SNL: Chris Stapleton, Adam Driver, Aidy Bryant

This review was originally posted on Starpulse in January 2016.

If “SNL” is going to book Adam Driver, then he is going to be called upon to do two things (assuming the writers are not suffering from temporary insanity): reference “Star Wars” and utilize his famous intensity. Surprisingly enough, the former is used sparingly; meanwhile, the latter is taken advantage of throughout the episode (which, depending on your opinion of the “SNL” team’s mental state, is either very much expected or totally shocking). This is the right decision. “Star Wars” is bigger than Driver (or any one person), and reliance upon intergalactic material could have been a distraction, but the character conviction he brings is comedy dynamite if deployed properly.

6th Republican Debate – The standard clown car jokes about the GOP field have mostly exhausted themselves, and Darrell Hammond’s legacy Trump impression is really the only performance here that has a strong enough default mode to run on autopilot. Thankfully, Ted Cruz gifted the comedy world a notorious moment with his “New York City values” comment. Instead of just repeating that jibe (which this sketch could very easily have gotten away with), Taran Killam’s Ted makes it just a little bit absurd by pairing it with “Seinfeld” references. Nothing groundbreaking, but enough to get by. B-

Adam Driver’s Monologue – Cast members freaking and/or geeking out at the host is an old monologue premise standby. Its complete failure rate is low, since folks like Bobby and Taran do not have to strain to bring real enthusiasm. But its unqualified success rate is also low, because these monologues can get away with being unfocused without appearing as such. Bobby failing to hide the (expensive) extent of his nerdom and Leslie mistaking Adam for the wrong Driver are amusing enough on their own, but they do not mesh together particularly compellingly. C+

Football Injury – After the unpredictable end to the Packers-Cardinals playoff game, the setting of this sketch made it look like “SNL” had been inspired to write a parody in less than an hour. Alas, the actual premise – fourth-string quarterback suffers grotesque injury – proves to be much more timeless. The cheesy computer graphics may be a little unbearable, but they are probably the most explicit version of leg bones snapping allowed on network television. It is a silly scene, but by suggesting, “somewhere, deep down, this is why you watch football,” it really stings. B

Undercover Boss: Starkiller Base – The inevitable Star Wars sketch is low-key, which may seem surprising, except when you consider how much material “SNL” has already set in a galaxy far, far away throughout the years. Anyway, Kylo Ren translates readily to comedy, thanks to his utmost petulance. Thus, his insecurities, which would normally come off as overly cute in this type of parody, actually register as perfectly accurate. B-

Magic Carpet Ride – There is a fan theory that posits that “Aladdin” takes place not in the past, but in some post-apocalyptic future. That might help explain why this sketch is so temporally confused, what with Adam Driver’s Aladdin and Cecily Strong’s Jasmine contending with modern-day weapons and transportation devices. As for the comedy, it is actually nice that Jasmine does not let the distress of encountering loose projectiles and fluids cause any conflict between her and her beau. That is to say, the line “I think I pissed my little thing I’m wearing” is funnier without any unnecessarily added anger. B

America’s Funniest Cats – The version of France as portrayed by Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon may be simplistic, but it is effective for establishing a discordant comedic tone. Any American can adopt a silly voice and pretend to be a cat getting into trouble, but it takes a pompous foreigner to inject some existentialism into their feline struggles. That may not be absolutely true, but it gets the message across. Life is meaningless and short, even for our furry friends, and this news can be delivered so matter-of-fact and still provide plenty of laughs. The absurdity is there plainly enough for everyone to derive their own amusement. B+

Chris Stapleton – “Parachute” – Country breakout/throwback Stapleton gives his tambourine player prominent stage placement, presumably because she is a backup singer, even though she does not do too much of that. His style is a lot more thoughtful and introspective than typical pop country. Its profundities are not unheard of, but they are a welcome tonic. B

