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Saturday Night Live Recap: Bill Burr Divides the Room

Vulture.com logo Vulture.com 10/11/2020 Matthew Love
Bill Burr, Kenan Thompson sitting at a desk: NBC/Will Heath/NBC © NBC/Will Heath/NBC NBC/Will Heath/NBC

Stand-up, actor, and podcaster Bill Burr isn’t the first name that comes to mind when thinking about sketch comedy. He’s a masterful comic, and a ranter nonpareil, but his perspective is a limited one. He’s great at holding his own when he gets high-profile gigs such as Breaking Bad, but he’s always a version of himself. Maybe it was attrition, maybe it was Pete Davidson (whom Burr worked with on King of Staten Island); whatever the case, Burr got his first chance to host on Saturday. It was an exciting prospect for those of us who would love to see Burr stretch a bit, and maybe less exciting for those who don’t care for Burr’s general outlook about, say, women.

(It’s also worth mentioning that the scheduled musical guest, Morgan Wallen, was cut from this week’s show after some TikToks of the budding country star surfaced showing him partying indoors, in public, practicing the kind of sloppy drinking (and face-mashing) of which he sings. As Lorne Michaels has a contact or two, he managed to convince Jack White to fill in. Though White’s last solo album dropped in 2018 and his last Raconteurs record came out last year (Boarding House Ranch and Help Us Stranger, respectively), his last appearance as a musical guest was in 2012, and he was due for a set.)

Given its host, it’s not surprising that this week’s episode is a bit fixated on who’s allowed to say what, and when they’re allowed to say it. The writers kept Burr (and his narrow range) in mind, so there weren’t many surprises (or roles outside of that narrow range). It would have been fun to see Burr do something different, to play against type — his stand-up monologue is risky, but he never risks failing on someone else’s terms. Maybe the limitations were meant to make Burr feel comfortable, but it also made for a pretty cloistered episode.

As per tradition, this week’s sketches are ranked here from best to worst.

Weekend Update

As Trump recovers from coronavirus, Michael Che likens it to a car crash in which the “only survivor is the drunk driver.” Because Trump seems to have learned nothing from his experience, Colin Jost likens it to “a guy smoking through a hole in his neck.” So, yeah, as both of them confess between jokes, this week’s Update is a little dark. It’s not wrong, and the majority of it works well, but it is a bit bleaker than usual. Even Kate McKinnon, who comes on as a new doctor character Wayne Wenowdis, performs through a kind of staged breakdown. Just when her character begins to grate, the performance becomes a conversation about coping during the pandemic, anticipating a fraught election, and coping with the limits of what we know.

Update’s second half remains a little dark, but as always, there are some jokes about odd news items completely apart from the big headlines. Jokes about sharks, horses, and how Sizzler’s buffet is an American wet market are all great. There’s also a particularly good one about the sugary items on McDonald’s new breakfast bakery menu—they’re all available for “the low, low price of one of your feet.” Pete Davidson takes a few minutes to talk about JK Rowling’s controversial comments about trans women, landing some fun jabs in a monologue that ranges from talk of tattoos to who controls the banks in the Harry Potter books. (And yeah, he does look surprisingly like Dobby the House Elf.)

Bill Burr Monologue

Burr doesn’t make comedy for everyone; he makes comedy that wields his savage perspective like a shiv, and makes audiences laugh while they bleed out. For a national audience on a major network, this opener feels unsparing and confrontational. It is also perfectly aligned with Burr’s stand-up, and exactly what fans might have expected. “I’ll probably get cancelled,” Burr confesses, entirely unconcerned; and, when things get quiet after a bit implying grandparents are racist, he cries, “Plowing ahead!” When set on paper, Burr’s jokes can feel unconscionable—the assault of Rick Moranis marks the joyful return of New York City, white women need to stop playing woke because they’ve tolerated “blood money” earned by white men, etc. But as always, Burr’s routine is an exercise in perspective. He doesn’t need to convince listeners his opinion is right, he only needs to carefully transport them from A to C. No, it isn’t particularly careful, so he surely loses some people, but he finds a way to make a lot of it work.

