Austin Butler Sings a Lovely Farewell To an SNL All-Star on a Funny, Warm Holiday-Themed Saturday Night Live

Comedy Reviews Saturday Night Live
Share Tweet Submit Pin
Austin Butler Sings a Lovely Farewell To an SNL All-Star on a Funny, Warm Holiday-Themed Saturday Night Live

And Your Host…

I love a pleasant surprise. And not being a regular viewer of Nickelodeon for quite some time now, I missed much of Elvis star Austin Butler’s career to this point. I may get to Elvis some day, but since the musical biopic genre bats around .175 as a rule for me, maybe not. (Have none of these directors ever watched Walk Hard?) Still, taking the stage for this unexpectedly momentous episode, the former child star and big screen King was likable and charming right off the bat, humbly regaling the audience with tales of his crippling childhood shyness and getting teary when recalling how his late mother’s reactions to his youthful SNL impressions are what gave him the courage to actually order his own meals in restaurants (and eventually become Elvis and stuff.)

In Butler’s best outing of this holiday show, his It’s A Wonderful Life-style protagonist emotes the hell out his requisite lonely walk through a snowy Christmas Eve, the actor’s commitment to his wrenching monologue of lifelong regret the perfect counterpoint to the frozen-in-fear antics of the old-timey family he’s chosen to peep in on as they eat a seemingly ideal Christmas dinner. Butler reminds me of a James Franco without all the sex creep baggage, his brooding penchant for portraying old school coolness icons a fine vehicle for the show to play around with. Andrew Dismukes and Heidi Gardner are terrific as the prim couple plastering smiles on their faces as they debate how to deal with the apparent pervert staring intently upon their domestic bliss, and gradually unleashing some repressed period frustrations. (“Your mother stepped outside of our marriage!,” Dismukes petrified papa blurts after Gardner challenges his manhood one time too many.) The black-and-white look and the rueful holiday tone are just right, and for every blowjob joke, the piece rides Butler’s performance (along with Gardner, Dismukes, and Mikey Day as the questionably helpful angel in disguise) to become another of SNL’s exquisite Christmas special regulars.

I don’t know what sort of career the broody Butler’s going to have (he’s the not-Sting in the second part of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune), and his connection to Saturday Night Live, as feelingly as he laid it out in the monologue, might not lend itself to such a big moment to close out the show. But with SNL announcing that this would be 11-season veteran Cecily Strong’s last episode just hours before showtime, that Butler would finally bring his (casual dress) Elvis onstage to croon a bittersweet goodbye to Strong while the band played along with “Blue Christmas” and the entire cast joined in as snowflakes fell on home base felt right, too. In his own goodnight, Butler told the red-eyed Strong he was glad to have been able to meet her. It’s that big a deal that Cecily is moving on, and the bookend with lifelong SNL fan Butler getting to share the stage and say goodbye to one of all-time greats was sweet, and touching. The show tossed a curve ball when the “Jewish Elvis” set was shown being assembled during a commercial bumper (with Sarah Sherman donning the jumpsuit instead of Butler), but for his Elvis to sing off such a beloved and integral performer was a graceful and rather touching exit.

The Best And The Rest

The Best: The sappy sucker in me should give this to Cecily’s farewell song, but that gets its own sappy entry below. So I’ll choose “A Christmas Epiphany,” the It’s a Wonderful Life riff, with it’s lovingly crafted throwback vibe and a fine use of host Butler’s acting chops, coupled with a series of deftly funny editing choices contrasting Butler’s fraught assessment of his wasted life and the terrified and snippy family’s reactions thereto. I know it’s the “live” part that should carry an episode, but this was another meticulously formed little snowflake of a film.

The Worst: I liked this episode. It was just the right side of warm and funny and ensemble-led for a holiday outing, and even the sketches that just barely worked had enough of a creative, weird edge to carry them over. The white elephant sketch could have used more from Butler as the one holiday partier whose attachment to his chosen gift runs up against this stupidest and pettiest of holiday traditions when it’s swiped out from under him. (I’m with Pam when she noted how The Office’s yankee swap might more accurately be called “nasty Christmas.”) Butler’s emerging hostility (“You are a wicked little woman,” he blurts to Cecily’s partygoer after she legally swipes his ashtray/catchall), needed a little more direction and verve, but the twist, that a perfect replacement was miraculously gifted to him by Santa, and that Mikey Day’s Santa is actually Butler’s dad, gave the sketch a Christmas goose on the way out the door.

The Rest: Marzipan, what is it? According to the hilariously overproduced musical paean to this “mostly almond almost-candy,” it’s every Victorian tot’s favorite holiday treat, its mealy, nutty near-goodness enticing enough that Bowen Yang’s young enthusiast can only scream in maniacal glee whenever his turn comes up in the rotation. There are a couple of times tonight where SNL’s penchant for throwing a whole lot of time, effort, and money behind a triflingly loopy idea paid off, and fashioning an entire choreographed holiday singalong in praise of that stuff you tasted once as an unwary child and then spat into your hanky has a silly charm all its own. “Yuck, it’s perfect,” Michael Longfellow’s baker grins after tasting his latest batch, and Kenan hastily advises not eating any marzipan either 12 hours before or after sleeping. Marzipan!

“Jewish Elvis” is the other mock-lavish sketch, with the switcheroo of Sarah Sherman coming out to play a Florida retirement community’s resident, lusted-after not-Elvis serving as the biggest gag—at least until the finale features a giant toilet bowl, giant Diet Coke can, and boisterous cast singalong to Jewish Elvis’ barely there Elvis songs. (Sherman’s Elvis mostly does tired but over-the-top observational schtick.) Butler himself is in the audience, gamely decked out as the lustiest of the Jewish grandmothers in attendance, whipping off his bloomers to throw to the unimpressed Elvis. Sherman rides the incongruity of her, rather than Butler, being the big reveal of the King, her love of playing to the back row providing a brash, anti-comedic edge to what is, essentially, one overlong, borderline boorish Jewish joke. (Mocking Butler’s granny panties with a bagel and cream cheese reference is about as broad as it gets, Sherman’s gross-out eagerness the real joke.) Cecily and Ego Nwodim do some nice character work as the other doting grannies, and the overdone dopiness of the whole enterprise had its own dumb charm.

Chloe Fineman does a creditable Jennifer Coolidge, and her Christmas commercial as the White Lotus star essentially just plays off of one of Coolidge’s existing holiday ads, presenting the actress as the spaced-out weirdo airhead that’s become her stock-in-trade. It’s funny enough (“Did you write that?,” Fineman’s Coolidge asks pianist Michael Longfellow as he tinkles out “Jingle Bells”), even if it’s something of a hat on a hat, premise-wise. The career-resurgent Coolidge herself plays up her onscreen characters’ usual dimness for laughs, so simply playing the “Jennifer Coolidge is dim” card doesn’t display much effort. Still, Fineman needs more airtime to show off her skills, so I’ll allow it.

My pleas for SNL to ditch game show (and talk show) sketches for a few seasons has fallen on deaf ears, but this one wasn’t bad for what it was. With Butler’s contestant inexplicably guessing more and more complex phrases with barely a clue to go on, Punkie Johnson and Heidi Gardner’s understandably angry and suspicious rivals call cheating. (“He has a device in his ass like that chess player!”). But Butler’s explanations are funny in their clueless banality (“Well, you said it was a song, and ‘Hotel California’ is a song, so I thought maybe it was ‘Hotel California.’”) That’s the main joke, but everyone involved finds just enough ancillary character weirdness to keep things moving, with Johnson’s stumped stalling “Mama… mama said that, um, mama well, mamma kidda mama didda…) a nice piece of business, and James Austin Johnson taking to his hosting duties with an almost Hader-like malicious smugness. It’s fine, but I’m just sayin’, give the whole game show format a break, see what comes up instead. I laughed most at the start, when Gardner’s contestant rightly sums up the knockoff game as “like Wheel of Fortune without the wheel,” much to Johnson’s chagrin.

The Please Don’t Destroy guys have done better elsewhere, but this was worth a chuckle, as their labored pitch to visiting host Butler for a line of hazardously hot and ungainly plastic clothing picks up a bit of momentum as it goes. I don’t know if their pitch for a “Taraji P. Jim Henson” sketch will ever make it out of their cramped office, but with other cast members cramming in there to help sell the “plirt” (plastic shirt), “plants,” “plat,” and guest Lizzo’s “planties” the guys’ penchant for increasingly frantic absurdity (“We Googled you, we know you have enough money!”) is as amusing as ever, even winning over Butler, who ultimately models the shapeless, toxic finery. Favorite line: Martin, sweatily pleading for Butler’s patronage, “We make $30 a video!”

Weekend Update update

Jost and Che didn’t have much time to play around this week, as there were three extended correspondent pieces crowding out their news takes. What there was zipped by without much impact on this last Update of 2022. Jost’s Trump NFT zinger about the fantastical portraits including a soldier-clad Trump dressed as “someone who didn’t dodge the draft” was about as snippy as things got.

