Live from New York, it’s … a horrifying humanitarian crisis. Wocka wocka!
Coming out of the writers’ strike triumphant a few weeks ago, the Saturday Night Live team probably expected to storm the studio this past Monday and get back to show business as usual. Instead, they found themselves putting together their first episode in six months with the Israel-Hamas war unfolding in real time.
It’s tough to crack jokes amidst a supermassive black hole of exponential misery through which seemingly no humor can penetrate. In fact, it’s tough to simply exist as a professionally funny person at a time like this. Several comedians have been roasted on a spit this past week for offering statements or — oof! — image macros that do not encompass the full spectrum of human empathy. In a moment where saying nothing might seem wiser than saying the wrong thing or being perceived as inappropriately off-topic, how does one even go about staging a comedy show? As much pressure as there had to be in creating a rare moment of levity in one of the least funny weeks in modern history, SNL bore it with grace. (And vagina jokes.)
“I know what you’re thinking: who better to talk about it than Pete Davidson,” says the former cast member and first-time host in the show’s semi-somber cold open.
Incredibly, he’s not wrong.
It turns out Davidson is one of those weirdly unifying figures like Snoop Dogg, who most people seem to feel generally positive about and who is impossible to hate. He started out on SNL nearly a decade ago as a cute young stand-up in the Adam Sandler lineage, who mainly stuck to Weekend Update desk pieces. (Newish guy Michael Longfellow belongs to this lineage as well.) Although he never quite figured out a sketch persona beyond “go-to guy for hip-hop bits,” Davidson cultivated an aura of dirtbag likability over eight years with the show, even as his extracurricular exploits superseded his talent in terms of fame. (More on that later.) In ordinary times, hosting the show would have challenged Davidson to prove he could not only carry a sketch but an entire episode. This week, though, just providing that familiar likability was enough to count as a win.
Beyond being an agreeable presence throughout and delivering a funny stand-up monologue up top, Davidson is someone who lost a parent to an act of terrorism, as he mentions in the cold open. He doesn’t brandish that identity here for attention or sympathy but rather to convey the personal impact humor had on him in his darkest hour. The added dash of gravitas helped strike exactly the right tone to kick off SNL in what will hopefully be the toughest week of this season.
Here are the highlights:
I’m Just Pete
Had the writers’ strike not prevented Davidson from hosting when he was originally supposed to, back in April, this sketch would never have existed. At that point, his show, Bupkis, had not yet come out and underperformed, and audiences had not yet been introduced to Ken’s big number from the Barbie movie. We are all better off for this delay. “I’m Just Pete” is a breathtaking display of self-awareness and brutal honesty from the star. Matching Ken’s identity crisis with Pete’s inner turmoil at being famous for everything but his comedy is absolute perfection. Anyone who tries to knock him for virtually anything going forward must now reckon with the fact that he already beat them to the joke. This sketch also gets bonus points for the meta use of Devon Walker as “Black Pete Davidson” since people have been calling him that since he joined the cast last year.
Heidi Gardner proved a deft physical comedian last spring when she debuted her Co-worker Who’s Extremely Busy Doing Seemingly Nothing character on Weekend Update. She brings some of those combustible tics to an office setting in this sketch about a secretary who does way too much. With her half a Mid-Atlantic accent and full pencil skirt, she turns would-be witty banter into something more like a personality disorder. There’s no real premise to speak of beyond “Mad Men-era secretary is weirdo,” but Gardner’s performance is riveting.
Please Don’t Destroy — The Original Princes of Comedy
The Please Don’t Destroy boys, who are rightfully in the opening credits as of this season, are not really the stars of this sketch. That honor belongs to the three talented young gentlemen who play the pint-sized Def Jam comic versions of the trio. The writing is impeccable, of course, but who knows whether it would have flown without the right preteen funnyboys to bring Smoke Dog, J.D., and Mart Mart to life.
The obvious explanation for why John Mulaney pops up is that he is very good friends with Pete Davidson and was probably hanging around this week for moral support and joke ideas. However, considering that Mulaney has an old bit about wishing he’d been a Def Jam comic back when Home Alone 2 came out, perhaps he had a hand in inspiring this sketch.
It was an uneven Weekend Update altogether. As a sports agnostic, I couldn’t quite parse the jokes in Kenan Thompson’s Deion Sanders desk piece, and despite Bowen Yang’s best efforts, there is just not much left to say about the concept of Columbusing. However, the Update jokes about the experience of consuming news this week were terrific, as were the jokes about Bob Menendez and George Santos, and all of it led up to a truly sublime moment of topical comedy. After so many years at the Update desk together, what seems to keep Michael Che and Colin Jost going are the moments when one reads jokes the other one wrote for the first time live on-air. In this case, it’s a pair that Che has written for Jost about ebony alerts, and watching both react to the wildly inappropriate jokes brought some of the biggest laughs of the episode.
Every female cast member shows up in this fake ad for Glamgina, the so-called makeup for your other face. And thank God they do, because otherwise nobody might have ever uttered on live television the words, “My snatch looks snatched.”
Cut for Time
• Who could have possibly predicted a sketch about mass Swiftiefication in the SNL season premiere? If the joke had merely been that even NFL announcer dudes are stanning Taylor, it probably would have fallen flat. But NFL announcer dudes analyzing the lyrics to “Karma” like they were game plays? Irresistible fun. They probably could have done more with the Travis Kelce cameo, though. Lord knows, he proved he can handle more when he hosted the show back in March.
• The Delta diarrhea debacle only happened like five weeks ago, but it feels so far in the past. (It’s been a weird five weeks!) It felt a bit random to package that semi-distant incident in one of those Wired autocomplete interviews, but it paid off in some funny moments, such as putting “(pukes in mouth)” in the closed captions of the pilot’s black box recording of the incident.
• One last thing about the Wired autocomplete interview sketch: I’m stunned that a Disney+ show called Stark Labs doesn’t already exist.
• “Annoying former co-worker returns to the office and talks about how much things have changed, but make it Star Trek” is a premise that sounds richer in theory than it turns out to be in practice. Whoever styled Heidi Gardner in this sketch, however, crushed it.
• Taylor Swift casually introducing musical guest Ice Spice’s second song and becoming a top-two most talked-about part of the SNL season premiere? Imperial behavior.