Although its barbs aimed at President Trump will always grab headlines, the season premiere of “Saturday Night Live” showed there’s still plenty of humor to be found in the utterly ridiculous.
Yes, we got the obligatory cold open featuring Alec Baldwin as a bumbling President Trump. “Weekend Update” delivered biting political jokes. Host Ryan Gosling pitched his latest movie by making fun of the backlash from his previous one.
But perhaps the highlight of the night came from the totally off-kilter, prerecorded sketch about the papyrus font used in the “Avatar” logo. Kate McKinnon delivered dynamo performances, particularly in the latest installment of the “Close Encounter” sketch, which, despite its known setup, still surprised. And if you didn’t know they were having fun, Gosling giggled in nearly every live sketch.
SNL has quite an act to follow: The NBC show just came off its most-watched season in 23 years. The president of the United States repeatedly lambasted the show, and its depictions of administration officials entered the mainstream political conversation (quite the turnaround from 2015, when SNL faced criticism for having Trump host). Highly anticipated guest hosts created must-see TV. NBC tried to capitalize on the ratings with prime-time “Weekend Update” editions in August. And for it all, SNL won big at the Emmys, with McKinnon, Baldwin, Melissa McCarthy and Dave Chappelle all taking home awards for their appearances.
“Saturday Night Live” always enjoys high ratings and buzz during election years, but the previous season wasn’t all Trump-driven. There was “Wells for Boys,” one of the best sketches of the season, and “David S. Pumpkins,” a sketch so kooky that it became an instant favorite and is even getting its own animated Halloween special. And perhaps the show’s best political material featured not Baldwin as Trump, but Tom Hanks as a Trump supporter in “Black Jeopardy.”
We’ve seen only one show from the 43rd season, but it demonstrated that SNL can still surprise with absurd sketches that don’t require impersonating people in Washington. In “Papyrus,” Gosling played a man haunted by the font for James Cameron’s “Avatar”; the kernel of that idea can be found in SNL writer Julio Torres’s Twitter feed in May.
Saturday’s show also provided ample space for McKinnon and the show’s longest-serving cast member, Kenan Thompson, to show off their comedic chops.
The new season brings three new featured players, following the departures of Bobby Moynihan, Vanessa Bayer and Sasheer Zamata. And seven new writers have been added to the writers’ room.
Early estimates have Saturday’s episode as SNL’s second-most watched premiere in seven years (last season’s opener, just weeks before the presidential election, was the most-watched). And the show aired live coast to coast, repeating an experiment that NBC tried for the last four episodes of the 42nd season; traditionally, SNL has broadcast a taped delay for the Mountain and Pacific time zones.
Through the years, SNL has tried to find ways to be funny about whatever is in the mainstream discourse. What’s different now is that this president dominates just about every aspect of public life, from football to movies, in a way that none of his predecessors have. So why wouldn’t SNL keep mounting sketches about the person everyone can’t stop talking about — even if they are pretty predictable?
Still, it’s good to know that there’s still room for out-of-left-field silliness.