[Caution: Spoilers ahead.]
The presidential race has been good to “Saturday Night Live” this year, so it’s fitting that the show’s 41st season finale opened this week with another dig at White House aspirants.
The “cold open” was an elaborate allegory of the continuing competition for the Democratic nomination, where Kate McKinnon‘s Hillary Clinton and Larry David‘s Bernie Sanders were staying at the bar past last call. The two traded barbs and shared secrets that weren’t quite so secret. That included Hillary’s confession, “I don’t really like people. I only talk to them because I wanna be the president so bad.” The sketch ended with the two of them waltzing to “The Nutcracker Suite” through thick clouds of dream-sequence dry ice.
There was political humor elsewhere too: As usual in recent months, the first few minutes of “Weekend Update” revolved around co-anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che dissing Donald Trump. The best of the lot: Jost commenting on the NRA endorsing Trump and then comparing the presumed GOP candidate to a gun, because we might think he will keep us safe, but he could very well end up killing us.
This week’s show marked a return of former cast member Fred Armisen as host, so the program was rife with new twists on old jokes and welcome cameos from cast members of Armisen’s long tenure, including Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis and Maya Rudolph.
Beginning with his monologue, Armisen was awesomely irreverent, with an excerpt of a supposed one-man show titled, “Love from New York, I Did Saturday’s Right.” The sendup of one-man shows combined the “Family Guy”‘s treatment of how ridiculous it can be for one person to do so many different voices within the short span of time with meta moments reminiscent of the “Mr. Show” sketch, “The Audition.” But the formula also included Armisen’s personal touch, which is that irresistible sweetness and gentle mockery of clichés.
The irreverence continued with a sketch involving three actors from the Albany Educational Theatre Festival, offering their take on the adventures of Lewis and Clarke (and Cecily Strong‘s sexy Sacagawea) to a high school class. The bit was funny in its heightening of perversions but it was a bit too one-note for such early placement in the show.
Next up was a digital short featuring Andy Samberg‘s Conner4Real character, who will have his feature film debut next week. The song, “F– Bin Laden,” was reminiscent of the old days of the SNL Digital Short, but it seemed almost inappropriate to have Samberg play the lead role in this video during Armisen’s hosting gig. That said, the line, “”Invade my cave with your special unit” will ensure that this sketch is shared via social media next week, and (if Samberg gets his wish) that a lot of people buy tickets to his movie.
Jason Sudeikis made a cameo as a friend who brought a new date to a party of old friends. The date was Armisen in drag, a role he has always played well. The game of the sketch was that Armisen’s character offers controversial commentary and that her “body is like a harp” that only Sudeikis knows how to play. Sudeikis keeps saying “watch what happens when I …” and Armisen’s character writhes around in ecstasy, as he either kisses her neck or touches behind her ear, and makes every guest at the party extremely uncomfortable. The character’s combo of confrontation and lewdness was lethal, so much so that Vanessa Bayer and Aidy Bryant broke character a few times.
“Farewell Mr. Bunting” was a pre-filmed sketch, that began by reverently paying homage to the famous “O Captain, My Captain” moment from “Dead Poets Society,” but then the sketch took a hilariously grotesque turn, and then kept taking that turn again and again.
On “Weekend Update,” Maya Rudolph turned in a killer cameo as troubled Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, drinking a daiquiri and smoking a cigar, and coping quite well with her country’s senate giving her an impeachment vote. Also on “Update,” Kenan Thompson brought back his Willie character, whose personal anecdotes are miserable yet hysterically optimistic.
Musical guest Courtney Barnett brought good loud indie rock back to the “SNL” stage with both “Nobody Really Cares if You Don’t Go to the Party” and “Pedestrian at Best.” Not only does she bring good rock back to indie music, but even if you’re not familiar with her material, you can tell she is skilled at titling songs (and albums) humorously, in the tradition of the best Modest Mouse material. Though, it is a tremendous missed opportunity that she didn’t expose late night America to the beautiful songwriting achievement that is “Depreston.”
Armisen shined in a sketch about a spaceship tragedy where only one crew member could survive. He kept picking options for pampering in his escape pod, while the team he was leaving behind to die had to just stand there and watch.
It was also great to see the return of a sketch about the Woodbridge High School Theater Showcase, the ensemble piece about self-righteous students who try to make the audience uncomfortable.
Armisen’s “Portlandia” partner Carrie Brownstein made a cameo in the evening’s final sketch, a musical number parodying Southern rock. Armisen has done great things by combining music and comedy, but as can often be the case with this combo, too much attention is paid to the music, and not enough to the comedy.
One critical note: It was surprising that Armisen wouldn’t reprise at least one of the characters he made famous during his 11-year tenure on the show. I have to say I’m especially disappointed that he didn’t choose to revisit Rodger Brush, the sexual therapist substitute with hearing problems and a narrow mind. But in the end, it’s to his credit that he chose to challenge himself by not resting too much on his own history. Although the show did rely heavily on the cameos from “SNL” alums, it retained the feel of old friends unexpectedly showing up at the party.