However painfully belated the Democrats’ formal push toward impeachment may seem to you, the Ukraine fiasco arrived at the perfect time for Saturday Night Live. The premiere of the show’s 45th season waited less than 30 seconds to get Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on the phone with Kate McKinnon as Rudy Giuliani, a fall tradition every bit as reliable and increasingly underwhelming as pumpkin-spice lattes and Nebraska down 38 at the half. SNL is back, baby, with Billie Eilish (yes!) and Woody Harrelson (sure!) as last night’s musical guest and host, respectively. And if you need more fresh faces, and you do, writer turned new featured player Bowen Yang waited only a few minutes to get in on the action, reprising his role as Kim Jong Un and delivering his very first line as an official cast member, and what an auspicious line it was indeed.
SNL had a mixed offseason—specifically, a handful of positive-to-neutral developments nobody remembers mixed with the show’s hiring and immediate firing of Shane Gillis, who was set to join Yang and Chloe Fineman as this year’s designated rookies until a string of racist and homophobic comments he’d made as recently as 2018 triggered a public outcry. His tenure lasted four days, and the debate over whether his dismissal was a moral necessity or a gutless cancel culture travesty raged on, and that debate is, of course, the least funny thing you can imagine. Though Baldwin-as-Trump, at this point, is up there, even if in last night’s cold open he did make an offhand reference to “that little girl Teriyaki 6ix9ine.”
The show is still stuck lampooning the Trump years in all their excruciating absurdity with the uneasy knowledge that it’s a major player, and a major target, in the resulting culture wars. Harrelson made for a fine host, really, coming out for his monologue in a tuxedo that he immediately ripped off to reveal some gaudy pajamas as a way of spoofing his terrible fashion sense. (“I usually play murderers or the people they murder,” he added; look for Harrelson next month in Zombieland: Double Tap.) He proceeded to tell a string of deliberately awkward jokes about immigrants and foreigners (“I can say this because I’m Asian—Caucasian”) and the ill-advisedness of the word pussyfoot and so forth, a meta-commentary on how thorny and impossible political comedy has gotten according to most political comedians. It’s going to be a long year, for everybody.
One commercial break later, Harrelson was back as Joe Biden, delivering one of the better jokes of the night, and one of the best illustrations of this outrage-driven conundrum: “I’m like plastic straws. I’ve been around forever, I’ve always worked—now you’re mad at me?”
Indeed, the longest and most elaborate sketch of the night was an “impeachment town hall” of Democratic presidential candidates that flaunted various impressions we’ll spend the 45th season of SNL repeatedly enjoying to the point of exhaustion. We got McKinnon as Elizabeth Warren (“I have the energy of a mother of five boys who all play a different sport”) to Larry David back in the mix as Bernie Sanders to, most effectively, Maya Rudolph as Kamala Harris. As for the Democratic undercard, it was a string of one-liners per candidate, the jokes ranging from half-decent (Marianne Williamson, “appearing live via astral projection”) to please-drop-out-soon uninspired (Pete Buttigieg’s name is hard to pronounce). Bowen Yang, in fact, got to play Andrew Yang. We’ll thus be spending way too much time with several of these characters. Adjust your rooting interest in the polls accordingly.
Given the offstage controversy and intra-cast intrigue, Weekend Update was a surprisingly brief and muted affair, with only one guest (Keenan Thompson as David Ortiz, contrasting medical care in the Dominican Republic and Boston) and only a few haymakers: “I’m sorry to be a grammar Nazi,” Colin Jost announced, addressing Trump’s hyphen tweet. “I know you hate one of those things.”
The non-political sketches—Harrelson as the proprietor of the World’s Biggest Cheeto Museum, Harrelson as a high school football coach whose penis keeps making Donald Duck noises (don’t ask), Harrelson as the creepy maintenance guy at an apple farm—all felt like attempts to kill time between Trump excursions. Indeed, Harrelson got really excited only when it was time to introduce his musical guest, known consecutively as “The Incomparable Billie Eilish” and “The Wonderful Billie Eilish.” (She sounded fine—any wobbliness only added to the creepiness—performing “Bad Guy” while dancing on the ceiling, and “I Love You” planted on a stool to maximize the extra-creepy silence.)
Draw your own conclusions from the fact that the funniest thing to happen during the SNL season premiere was definitely not supposed to happen. The setup—Harrelson, Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong, and Keenan Thompson as wonks on a political talk show, with everyone but Thompson comically convinced that this will be the scandal that brings Trump down—was not terribly promising. (“Ain’t nothin’ gonna happen,” Thompson kept repeating, like the SNL-skit version of the “Ah! Well. Nevertheless” tweet.) The joke was that the talk show kept flashing back to earlier episodes in which the wonks predicted Trump’s demise based on earlier scandals, which required the wonks to keep changing clothes for those flashbacks, and halfway through, some poor SNL stagehand got caught dead-center-stage tugging at Bryant’s sleeve, and Bryant thus spent the rest of the skit giggling uncontrollably.
Spoiler alert on SNL: Aidy Bryant just lost it...total comedy meltdown after a wardrobe lady made an unintentional cameo. pic.twitter.com/3aUXnTi9jd— Legman25 (@Tommyloveslegs) September 29, 2019
And so the purest moment of comedy was a fairly colossal and totally delightful screwup amid the 20,000th sketch about the Groundhog Day hellscape that is SNL (and every other comedy outlet, to be fair) attempting to break new comedic ground in the Trump era. After the Gillis fiasco, the stakes are higher, but the larger and far more vexing problem is that we’re stuck with the same old caricatures that can barely keep pace with the real-live humans being caricatured. This season, root for anarchy, or at least the tinier moments of vibrant weirdness. Eilish and Rudolph spent most of the curtain call entranced by each others’ hair. They could’ve kept it up for 20 minutes. Which would at least have been something you haven’t seen 20 times before.