Aubrey Plaza Brings Some Welcome Chaos to a Solid Saturday Night LivePhoto by Rosalind O'Connor/NBC Comedy Reviews Saturday Night Live
And Your Host…
You just knew she’d kill it. Aubrey Plaza set the tone with one of the best week-of commercial promos a few days ago, alternately menacing and enticing an increasingly rattled Chloe Fineman with her intense impersonations and even more intense proclamation of her simmering insanity. In her monologue tonight, the Emily the Criminal and The White Lotus star looked out at her adoring audience as if she wanted to take a big, bloody bite, and brought her signature, singularly strange energy to this energetic 2023 Saturday Night Live return.
Famously, Plaza worked as an NBC page in her younger and, according to Plaza, more irresponsible years, so her being saddled with the old “Studio 8H tour” monologue actually had some legs. “Danny, how are you—are you still a little bitch?,” Plaza coos to one stagehand, before reminiscing that the SNL set design team are a bunch of perverts. (“And I’m a freak,” Plaza adds for emphasis.) She hangs up on a call from Lorne’s buddy Sir Paul McCartney, regales the crowd with tales of youthful sloth and drunkenness, and lifts the visiting Amy Poheler’s wallet. (“That’s my girl!,” beams Plaza’s former Parks and Recreation boss.)
Plaza, all night, made good on her monologue promise that, her sarcastic schtick aside, she actually cares about her first, long dreamt-of hosting gig. Plaza was weird, and lively, and utterly present, striking sparks even in some so-so sketches with her commitment and her fearsome comic energy. Shrugging off a presidential pre-tape from none other than fellow, slightly less popular Delaware native Joe Biden, Plaza played her favorite role of agent of chaos, and the show was the better for it.
The Best And The Rest
The Best: “The Black Lotus” might have been a predictable switcheroo, what with Aubrey Plaza in the house and the acclaimed HBO series’ second season having just come to its shocking end. (Biden spoils the fact that Plaza’s Harper makes it out alive.) Still, the concept is solid, as the Black-owned luxury hotel, unlike the two resorts seen on the actual show, brooks literally no shenanigans from its wealthy white clientele. Chloe Fineman does her fine Jennifer Coolidge, while Kenan Thompson and Ego Nwodim’s employees shut down any and all white nonsense with a head-shaking abruptness. “Oh, he gon’ kill her,” Nwodim and Kenan note sagely after a wealthy layabout couple announces their isolated travel plans, while Plaza’s Latinx bartender leaps out to smack the attitude right out of snotty Andrew Dismukes once he makes the mistake of putting his hands on Thompson. Everybody sells the bit perfectly (“Will your friend be joining us, or is he still upstairs fucking your wife,” Punkie Johnson’s server snaps to one sad sack), and the idea that this particular hotel isn’t here for any of your foolishness is a simple premise that clicks.
The Worst: This is a tough one, since, even in some “meh” material, Plaza found weirdo laughs. The commercial for an HIV drug hinged on the same joke, repeated (Devon Walker’s actor keeps ad-libbing that he’s not gay), but there was Plaza as the commercial director, noting in an aside that she wants to get the shot done before her salad gets cold. “It’s a hot salad, okay?,” isn’t necessary, but it’s funny as hell, and Plaza’
The Rest: Perhaps the finest showcase for what an Aubrey Plaza can bring to your sketch comedy show came in the game night sketch, where she and Mikey Day, as the new neighbors in town, quickly revealed the yawning horror that is their relationship and home life. The facts pile up quickly: Plaza’s wife buys a lot of guns, drops acid, is banned from more states than Day has time to run through, and was, on the night the pair met, simultaneously on ketamine, parole, and fire. This sort of social awkwardness setup can get predictable, but it’s Plaza’s little grunts of mounting excitement as she and Day gleefully lay out their shared madness that power the couple’s back-and-forth with unnerving, dangerous comic energy.
Same goes for the Miss Universe sketch. Now, since I’m not an inveterate beauty pageant watcher, I’m going to go ahead and assume that the sketch’s depiction of the contestants’ bellowing responses to host Kenan’s questions is drawn from reality? [Editor’s note: it is.] Regardless, it’s Plaza again, as her Miss France plasters on a glassy-eyed stare and smile, and shrieks out what could be either “France!” or “Frog!” at every opportunity, and eventually wanders into Kenan’s shot, her frozen mask of Stepford pageant blankness, again, genuinely unnerving in her commitment. Toss in a few absurd touches (the three judges are the visiting Property Brothers and skateboarder Tony Hawk), and Molly Kearney’s Danish entrant predicting her own skydiving death (her talent is skydiving), and this is funnier than it has any right to be.
And then there’s the nuns sketch, which—wait for it—is enlivened immeasurably by Plaza’s laser focused intensity as the “funny nun” whose recent near-death experience involving a hairdryer in the bath has left her faith completely shattered. As Molly Kearney’s sister attempts to steer their Catholic school announcements to safer ground, Plaza’s haunted nun blurts out, “I died for two minutes and now I’m questioning everything!,” before telling the students that all is now permitted, including stealing, murder “and sixty-ninin’.” (Plaza is also doing a creditable Irish accent, which helps sell the bit even more.) As with several other sketches tonight, there could have been a little more energy spent on an ending, but Kearney’s rousing rendition of a number from A Star Is Born (Plaza’s nun’s favorite movie) makes a bid for a character moment that almost redeems it.
Even the Avatar sketch sort of worked for me. (It’s no Papyrus, but it’ll do.) First, and echoing Plaza’s appreciation for those set designer perverts, I have to give it up for the studio magic involved in turning almost the entire cast James Cameron blue for the piece. The intro and outro clearly showed how some clever lighting/filtering tricks saved everyone involved from time-consuming all-body makeup. Apart from that, the gag that Heidi Gardner and Plaza are the obvious human spies in the Na’vi’s midst, while nothing special, gave the two actors a change to clown around infectiously. Sporting the decidedly unimpressive names of Vicky and Christine, and wearing basketball shorts rather than loincloths are a few clues, while their constant vaping seems destined out out them as the “butch ladies from Arizona” the tribe had been warned about. I’ll leave the Avatar-specific analysis to fans (look, I just don’t have that sort of time, and Dances With Wolves already bummed me out back in the day), but just allow for the fact that Kenan can make me laugh just by vamping on the name “Jake Sully” for what felt like a beat too long.
On the dying, troll-riddled ship that is Elon Musk’s Twitter, I confess to seeing some scuttlebutt that killer doll movie M3GAN (which I’m going to pronounce “Mthreegan” in grammatical protest) has become a Babadook-style unintentional gay icon, so I’ll cede the pre-tape’s premise. Chloe Fineman and Plaza make a couple of genuinely creepy dollies, here going all-in on the demographics by setting the sequel in a raucous gay club. The biggest laugh, though, comes from a visiting Allison Williams of all people, her Mthreegan character’s dire warnings cut off by the worshipful club goers’ appreciation for her Girls’ character’s adventures in anilingus. Here’s to SNL pushing the boat out on Bowen Yang’s line, “Mama, if you’re getting your ass ate on TV, you’re an ally, sis.”
Weekend Update update
The big splash tonight comes from Plaza and Amy Poehler reprising their Parks and Rec characters of April Ludgate and Leslie Knope, respectively. It’s the sort of stunt that usually raises my hackles, but, hell, I love these characters, these actors, and Parks and Recreation, so I thought the whole thing was delightful. Plaza slips April’s sullen strangeness on like a well-worn hoodie, while Poehler’s Leslie, rejecting several of Jost’s jokes as too mean, happily delivers one about a puppy bus, to the delight of everyone with a functioning heart. Poehler makes a joke about being behind the Update desk, recalling the time when “Seth Meyers did it by himself with no one else” before taking Jost’s chair, reminding us of just how great she was as co-anchor. And while Parks and Rec ended when it should have (some grumps say after it should have), having Leslie Knope’s sunny, indefatigable optimism once more on my screen made me happy.
Jost and Che were sharp and energized, whacking around easy targets with a deft enough spin to score some points on the likes of series GOP liar George Santos (if that is his real name), Donald Trump’s ongoing latest sexual assault trial, and a reemerging Kevin Spacey. The pair stick and move, and if (as I’ve complained until literally everyone wants to throw things at me), Jost and Che could go a whole lot more sophisticated and pointed with their topical material, they do what they do as well as any Update anchors ever have.
Check the politics report for the other correspondent piece that will have the Sunday shows buzzing tomorrow.
“Next time you interrupt a woman in my courtroom, we gonna send you off to a lighthouse crawlin’ with gators!!”—Recurring Sketch Report
“Our first guest is an American brave enough to stand up and say, ‘Screw you, science, I know Joe Rogan!’”—Political Comedy Report
I had no earthly idea what that NFL cold open was doing. Mediocre impressions all around (Devon Walker’s gap-toothed Michael Strahan was the closest thing to an actual impersonation), an abortive gag about the animated Fox football robot gaining sentience, and the whole thing sputtered along in utter inconsequence. (I suppose it was ambitious to recap a game that finished mere minutes before the live broadcast, for what that’s worth.) That the real joke was Bowen Yang’s George Santos making outlandish claims as the broadcast’s sideline reporter made no sense from a sketch logic standpoint, I guess, but it was some prime Bowen, his drolly fibbing Republican laying claim to lofty gridiron feats and other assorted bullshit. (In an aside, how incompetent was the New York Democratic Party to lose to this clown, and the New York press—with one local, completely ignored exception—to let Santos’ serial chicanery go unchallenged.)