Weekend Update – Colin and Michael rely on some cheap Photoshop gags a little more than usual on this outing, but overall they are still confident and interesting. The rant this evening takes aim at the Oscars’ lack of diversity, but really it is more about their lack of accessibility. This actually is not the best year to bring that point up, as big hits like “The Martian” and “Mad Max” made it into the field. Also, there is the matter of whether the Oscars are even trying to be accessible in the first place and if that if even is a realistic goal in such a fragmented entertainment marketplace. Che’s appeal to the relative merits of porn is much more compelling. Michael and Colin’s Grade: B
Weekend Update: Pete Davidson – Pete’s argument is stronger than Che’s tonight (which is not 100% surprising). His personal experience with mental illness offers useful perspective about the importance of background checks when selling guns. But as he argues, with his usual colorful details, it is not like that perspective should even be needed. This topic is too serious for its ridiculousness to be especially funny, except for a few minutes at a time at the Update desk. B
Weekend Update: Laura Parsons – Another round of graphic news from Vanessa Bayer’s precocious child actor is delivered with just as much gusto as her last appearance. Her mix of cheeriness and weightiness can also be found in “Conan’s” Wikibear segments, begging the question, “Who influenced whom?” This dissonance is a comedic technique that predates both of them, but it is not utilized too frequently, because it requires a certain sort of panache that only players like Bayer have. B

Awareness Week (BEST OF THE NIGHT) – This is the exact sort of sketch that one hires Adam Driver for. His erudite intensity is mandatory to sell the explication of the sadistic details involved in “social puppeteering.” And it is no wonder that he is paired up with Cecily Strong several times this episode, as she is just as likely to burrow deep into a thoroughly disturbed character. The writing does not fail them. It is not obvious right from the get-go what each trick will entail, and that goes a long way in maintaining viewer attention. B+

David Bowie Tribute – Because David Bowie influenced basically everybody in the entertainment world, and he appeared on “SNL” a number of times, a few minutes of this episode are devoted to his memory, with Fred Armisen (a similarly chameleonic performer) reminiscing about how the Thin White Duke brought “choir singers from the future” and the like onstage with him, leading into a segment of his 1979 performance of “The Man Who Sold the World.”

Golden Globes – Answering the question that nobody realized was so urgent (Do award winners’ children go to bed like they are told to?), the latest short from Matt & Oz manages a compelling sibling vibe between Kyle Mooney and Kate McKinnon, as they struggle to make it through the night while wondering what their mom and dad are up to. The debauchery that their parents (Adam Driver, Vanessa Bayer) get up to is standard alcohol-fueled vulgarity, but the bond between the kids taps into a quirky and emotional wellspring that is difficult to craft successfully. B+

Chris Stapletion – “Nobody to Blame” – Stapleton cools it down (a little more) and lets his tambourine player actually sing backup in this thematically familiar but tightly calibrated steady stomper. B-

The Doctor Is In… My Butt 4 – Like the first porn sketch interrupted by Aidy Bryant’s guileless child from the Amy Schumer episode, this edition exists in the same bizarrely confused state. I.e., is Aidy intruding on the porn production, or does she exist within the reality of this scene? There is no good reason to answer that question; that limbo is part of the appeal. Still, there is a feeling that these misunderstandings can only last so long before the truth is discovered, or at least peaked at. In the meantime, it is nice to see “SNL” not treating homoeroticism as a joke … except for the fact that everything in porn is a joke. So yeah, the strained puns might blunt the romance, but two (or more) guys getting it on is allowed just as much as the hetero action from the initial version of this. B

Notes & Quotes:
-Neil Cavuto (Kyle Mooney) refers to himself as “Fox Business rock star Neil Cavuto,” one of those jokes that may be a reference to an actual thing or just a random bit of nonsense.
-Che is excited about the private masturbation booths, because he’s getting tired of doing it in Colin’s office… He’s just kidding, he would never get tired of masturbating in Colin’s office.
-The Stop Social Puppeteering website is real, and it provides plenty of information: