My excitement for Christoph Waltz hosting SNL was tempered with some measure of fear because, as we all know, this season has been a little slumpy. Waltz is such a likable and accomplished performer that I felt concerned that the writing would fail him, that we’d watch him flailing around in a jokeless DJ Booth or helplessly stranded in The Situation Room, maybe wearing a large hat with a pair of deelyboppers on it. I would want to reach into my television and save him if it wasn’t working out. But that wasn’t the case. Maybe because of Djesus Uncrossed, maybe because of Waltz pulling off a jaunty dance while begging “Mama let me fly,” or just maybe because of seeing one of my former SNL character nemeses, Regine, get accidentally doused with a glass of what I hope was SUPER chilly white wine, this episode was probably my favorite of the season.
I would never diminish the experience of being stranded on a floating hotel with no bathrooms and food shortages, let’s get that straight, but I have been so morbidly fascinated by the uncomfortable plight of the passengers on the ill-fated Carnival Triumph that I was totally psyched to see it featured as the cold open topical launch pad. The Cruise From Hell is exactly the kind of news item SNL was made to tackle: serious enough to achieve broad familiarity but not so serious that it precluded joking about; involving an element of human folly (cruise ships) in a weird marriage with animalistic chaos (scat); and, of course, it’s the kind of thing that ignites a vicarious imaginative spark in people who dream up situations for a living. (Anyone who’s followed the press of the Triumph’s Job-like voyage has at some point probably wondered what he or she would do after a couple of days spent living in “a sauna of sewage”.) Some of the passengers started parodying their modern Sloop John B vacation even before they finally docked. It writes itself. I would have watched an entire SNL special devoted to the Carnival Triumph, which of course means I’d liked to have stuffed more material into this cold open as though it were a Turducken with infinite funny-possibility cavities, but I’ll take what I can get.
We kicked off with cruise directors Dean (Sudeikis) and Diana (Strong) in the fiesta ballroom, attempting to rally their passengers with an impromptu variety show. Ship comedian Reggie Davis (Pharoah) started his set with a Chris Rock impression, but quickly gave up when he realized he “can’t tell no more jokes, there’s dookies on the wall, man. How does dookie get on the walls?” Reggie was followed by magician Victor LeStrange (Hader), who summoned a volunteer from the audience (“How you doin’, Mike?” “Real bad”) and hypnotized him into believing he was a chicken for a few blissful moments (ah, chickens, with no shame, few hygiene needs, and who never expected a first-class holiday filled with cucumber facials and several pan-Asian dining options). Dan the Animal Man (Moynihan) and what remained of his monkey Coco (just a skeleton — those lines for the remaining sachets of cocktail mix must have been loooong) made me chuckle, as did the unraveling ship captain’s (Armisen) Michael Jackson impression, which made it clear he’d “gone insane.” Maybe there was too much going on for everything to land perfectly, but I really appreciated the pace and Kenan’s heckling throughout.
Waltz got a tremendously warm welcome, and the audience stuck with him for the remainder of the show (they’re probably one of those famous traveling crews of professional audience members, extended families whose offspring exit the womb clapping and tossing rose petals on the floor of the delivery room. You know the ones). Though his monologue was brief (he’s Austrian, not German — duly noted) and took a strange detour into a half-earnest song called “Smile, Damn You, Smile,” it did feature Taran Killam as great casual Hitler (with a sweater slung over his shoulder, he said farewell with a totes cas “biel”) and some brat jokes (“Who’s on wurst?”). Waltz’s energy was great, and though the monologue was semi-forgettable it wasn’t the kind of thing that set your mind racing down the “oh no” track. Waltz promptly made his way to the next sketch, hosting the Game Show Network’s “What Have You Become?” This one had a slow build for sure, and verged on repetitive (after warmly lulling his contestants/victims into their comfort zones by asking for their biographical trivia one-liners, he’d pose the title question as ominous music played, forcing them to reflect on their sad and inconsequential little lives) until mediocre knitter and mother Meredith (Aidy Bryant) flipped the game by asking Waltz what he’d become. “Well, a game show host,” he answered, but then he fell victim to his own evil device, battling his invisible mama to go to dancing school (“No, boy, you’ve got to go to game show school,” “Mama, no!”) and soft-shoeing his way into the credits. It was an excellent use of his Oscar-nominated mug, and I think Waltz did this sketch proud.
