But it became slightly egregious during the sketch that felt more like the cold open than the actual cold open: a take on last week’s Democratic debates that featured half-cast members and half-guest stars. From the cast, we watched Kate McKinnon as Elizabeth Warren, Colin Jost as Pete Buttigieg, Chris Redd as Cory Booker, Bowen Yang as Andrew Yang, Cecily Strong as Tulsi Gabbard and Melissa Villaseñor as Rachel Maddow. Visiting for the night were Maya Rudolph as Kamala D. Harris, Rachel Dratch as Amy Klobuchar, Larry David as Bernie Sanders, Woody Harrelson as Joe Biden, Fred Armisen as Mike Bloomberg and host Will Ferrell as Tom Steyer.
As always, McKinnon shines as Warren, comparing her over-enthusiasm in past debates to “mom-hosting-Thanksgiving energy. I’m a little overwhelmed because I thought 10 people were coming and now there’s 30 million. But I promise dinner will be ready if you just get out of the kitchen and stop asking questions.”
Quickly, though she makes a faux pas by saying this year she’ll be making “the food of my ancestors — should I say it? I ‘m gonna say it — maize.” It’s a reference to her claiming to be Native American for two decades, despite a DNA test revealing her to have a low (low, not no) percentage of Native American heritage.
Rudolph’s Harris finds her word choice amusing, as she says, “Good one, Liz” and laughs. She’s in a good mood because “I’m not gonna worry about the polling numbers. I’m just gonna have fun and see if I can get a viral moment. Mama needs a GIF,” though she pronounces it JIF (like the peanut butter). “Gonna tell my kids this was Michelle Obama,” she adds of herself, referencing a recent Twitter meme in which users claim they’re going to tell their children a photo of someone is a certain celebrity (even though the photo is never actually of that person).
Jost’s Buttigieg, wearing a suit “from my first communion,” then explains why he’s polling so low among black voters: “Maybe, just, cuz of this,” he says, waving a hand over himself. David’s Sanders is here to tell everyone he’s “doing better than ever” and is “very proud of the fact that I’m the first heart attack patient to show up to the emergency room in a city bus.” While all this is happening, Dratch’s Klobuchar simply shakes like a broken radiator.
Harrellson’s Biden knows America is “scared I’ll say something off-color. Or even worse, on-color.” He admits that “you should be scared, because I’m always one second away from calling Cory Booker ‘Barack.’” Booker meanwhile capitalizes on his chance to speak, “the only time I’ll be talking,” by saying, “Black church! Barbershop! Greens! Beans! Tomatoes! Potatoes!” And, as in real life, he tells Biden that he’s surprised the former vice president doesn’t support the legalization of marijuana (“In fact, rehearsed joke, I thought you were high when you said it.”), to which SNL’s Biden recounts the plot of “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” as if it were his own personal anecdote.
Finally, Yang’s Yang gets a chance to speak, inviting everyone to “get a Yang gang bang going.” And Ferrell’s’ Steyer says he’s running for president “for a simple reason: It’s fun and it gets me out of the house.” Then who wanders in but Armisen’s Bloomberg, sipping from a 7-Eleven cup, after he “tipped the doorman $30 million.” He doesn’t know if he’s running for president, but he’d “love to see those Trump supports come up with a conspiracy theory about a Jewish billionaire with his own media company. Good luck making that stick.”
Last up is Strong’s Gabbard, who the show’s Maddow calls “tonight’s villain,” and who quickly admits “I smell your fear and it makes me stronger. I’m wearing the white suit of your fallen hero, Hillary Clinton.”
Much like the actual debates, the sketch’s setup takes so long, there isn’t much time for any actual meat. David’s Sanders offers his health care plan, saying, “no co-pay. No out of pocket. The only thing that comes out of my pocket are tissues, receipts, loose cough drops, a movie stub for ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ which was, uhh, so-so and of course the little button in the baggie that comes with the pants. Most people throw it out. Do yourself a favor, hold onto it. You never know.”
Ferrell’s Steyer gives a short speech while approaching the camera, his unblinking face soon filling the entire frame. They recreated the moment when Biden claimed only one black woman was ever elected to the Senate, forgetting his debate partner Harris. Dratch’s Klobuchar continues to shake. McKinnon’s Warren says, “I think if its Marry-F-Kill, I’m aware I’m not the ‘F’ but I’m definitely not the kill! So come on America, put a ring on it.”
Arguably the best moment comes toward the end when David just gives a classic Larry David bit through the Sanders lens, saying, “Let me ask you. Is it fair that only the top two percent often get a free biscotti with their coffee? We would all love a free biscotti. You dip it. You dunk it. It’s delicious. So if that’s socialism, sign me up. Tell me this, is it fair that when the top two percent want to turn off the lights in their bedroom, all they have to do is clap? They got a clapper. Shouldn’t we all have clapper? I say, either everybody has a clapper or nobody has a clapper, and that’s the America I want to live in!”
The sketch was funny, sure, and not everyone is bothered by such stunt casting. But it can often feel like a crutch and sometimes has the unfortunate effect of pulling the viewer out of the satire. It’s difficult not to feel excited to see Larry David or Maya Rudolph, but it’s even harder not to wonder why the show doesn’t trust its own cast to carry the load.