still, Chris Redd was great in the title role, mixing pathos with a healthy does of “Did I do that?” Even the review quotes for this fake trailer were funny. It was the obvious joke after “Bel-Air” dropped its trailer, but it was still executed beautifully.
Colin Jost set up a brilliant switcheroo with a picture of Reagan while talking about a president the GOP still admires before switching it up for Jefferson Davis while talking about Biden’s plummeting approval rating. Michael Che went in savagely on Mitch McConnell, but then again, that’s low-hanging fruit on all these comedy shows.
Even better, though, was Colin bagging himself over his whiteness not once but twice. Michael Che courted controversy by making fun of Stewart Rhodes (Oath Keeper head honcho) eyepatch -- has he already forgotten what happened when Pete Davidson did this to Dan Crewnshaw in 2018? “That wasn’t an eye joke.”
After a longer than usual joke segment -- which was probably the best of the season -- Chloe Fineman came out with a fantastically disturbing Elmo impression. We were dying at the puppet arms. And while we all knew that Rocco was going to come out to continue their viral “Sesame Street” feud, we were hoping for more in the culmination of Elmo’s growing rage (complete with fire framing the screen). Don’t get us wrong, this was great, but we were hoping it would go even darker.
Cut for Time: All on Me
The best sketch of the night doesn’t even make the live show, which proves that some of those sketches were going on longer than they needed to. This pre-taped video features a great rap flow from Chris Redd, and a solid dance hook. Even though the story of a rapper overspending has been played out time and again, it’s how this take brings it that works so well. Ariana DeBose does a great job of offering a fun twist as his girlfriend -- with a great sound all her own -- while Kenan and the real-life Freddie Gibbs just keep making things worse for him. We love a great “SNL” original track and this is right up there.
Chloe Fineman killed us with her work as Elmo, and she was definitely all in opposite Pete Davidson in the “Winter Formal” sketch. But the night’s biggest workhorse also had the most successful night -- especially if we include the cut-for-time sketch.
Chris Redd might have taken a few minutes to land his Eric Adams impression, but by the time we were halfway through, he had us all eating out of the palm of his hand. It was a masterfully goofy performance, and totally removed from what he did with his dark take on Urkel.
Then, toss in a solid comedy-rap track that made its way online, as well as several supporting roles, and Chris was killing it on the night, even if he was one of so many cast members relegated to asking questions in way too many sketches that featured people asking questions. Seriously, what was up with that?
No wait, that was a question. We’re not looking to encourage this type of behavior to continue. Strike it from the record.
“Saturday Night Live” returns next week with host Will Forte and musical guest Måneskin.