Of the three pieces, Cathy Anne gets her own entry down below. Bowen Yang’s elaborately decked out Krampus was another of his offbeat characterizations, with the legendary, child-snatching Christmas demon spending his desk time cattily complaining of ennui and stereotyping, all while dropping offhand confessions about his horrifying profession. “You eat kids?,” asks a horrified Jost. “Don’t worry about it,” breezes Krampus. As with his Titanic iceberg and his Oompa-Loompa, Yang’s Krampus is a portrait of gay-coded kvetching, dropping illuminating quotes from everyone from Brené Brown to SZA to the demon Azazel (cue Yang speaking in tongues) to prop up his litany of complaints. The biggest laugh was unintentional, as one of Yang’s quite impressive Karmus horns fell off midway through his rant, Yang deftly explaining, “I’m sick.”

Heidi Gardner had possibly the most fun I can recall in her piece as Colin Jost’s airily boozy and questionably proper Great Aunt Pat, imperiously correcting Jost’s manners when not ringing for her butler for the night, Mikey Day. (“I’m barely in any sketches this week,” explains Day sheepishly before acting as the grand dame’s lipstick applier and dutiful pawing victim.) Gardner is in a position, with Strong’s exit, to take a major leap, and she’s never felt more relaxed than here, Pat’s tipsy groping and leg-kicking enthusiasm turning the bit into a deeply funny and affectionate cast effort in this last show of an exhausting 2022. “I’m recurring!,” the pushy Pat insists after instructing Day to apply lipstick to her nephew with his own heavily smeared mouth. I wouldn’t mind.

“How could anyone think whites are supreme anyway? I’m white, okay, and whenever I wake up in a dumpster behind IKEA, I never think, ‘Wow, score one for the master race.’”—Recurring Sketch Report

One more Cathy Anne for the road. In my head, I keep a running tally of the recurring bits that never got old for me. (For the record: Herb Welch, Stefon, Get in the Cage, Jeanine Pirro, maybe a few others.) I always forget about Michael Che’s gabbling, disheveled, indefatigable neighbor Cathy Anne until the moment she wheels out behind the Update desk, but then I remember to add Cecily Strong’s battered but unbowed trouper to the list. Part of it’s just the commitment in Strong’s performance, Cathy Anne’s malaprop-dropping, slushy, consonant-swallowing cadence a little miracle of characterization. But it’s the conceit of a bird’s eye view from the very bottom that does it. Cathy Anne, with her litany of dependency issues and legal run-ins, can’t sink any lower, but she keeps bobbing back up, Strong’s no-bullshit takes on cultural and political injustices and outrages seeming to come from a primal place where right is right and the alt-right ain’t worth a damn.

Here, her final appearance doubles for Strong’s, with the famously unbreakable actress letting her character’s inimitable voice slip only when Cathy Anne tells Che that “so many of the best times of [her] life” were spent on the show. Apparently all those years spent confessing to various crimes alongside her political takes have caught up with her, with the unsinkable Cathy Anne shrugging off her impending life sentence with the knowingness of the perennial underdog. (She also shows a picture of the friends she has waiting for her—recent fellow exits Kate and Aidy, shown wearing face tats and prison orange.) Strong has utilized Update better than anybody, her (forgive me) strong personal stances expertly couched in some of the most memorable Update characters ever. Here, it’s fitting that the beleaguered but buoyant Cathy Anne would get the final bow, her ability to soldier on in the face of a world of unending, unfair crap a fitting capper to an SNL run so multifaceted and graceful that it’s often overlooked. Going into the back half of this season, it’s only going to become more evident how much the show’s lost.

“I just wanna take this opportunity to say hi to my superfans out there: mean, horny men lying on in-home hospital beds, and white prison gangs who control the remote on Saturdays.”—Political Comedy Report

James Austin Johnson’s Trump opened the show for the first time in a while, and while I’m as tired as everyone else of the requisite nature of a Trump cold open, the release of the former steak salesman and recently convicted tax fraud’s “MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT” release of a set of overpriced boondoggle NFT’s of Trump hastily photoshopped into superhero and cowboy duds is as good an excuse as any. I’m on record as vastly preferring Johnson’s Trump to any of the show’s done before—it’s an expressionistic impression that’s also technically brilliant. That said, SNL has always had trouble finding much more to say about the somehow not-arrested seditionist’s daily sluiceway of babbling, bigoted nonsense than to seize upon the most recent outflow and plop a few so-so gags into it.