Anyway, the unfolding spectacle of a multifarious grifter not only winning a seat in congress (he can “vote on wars” notes Mikey Day’s Howie Long, incredulously), but receiving support—and powerful committee appointments—from the GOP hierarchy is irresistible stuff for SNL, especially considering Santos’ unearthed past as a Brazilian drag queen. (Santos, after denying the photographic proof for days, finally admitted that’s him in the makeup right around showtime Saturday.) The sight of Yang’s Santos coming back out in his finery as “Kitara” (just one of Santos’ known aliases) is a cheap laugh, sure, and SNL certainly could do a hell of a lot more about the indefensible Republican hypocrisy of holding onto Santos’ seat with a handwave while simultaneously pursuing nationwide persecution of drag performers (part of a broader attack on LGBTQI+ rights) with thuggish bigotry.
Well, maybe next time, as Yang’s Santos, who appeared telling more whoppers on Update later in the show, got aired out mainly for being the biggest liar in Washington. (Which is truly some feat.) More about performance, Yang’s Santos is a precise, slimy bit of characterization, Santos’ mulish unwillingness to accept defeat even in the face of irrefutable proof giving Yang ample chance to do his thing. More absurd elements, like Santos taking a supposed call from Madonna on his Covid test strip livens up the bit, which is good. Republicans being Republicans, it’s likely Yang will have a recurring character for a ludicrously long run.
Not Ready For Prime Time Power Rankings
With the second half of Season 48 underway, it’s time for people to make their move in the wake of some high-profile departures. I’m liking the ensemble feel of this cast, but SNL needs a few sluggers at the heart of the order as a rule, and there’s still a power vacuum there. Kenan is Kenan, and it’s nice to see Bowen coming to life again after a lull. Sarah Sherman is more of an outlier (I was surprised she and Plaza didn’t do much together), and pretty much everyone here can carry a sketch if given a chance. Not that it’s a competition, but there’s room for someone to vault into the lead.
Anytime you get a slam-dunk political figure is a good night on SNL, so here’s to Bowen in the top spot. Devon Walker was a little shaky, but he did claim two meaty roles with some success, finally outpacing his other newbies. Molly Kearney continues to edge ahead, though, even if I’m not yet sold on their performing style. And I do appreciate how larger sketches are being filled out with most of the cast getting even small roles. Even on a show with some high-profile drop-ins, I saw everybody in the mix.
“I told her that we had an indoor pool. I lied, Rick! Cover for meee! Cover for me Riiiick!”—10 To One Report
After April Ludgate made an appearance tonight, it’s only right that Plaza appeared to resurrect Janet Snakehole for her femme fatale role in the black-and-white detective film noir about a bombshell who’s really into old men. Lines about her soon-deceased suitors ability to “stink up a chair” and their cough-tasting kisses are delivered in prime 1940s patter, while James Austin Johnson plays the clipped and doomed tough guy with impeccable period banter. Toss in a return from Sharon Stone as Plaza’s mother with a thing for guys with big noses (“Of course a knockout like you walks in the night before my rhinoplasty,” drawls Johnson’s private dick), and some more oddball lines seemingly inspired by having Aubrey Plaza in the building, and this one worked for me on every, weirdo level.
Always great to see Akira “Leo” Yoshimura get a cameo (and he’s not even playing Sulu this time out.) Fun fact: the master set designer has been with the show longer than anyone, even Lorne Michaels, Yoshimura being one of the few crew members who remained right through the Jean Doumanian and Dick Ebersol years.
Say what you want about Sam Smith, but neither number tonight was predictable. If you thought Kim Petras emerging unexpectedly from beneath Smith’s enormous, furry petticoats was a jaw-dropper, then seeing an unannounced Sharon Stone wordlessly performing along to Smith and a monastic choir in full-on thespian’s rapture slammed home the idea that a great SNL musical guest can sometimes be about the spectacle.
Dammit if Plaza didn’t even add a little zing to her musical introductions.
Why does Saturday Night Live consider it necessary to have a character patiently explain that the silly part of their sketch is, indeed, very silly? And why is it almost always Mikey Day?
Next week: Michael B. Jordan hosts! Musical guest, Lil Baby.
Dennis Perkins is an entertainment writer who lives in Maine with his wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, (Special Agent Dale) Cooper. His work has appeared in places like The A.V. Club, Ultimate Classic Rock, and the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. You can find him on Twitter, where he will anger you with opinions, and Instagram, where you will be won back over by pictures of Special Agent Dale Cooper.