‘SNL’ Recap, Season 49, Episode 11: Ayo Edebiri

Ayo Edebiri is having a spectacular year and change, with the kind of multi-platform barrage that has probably made fans out of countless film and TV viewers. (I don’t even watch The Bear, but I feel like I’ve had a crash course in her role on the show thanks to a rapid-fire series of award-show victories.) It’s only natural that she would take a victory lap hosting Saturday Night Live, and perhaps even more natural that her hosting debut would inspire the kind of comedy-fan and Twitter-user anticipation that almost always ends in bitter disappointment.

That goes double considering Edebiri’s particular bona fides as a stand-up comic, sketch-video veteran, and co-star of Bottoms, probably last year’s funniest broad comedy. Inevitably, these seemingly comedy-friendly episodes bring fans of the host and fans of the show in harmony to angrily wonder: Why did Saturday Night Live let Hip, Internet-Beloved Funny Person down so bad? Typically, these questions are about 45 percent valid disappointment and 55 percent vague expression of frustration that SNL isn’t some completely different television program.

So maybe that’s SNL steering into the curve (or ripping off the bandage?) by opening Edebiri’s episode with its first high-profile political cameo of the 2024 election season and making it Nikki Haley. Following a doddering implication from ol’ Lorne that Haley is some reasonable centrist and/or delightful celebrity with a good sense of humor, this episode was probably more or less dead to a chunk of its most excited audience — understandably so. (In case any of that audience came in late, the show has a secondary gotcha in its holster: that the next live episode would star infamous SNL castoff Shane Gillis.)

In case those early signs weren’t clear enough about this episode not becoming a magical Steve Martin-esque aligning of the show’s old-time showbiz roots with a fresher style of comedy at its center, SNL promptly whipped out two game-show sketches in the space of an hour, plus the show’s billionth sketch set at a local morning show. None of these fake shows-within-the-show are titled Business As Usual, but they could have been, even if they’re individually funny enough. So, no, this is not an instant season highlight, let alone an instant classic.

That said, the episode does get more idiosyncratic as it goes on, as is often the case. The real stabilizing force, though, is Edebiri herself, taking to the show’s format with aplomb. She seems genuinely excited to be there throughout. Her voice cracks at the beginning and end of her monologue, seemingly holding back tears when discussing what her hosting gig meant to her, which is more or less the last sign of any nerves for the rest of the episode. She does character pieces, deeply silly conceptual stuff, and just-part-of-the-ensemble blending, all without visiting the Please Don’t Destroy office on SNL writing night. (Actually, she probably did; it sounds as if the group’s video was cut this week, though it wasn’t advertised in the opening roll.) “What more could you ask for?” has a bunch of obvious answers (don’t platform worthless public figures for fake balance! Also, maybe fewer game show sketches!), but purely in terms of Edebiri’s performance, the only response is something where she did an Irish accent, of course. She seems like a sure bet to return for another episode in a year or two.

Here are the highlights:

In her monologue, Edebiri read from her supposedly submitted SNL writing packet. While those ideas were probably made up, it seems near-certain that she must have worked on one at some point, and her work in this sketch, as Solomon, a nerdy kid who resists a classroom hypnotist, feels like something that could have sprung from that packet (even if it probably wasn’t). Her performance of Solomon’s “possession,” which turns out to be an excuse to come out as bisexual and sing Jordin Sparks, has a virtuosic energy. It’s exactly the kind of sketch that works best as a live performance, injecting a weird thrill into a relatively thin idea.

It’s hard not to bristle a little when SNL bits start to feel like the product of the writers spending too much time online. Then again, who among us can say that we don’t spend too much time online? As such, we really can’t scoff at the lunatic urge to adapt a tweet-level observation about a (very real!) Dune popcorn bucket looking like a sex toy created by a David Cronenberg AI into a full-fledged production number in which guys and gals alike sing a passionate ode to their illicit spice-fueled pleasure.

