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Tiffany Haddish’s Night on ‘Saturday Night Live’ Was a Victory Lap

The actress more or less played herself, but that made for an engaging night in 8H

Black Girls Rock! 2017 - Show Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for BET

Tiffany Haddish didn’t need to host Saturday Night Live to validate her stratospheric year, but the comic clearly enjoyed having the show as a platform for her victory lap. Of the season’s five hosts to date, Haddish seemed the most overjoyed to be in Studio 8H—even though, as she admitted in her monologue, Haddish wasn’t in SNL’s target demographic growing up. “You have no ideas how difficult it is to get a bunch of black and Hispanic kids to watch SNL over In Living Color,” Haddish cracked to an enthusiastic audience having a much easier time of things than when Larry David tried to get them to laugh at the Holocaust a week ago. “Trying to convince them that Dana Carvey was just as funny as Damon Wayans was a problem. I got stabbed twice, y’all.”

The joke was a sly nod to the fact that the Girls Trip breakout star doesn’t fit the conventional mold for what has traditionally been a lily-white show. Haddish technically isn’t the first black female comedian to host (former cast member Maya Rudolph returned in 2012 to take a turn in the driver’s seat), but the fact that the erroneous statistic was passed around so frequently this week speaks volumes in itself. In SNL’s 43-year history, only 12 black women have ever hosted, full stop. This is also a show that, in the not-very-distant past, awkwardly held auditions exclusively for black female performers after its typical hiring process failed to organically staff even one following Rudolph’s departure more than half a decade before. Haddish’s presence suggests the climate at SNL may be starting to change. More importantly, however, her gig alongside musical guest Taylor Swift testifies to the magnitude of her charisma. Haddish has an undeniable star power that dominated the night through sheer force of will. Who else would be able to get away with strutting through the Weekend Update set for no particular reason while Chris Redd introduced her as “your queen,” Coming to America style?

Haddish is a stand-up comedian, not a trained actress, making the monologue the predictable highlight of her night. In a compact six minutes, Haddish breezed through jokes about President Donald Trump’s lace front, repeating outfits, and sexual harassment—“Listen, fellas: If you got your thang-thang out and she got all her clothes on, YOU’RE WRONG!”—with the confidence of someone who’s been working crowds for going on two decades, as the 37-year-old Haddish has. Even in sketches, however, Haddish maintained her personality rather than gamely blending into the ensemble, starting with the Mortal Kombatstyle “Tournament Fighter,” in which Haddish played the wise yet ineffective character Boo Boo Jeffries. When you fight, you do lose ... except in a video game.

Throughout the night, Haddish continued to essentially play herself. On a celebrity-forging stage like SNL, though, that’s not an insult to Haddish’s thespian skills; it’s a sign that the writers knew enough to simply get out of her way and let the woman flex. Besides, as fellow stand-ups Pete Davidson and Leslie Jones have shown—plus Good Neighbor’s Kyle Mooney, who’s managed to turn his fictional relationship with Jones into a running dramedy-within-a-comedy—playing yourself is as reliable a path as any to making waves on SNL these days. That’s the premise of “The Last Black Unicorn,” in which Haddish’s line readings embellish some truly depressing fortune telling (“If you ain’t gettin’ it in, you gettin’ it out, if you know what I mean”), and “The Dolphin Who Learned to Speak,” a delightfully puerile sketch about jerking off an animal “for the science,” elevated to a new plane by Haddish’s raised eyebrows and repeated line “you nasty.”

Haddish’s ultimate show of force, however, came in the final sketch of the night. The long-running “Whiskers R We” mini-franchise is historically Kate McKinnon’s domain, an opportunity for SNL’s reigning MVP to prove how she earned that title as she plays an obsessive cat lady opposite a rotating roster of clingy girlfriends. This time, however, Haddish went toe-to-toe with McKinnon’s Barbara DeDrew, ad-libbing “I got the pussy!” as two live cats threatened to escape on air and, for the first time I can remember, making McKinnon break character.

Typically, of course, it’s the other way around, with McKinnon cracking up, say, Ryan Gosling. I couldn’t have envisioned a better symbolic demonstration of Haddish’s comedic abilities to end the night than the MC jovially beating McKinnon at her own game. (Haddish still had more ground to break: In the goodbyes, she became possibly the first guest host in SNL history to thank her social worker.) Haddish might not have needed SNL to validate her remarkable success, but her appearance made for a lovely grace note. Now we just need to work on that Oscar nomination.