Chappelle’s post-election SNL excels

TV legend Dave Chappelle returns to screens, raising the standard of the dying comedy institution for a night.

28th November 2016

Kate Mckinnon’s cold open performance of hallelujah as Hilary Clinton didn’t sit right. Clinton wasn’t the underdog of this election: to many she represented an alternative but she’s far from flawless. People have a duty to assess her flaws; it felt wrong for her to be given a send-off this nakedly sincere. When the first proper sketch of the night made a point of mocking the failure of white American to see the enormous divides that exist within the country, to celebrate a politician who has done very little to address that issue rang very hollow. Hallelujah is an incredible song and its dissemination throughout popular culture in recent years has been fascinating (remember when it was in Shrek? And the West Wing?) but it felt cheap and reductive to canonise a political figure by employing a well-known and genuinely emotional song, especially with the weight of Leonard Cohen’s death. How would that cold open have gone if it hadn’t been for Cohen’s passing? Perhaps it would have eschewed emotion and treaded the line of hope/hopelessness that the rest of the show went for.

I’ve never really engaged with Dave Chappelle, maily to do with generational difference. After tonight I think I should probably amend that. His opening monologue was loose and funny in a way that broke from the overly-mannered and predictable format of recent SNL monologues (a musical number, a surprise guest) and engaged with the live format, especially his use of the n-word, an intrinsic part of his comedy. It could have a come across as intentionally edgy in the sanitised context of SNL but genuinely allowed Chappelle’s true and honest voice to be heard. The fatalistic attitude he conveyed in that monologue was a perfect counterpoint to the faux-earnestness of the cold open and the depreciation felt sort of sad and human in a way that the cold open completely wasn’t. I remembered why stand-up comedy is actually good.

The first real sketch of the night was a highlight for me, both in terms of content and the slightly dorky joy that came with seeing Chris Rock show up in a cameo that didn’t rob the scene of momentum or rely on his presence to carry it, he brought a grounded sensibility that I can’t imagine any of the proper cast members managing, especially given the deeply troubling undertones looking at the whole.

The first sketch cashed in on The Walking Dead. It’s the most popular show on television and yet it doesn’t seem to have been attacked sufficiently in any pop cultural mediums for its inherent flaws. But it was just a good premise to shoe-horn in old Chappelle characters. It was just the premise and literally nothing else. The way the characters were introduced so quickly it was a nice touch of parody against fan service. It was also down to Chappelle being an incredibly engaging performer, it was bold and made sense to let him run the show and not have any regular cast members in the scene. Chappelle has killer range, and it would be weird not to give Chappelle rope just because of the size of his cult following (the first season DVD of Chappelle’s Show was the best-selling TV series of all time). There was a nice natural looseness to all the sketches that went a long way to endearing it to me.

Michael Che on Weekend Update handled his fuck-up really well, it’s rare that the cast have the confidence to consistently bring up their own mistakes. Lorne Michaels (the creator/main producer of SNL since it started) is very vocally against improve and that really puts cast members off doing it. It’s often why the cast would rather fudge the cue cards a few times instead of improvising (what’s the point of it being live?). The way he seemed vaguely overwhelmed felt real and genuine. I imagine for a lot of American’s that this period of time is overwhelming and awful.

Kate McKinnon has made Ruth Bader Ginsburg her own, eating the vitamin powder and the part in the bar skit when Chappelle and McKinnon are tonguing for like a minute. There was so much Eric Andre channeled through those two moments. There was some fantastic gross-out gags in this episode that rivalled his level of dedication. That’s the advantage of it being live: it allows the performers to choose to commit completely in an instant.

The general level of humour in Weekend Update was a lot sharper and more genuinely satirical than it’s been in several years and I think that has a lot to do with America’s national mood. NOBODY watching SNL is going to be happy with that election result. Weekend Update is never archived on the show’s youtube, which allows the show to make edgy, potentially off-colour jokes that wouldn’t hold up within the context of the echo-chamber of internet criticism but it also means that the section feels incredibly self-contained and removed from the rest of the show.

The rest of the show tailed off from here. The remaining sketches weren’t the strongest material of the night but they rode the goofy/serious line pretty nicely and made sure to benefit from Chappelle’s presence as much as possible. The “Kids Talk Politics” sketch was brief enough to contain some real bite and didn’t overextend the premise, and Chappelle coming in at the end to cap it off with some silly wordplay gags sold it. The next sketch, a seemingly piss-poor bit of fluff about a restaurant took a rarely-seen on SNL turn into meta-commentary when it collapsed into a post-sketch press conference that let every player involved examine the failures of their respective roles. Again, this is familiar territory for Chappelle but if the show playing to its host’s very specific set of skills can find laughs in places it doesn’t really go to very often then it’s probably worth it. As mentioned earlier the “Closing Time” bit delivered some gross laughs  but it’s starting to wear thin from repetition by now, especially as so many sketches on the show rely on the format of the camera cutting to a cast member dead-panning extreme reactions, and that cast member is often Kenan Thompson.

“The cast won’t energised by an industry legend like Chappelle... the general mood of SNL-watching America is going to lose its rosiness when the nation’s mood begins to turn”

The next bit of pre-filmed material was a nice gem hidden deep in the show’s back-end, detailing a secret office romance between cast members Kyle Mooney and Leslie Jones (playing themselves). The initial concept of Jones discussing her lack of romantic encounters had a nice little switch into Mooney establishing himself as a virgin. It was sweet without being cloying or fey and it made put the actor’s varied personalities to good use.

The last sketch, another gross-out piece about a 40-something who’s still breastfed beat its premise pretty well into the ground but still got some laughs out of Jones (who really took control of the last half of the show) blasting clearly-fake milk at a sofa full of dudes.

I’m not sure SNL is going to put out an episode this consistent for the rest of the season, maybe ever again, because the goodwill towards the Democrats is going to give way to easy gags about whatever inadequate response they manage to Trump’s election, the cast won’t energised by an industry legend like Chappelle making a big comeback and because the general mood of SNL-watching America is going to lose some of its rosiness when the nation’s mood begins to turn and misery overtakes the brief stirrings of inspiration that the liberal entertainers will try to stir up. Thankfully, for one night, the situations aligned in such a way that let a great comic voice have fun and make a point with a talented cast who could rise to the occasion and make the most of a pretty dark moment.

Ed Eastly and Luke Acton

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