Sarah Sherman has done something singular in her Weekend Update appearances, which matches the singular energy she goofs on at the end of this one (calling out her own loudness and joking about flubbing single-line appearances in sketches). Unless I’m forgetting something, every single one of her trips to the Update desk has one purpose: Insulting and humiliating Colin Jost. There’s no Adam Sandler-style nominal question of whether she’s going to do a funny sing-song voice or sing an actual song; you know she’s going to go after Jost, and the game is now figuring out how she’ll work her way into it. This time, it’s through a sort of character: CJ Rossitano, a besuited young man who won SNL tickets through their lottery system but bears a mysterious resemblance to the longest-serving Weekend Update anchor in the show’s history. It all winds up at the same destination as Sherman’s other Update bits, finding ways to imply Jost is an empty-suit country club hack with an inexplicably famous wife, but getting there through misty-eyed miming to “Cat’s in the Cradle” proves the bit hasn’t run out of steam yet.

When an elevator gets stuck between floors, Edebiri and Bowen Yang simply cannot stop thinking about hooking up — and, more importantly, the implications this could have in creating a brand-new society. This might have been just as fun, if not more so, as a life piece rather than a filmed one. But as-is, it’s a well-executed version of a favored SNL feint, where the weirdos with the impossible ideas almost immediately seduce others into their madness, rather than having other characters repeatedly point it out and underline it. Andrew Dismukes, Sherman, and Kenan Thompson are ideally cast in those roles, as are Yang and Edebiri as the ringleaders who decide the important stuff, like how many mail carriers are allowed.

Here’s a ten-to-one treat that starts with a creaky premise (The People’s Court? After two game shows? Are we just watching daytime TV from 20 years ago?) and barrels into the funniest sketch of the night. Edebiri plays a woman whose bad haircut, worthy of televised litigation, turns out to be a full-on brain injury; Ego Nwodim plays the unapologetic hairdresser. The mix of plainspoken hostility and gory whimsy is killer; in terms of the SNL fundamentals of making up an extremely silly sketch and knocking it down fast, this is the stuff right here. A minor quibble with the non-ending, which feels particularly like a flashing wrap-it-up sign here, but even that kind of works in the context of a 90-minute episode that needs to end moments after this sketch does.

• My first thought upon seeing Nikki Haley in a Trump Town Hall cold open that had been, until that point, at least somewhat amusing, was, “Oh, no.” My second thought was: I guess Haley’s ringer, Nia Vardalos, isn’t starry enough for Lorne. I can’t believe this had me pining for the days of pointlessly casting megastars as various Trump-world circus figures.

• The format of “Why’d You Say It?” is a recurring sketch; this installment takes aim at nasty internet commenters, after the first one addressed, with perhaps a bit more precision, the sketchiness of liking certain Instagram posts. (They stayed with Instagram broadly, I assume because the Vulture commenters are so civilized!) Not the most inspired idea, but Edebiri’s delivery of her first “correct” answer is a flawless bit of comic business, and she subsequently makes a cleverly apologetic nod to the hot-goss non-controversy of the week about the fact that she talked a little trash about J-Lo on a podcast four years ago.

• Mikey Day and Edebiri certainly give that anti-anti-drug sketch their all, but it weirdly feels like the opposite of the show’s smug centrism: Wouldn’t it be pitiful for someone to be straight edge? Uh, I guess! Is this a problem a lot of people are encountering? It’s the kind of conceit that can kill for a minute or two in an improv run but sags pretty quickly when a sketch is specifically built around it.

• A lot of cast members got individual cheers this episode from a crowd that sounded unusually amped. It makes sense enough that fans would be excited enough to see not-quite-official cast member Martin Herlihy making it into a rare live-sketch appearance that they’d let out a whoop, but did Ego Nwodim also get some applause just for rolling into that People’s Court sketch? (Actually, that makes sense, too. She’s great.)

• Speaking of individual cast members whose appearance in almost anything would elicit a hearty cheer from me personally, it’s weird how often Andrew Dismukes and Sarah Sherman appear in this episode without playing completely awkward weirdos. No one expects a Dismukes hypnotist character to be the sketch’s straight man.

• It’s delightful that Ego and Edebiri get to lead two sketches together: Once as enemies and once as newfound besties. In the Trivia Quest game show sketch, Nwodim plays a host who immediately bonds with one of her contestants and is the winner of the episode’s semi-inexplicable game-show face-off.

• If musical performances count, Jennifer Lopez technically joins the five-timer club tonight, to little fanfare. (She has hosted three times, twice serving double-duty as a musical guest; this is the second time only performing music. Weirdly, four of her five appearances have been in February.) She has all the expected star presence in her two songs, even if she’s never been a particularly compelling singer. I am in no danger of appearing on television with her in the future and needing to walk this back.

First appeared on www.vulture.com

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