If you want the dessert that is Djesus Uncrossed, you must first finish this fake commercial for Papal Securities. Casting Waltz as the recently retired Pope was a brilliant move, and this sketch was really solid if a bit understated. Waltz’s papal hand gestures (offering one to Sudeikis to kiss, caressing his own face) were great, as was the image of the Pope playing in a band and wearing a Willie Nelson-esque bandana around his forehead or riding on a bike with his hat on a seat behind him. Next up was Dennis’ housewarming, in which Dennis (Waltz) hosted a party with the unfortunate invitee of Tippy the dogwalker (Pedrad), a drip who entered conversations at the midpoint, ruined stories malevolently by interrupting with her voice or her waggling eyebrows, and was drawn to other people’s laughter like an unwelcome wet moth to a bulb that exploded in her presence. I was really bummed that this was not a version of Pedrad’s teenage parent-worshipping Bedelia, which worked a lot better, but for one of the less successful skits of the night it wasn’t actually so bad. “Stories are like shooting stars,” advised Dennis, and you know what? Stories are like shooting stars. So whatever this premise lacked in jokes, it made up for in an important lesson we can take with us wherever we go.
THEN IT WAS TIME FOR DJAMMING WITH DJESUS! In the “ultimate historical revenge fantasy,” Waltz played a badass Jesus who was “preaching anything but forgiveness.” Whoever thunk up this sketch, I hope you get a nice cushy writer’s chair and a zillion dollar raise because you made my night. Armisen as a Roman soldier exclaiming “Jesus H. Christ” got schooled that “The h is silent” before his head got chopped in half; Samuel L. Jackson (Pharoah) saying “Oh shit, chill man, chill” before his guts were sent exploding into the afterlife ahead of the rest of him (“When you get to heaven, say hi to my dad”). It’s all there. Don’t worry. “I never knew how much Jesus used the n-word,” reviewed Peter Travers. Bam. It was a religious experience.
Of course there was a bit of a comedown (life isn’t all Djiamonds and rosÚ…but it should be) when the heavenly lights of Djesus dimmed and we found ourselves on a fuzzy fireside rug with Cecily Strong and Taran Killam, preparing for some easy, sexy listening. They’re a couple about to vibe while playing the tunes of the Jamarcus Brothers, two soulful brothers (Thompson and Pharoah) and their adopted, white, virginal (we knew before this was explained, it was implicit in the wig) sibling Engelbert (Waltz). Despite Strong’s claims that “if you close your eyes” you can’t tell which one is Engelbert, his lyrics (like “I’m going to listen inside your butt”) and the titles of the songs he penned (“Where Does My Penis Go? Point to Where”) might help tip you off. Waltz was more than game for this one, and his bouncing around in a raspberry crushed-velvet jacket along with Strong’s unrelenting sexy-person intensity carried this one off.
The Alabama Shakes performed “Hold On” and “Always Alright,” and though musically I thought that they nailed it (Brittany Howard is a BAMF and it was easy to understand why Jack White would lend them his stamp of approval), there was an earnestness about the set that put me a little bit on edge. It wasn’t that I needed John Mayer brooding in the corner or people dressed as dolphins lighting each other’s fins on fire or anything, but the somber “We’re here to rock, and only to rock” vibe can sometimes clash with the rest of the SNL content and suffer from a certain disjointedness. It is notable that the social media reaction to Brittany Howard seemed to get stuck on criticizing a still of her mouth looking huge — this is stupid, obviously, but at the same time it’s reflective of the fact that, Gibson-maneuvering aside, the performance seemed to downplay its own visual component. The bassist bobbed his hatted head, and I thought, “I enjoy this more if I close my eyes and imagine I’m at a concert somewhere greedily sucking down a contact high and staring at a large inflatable ball cruising through the crowd just over some interesting hairdos.” My notes read: “Just jammin’.” You know me. I like my bagels with everything on them. I want that baroque shit. It was soulful, but I wanted more.