VP Fly Debate Cold Open

This beat-for-beat revisitation of the VP debate touches on Pence’s obfuscations, Harris’ “I am speaking,” and both parties’ refusal to answer the moderator’s questions. With a little more air time for his Pence, Beck Bennett takes aim at the banality of Pence’s evil. Maya Rudolph continues to bring energy to her Kamala Harris, though in writing and performance, it continues to be more fun ideas about Harris than an impression. Once the recap of the debate gets stale, Joe Biden (Jim Carrey) decides to teleport to the debate in order to justify a joke about The Fly. These last two weeks, the writers have gone off the rails a bit in the cold opens. While it seems like an attempt to keep things unpredictable, the sketches only end up feeling silly. Joe Biden (in fly form) doing a Jeff Goldblum impression alongside Herman Cain (reincarnated as a fly), all atop Mike Pence’s unwitting head? It’s weird and playful, but not exactly cutting-edge political satire.

Sam Adams

As a Bostonian, Burr must have known the obligatory Boston bit was coming. Casey Affleck went to Dunkin, so Burr gets the Sam Adams sponcon. While a number of milquetoast, accent-free consumers love the new pumpkin ale, Burr (as Joe Masshole) gets drunk on beer he doesn’t even like and brawls with his kid (Mikey Day) in the grocery store aisle. The direction of this faux ad is set from the beginning, but the specifics are nice—e.g. Burr interrupting someone else’s testimonial to snatch another beer from the display and crack it open (with the help of one arm, which is in a cast). Anyone waiting to see Burr unleash his Boston id won’t be disappointed.

New Normal

After months of social distancing and self-isolating, the simple act of socializing has become very strange. When gathering on porches and street corners, no one knows how close to get, when to wear a mask, how to touch and—maybe most of all—how to speak to one another. This sketch nicely taps into all that awkwardness, giving us a couple (Burr and McKinnon) who only need a little nudge before freaking the f out. Burr and McKinnon exhibit a range of emotion—not just rage (which is Burr’s strong suit), but bewilderment, helplessness, and a strange intensity that borders on madness. While the point is the strange extremity of the couple’s reaction—just being corrected about misspoken phrases sets them off—the conceit of the sketch still feels pretty limited.

Enough Is Enough

Beck Bennett sells this young, clueless C-list actor really well—not just his self-important content, but also the characterization of a proud and stubborn dope who refuses to see the error of his ways. Once things get rolling, there aren’t a lot of twists. All of the people around Benji, from his girlfriend to his roommate, are going to harshly insist that he take down his terrible video. And who can’t recognize a bit of Benji in their favorite actors’ virtue-signaling tweets or videos? Still, after the sketch’s dynamic is announced, it feels a bit like it’s on rails. Not even a cameo from Jason Momoa makes enough magic to justify it.

Sports Debate

It’s all fun and games until the hosts of jocular cable roundtables start recognizing the pain and grief that comes with Black death. As one of the hosts of The Blitz, Gil (Burr) is ready to reap the rewards of being right about a football game—but fails to grasp the gravity of the situation as his cohosts (Kenan Thompson, Ego Nwodim) try to make sense of the latest police shooting. The sketch revolves around all of the little plans Gil put in place in order to gloat about his victory, but none of the specifics in these gags really sing. Maybe it feels too real, maybe there isn’t enough leeway for Thompson to be funny in all the seriousness, maybe it’s because Kareem Jenkins is the name of a real person who was shot and killed in 2019; in any case, the funny doesn’t come through all that well.

Don Pauly

This mobster sketch is the kind in which the writers (and fans) have no trouble imagining Burr as the star. As an aging mafia Don, Burr plays the tone-deaf oaf, offending all of his young, up-and-coming lieutenants with increasingly ungentle language. All of the young guys, for their part, whinge, get offended on behalf of others, and need decidedly un-gangster-like things, e.g. mental health days. The sketch starts off feeling a bit canned and doesn’t gain any traction from there. By the time the young thugs are telling their boss “your words have power,” nothing’s going to save it. It hardly matters that these characters are gangsters—it could be any Boomer trying to defend himself against a crowd of Millennials.

Taken as a whole, the sketches this week start from interesting, grounded places but fail to really surprise or take things all that far. Even the cold open remains a disappointment in that there isn’t anything particularly incisive in it—and then it goes off the rails. On top of that, even with all of the playing to Burr’s persona, there’s nothing really new being said here about speech, censorship or the cycle of offense. Next week, new possibilities arise with host Issa Rae and musical guest Justin Beiber; the former has never been on the show, and the latter was just on in February.

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