The device of having Trump Sykpe in to in-progress Fox programs like some sort of deranged weatherman freshened things up a bit, but here, Johnson’s Trump holds down the cold open on his own (minus a visit from Mikey Day’s “third-least embarrassing child” Don, Jr. and Strong’s bellowing Kimberly Guilfoyle), and the sketch sputters. A great technical impression needs an animating internal premise, otherwise even the most spot-on impersonation can fall flat. (Just ask Jay Pharoah’s Obama.) Johnson brought such a fully-formed Trump with him to SNL, the focus on Trump’s discursive, self-obsessed, rambling speaking style a way in that the show has only intermittently used anywhere near as well as Johnson did in the viral videos that landed him the gig. As ever, the jokes are all surface-level, mocking the dictator-aping iconography of Trumps’ NFT’s by, somehow, finding even dumber ways to pump up Trump’s ego through digital pandering. But, as ever, SNL doesn’t bother to lift up the rock and shine light on some of the squirmier (and admittedly harder-to-parody) implications of Trump’s latest low-rent get-rich stunt. Just who bought the apparently sold-out, $99 images that Johnson’s Trump admits in an aside could simply be copy-pasted for free online? And how (just blue-skying here) might a disgraced, money-grubbing, conscienceless former president with a cache of purloined classified government secrets launder millions of dollars from foreign interests through an outwardly laughable NFT scam? You know, stuff like that. (That’s not even mentioning the revelation that Trump’s “MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT” ego-fluffing pictures have been revealed as incompetently disguised stock photos.)

Look, we’re stuck with Donald Trump, at least until enough of the GOP decides he’s taken them as far as he can on the back of his pandering, yahoo-baiting schtick and switches to Florida’s little mini-clone governor. And Johnson does a great Trump, nobody’s denying that. It’s not his fault that this writer’s room has been aiming middle-low for so long that Johnson’s Trump appearances are greeted with wariness.

Not Ready For Prime Time Power Rankings

Cecily Strong’s been so great for so long, and in such a seamless, team player, actorly way, that she’s sometimes taken for granted. For someone so warm and sunny, Strong’s been straight-up ice on Saturday Night Live, as cool and professional and hilarious as anybody in the show’s history. Possessed of a sketch comedy toolkit bristling with possibilities, Strong could bring the house down with anything from a faux-fabulous song to a wacky but lived-in accent, to a riotous piece of physical comedy. Nobody broke her (although Bill Hader came closest), and she made every sketch she was in better. Moving on is what SNL is all about—nobody stays forever (although Kenan might be giving it a try), and the farewells tonight showed us just how fully the show recognizes her achievements, and how much she’ll be missed.

It’s the holiday show. So everybody gets second place. Now study up, people. You’ve got a big, Cecily-shaped hole to fill after the new year.

“Get the presents! Do the wrapping! Get the ribbon! Do the packing! Somehow you are always lacking, always lacking, always lacking!—10 To One Report

Here’s where we got sent out into the holiday break sniffling, and with a song in our hearts. The “Blue Christmas” singalong was (barely) framed by an unpromising looking Radio Shack holiday party sketch, until store manager Kenan (as one Mr. Frank Lasagna) almost immediately abandons any pretense and speaks directly to departing longtime employee Cecily, Strong’s longtime costar getting a hitch in his voice as he congratulates her on eight wonderful years together. (“As some of you know, this is Cecily’s last day working at Radio Shack after eight wonderful years.” “Well, I’ve been here eleven.” “I know.”) Then it’s time for Cecily’s parting gift, a performance from Butler’s Elvis as the Radio Shack set is shunted aside in favor of some exquisitely timed falling snow, and a gradual gathering of cast mates old and new, with Butler wheeling out his understatedly excellent Presley, Strong duetting with tears in her eyes. (Excuse me, I’m a sucker for this stuff.)

Anyway, while we didn’t get another sketch with Cecily and an adorable dog, the song called back to that guaranteed winner recurring motif, and sometimes Saturday Night Live can do this sort of thing just right. As the choked up Kenan summed up much better than I could, “She’d have a power and a joy in her performance that made you remember why you loved working at Radio Shack in the first place.” Indeed.

Parting Shots

Lizzo singing Stevie Wonder’s “Someday at Christmas?” SNL, you shouldn’t have. But, thanks.

Seriously, though, Lizzo is terrific.

That Cecily’s Radio Shack goodbye was staffed by oldest-serving cast member Kenan and the four new featured performers was a nice touch.

Was that the most crotch honking ever seen on Saturday Night Live? Well, Heidi and Mikey seemed to be having fun.

My mom died about a month ago. Watching Austin Butler get emotional when thinking back to how much fun it was to make his late mother laugh only emphasized how much colder and lonelier this Christmas will be, so please take the opportunity to enjoy making your mom spit eggnog out her nose, if at all possible. Happy holidays, and take care of yourselves out there. See you in 2023.

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.