One, two, three — count ’em, three — guests on Weekend Update this week, including Taran Killam as Marco Rubio reenacting his infamous water-grab (“Water! I need water,” blaming the cinnamon challenge), Pharoah’s Stephen A. Smith on his intimate friendships with the Lakers (the night Dwight Howard lost his virginity “I was strapped to his chest in a Baby Bjorn”), and, best of all, Kate McKinnon as Olya Povlatsky, resident of the rural Russian region that was recently impacted by a meteor. “Meteor,” begged wretched Olya with the sad life, “come to Olya, take me away from this barren wasteland.” She told a fairy tale from her village: work hard, get blasted by meteor, turn to dust, get eaten by a goat, and finally find yourself in the utopic heaven of warmth in the goat’s belly. The (happy) end. In the hell that is Olya’s life, “Milkshake” and “Who Let the Dogs Out” have just made it into modern culture, but sadly there are wild dogs everywhere and they still haven’t found who released them. Kate McKinnon has been such a score for the cast (along with Strong), I hope the bear Olya keeps in her dream house continues to make himself available as a blanket for many seasons, instead of eating her as she hopes he will.
The first time I set eyes on Regine (Armisen), I decided that I hated her and wanted to send her off to complete her post-doctorate at Oberlin, or somewhere else far away from my sensory processing devices. This time, however, I found her more appealing. I would not be surprised if you didn’t, by the way, and I am surprised to say that I will remember her sentiments about chicken wings (“Chicken wings? What are you, a half-naked barbarian with your red butt hanging out?”) fondly. This time around Regine was Waltz’s girlfriend, and her famous nerve endings are still as incendiary as her opinions on reproductive rights and when people are allowed to ask for the check. Waltz and Regine join a triple date (Hader/Bayer, Bryant/Robinson) that rapidly devolves into Regine flashing her underwear and making trout-face gaping expressions as Waltz caresses various parts of her body, much to everyone else’s horror. By the end of the sketch, during which Regine pressed everyone to talk about “that article that just came out” while in a perpetual upskirt pose, nobody on stage could keep themselves from busting a gut directly into their wineglasses. At one point Hader spilled indelicately all over Regine’s shoulder as she slithered into his lap; when Waltz stands up for his girlfriend, Regine sends her hands diving into his pockets and he becomes the embodiment of a human steam shower. This sketch may have been the most challenging for Waltz, but he was as graceful as a performer could be while mutually excavating various orifices with a character who is like a predatory gender studies professor from hell. I applaud this.
A Waltzless Fox & Friends featured a nutso Ted Nugent (Hader), whose “goatee is full of ticks,” on his best solution to gun control: don’t give guns to the crazy people, who are easy to identify if you “just look at their eyes, the white part and the swirly part,” not to mention the “third eye of truth.” I love Moynihan’s Kilmeade, who intended to watch the State of the Union but was distracted when there was a bee in his apartment, and “it turned into this whole thing.” It’s always nice to watch someone eat a pancake that they just furnished from their pocket because they think it’s a passport, so even though this wasn’t my favorite installment of F&F, it held enough water for me (and I always enjoy slow-forwarding through the corrections). The ten-to-one that closed the show was as weird as can be, with Waltz playing a lovelorn security guard named Dimitri who made a few missteps in his Valentine’s Day courtship of fellow office-worker Strong. His love note is strange, poorly worded (“I want you and it makes me mad […] we eat dish of bananas and milk together?”), threatening and not as anonymous as he’d intended (a picture of him in a tank top leaning against a Lamborghini may have blown his cover), no matter how much he tries to pin it on everyone else. I would have been able to be firm in my resolve to not like this sketch if it hadn’t been for Waltz attempting a joke proposal with a peanut in a ring box, which harnessed his capabilities for charm and creepiness in a single deft lasso. I’m not crushing on Waltz or anything (shut uppp!), but I’d just “feel safer if he came to lunch with me.”
Next week: Kevin Hart and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.