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First time host Owen Wilson brought a much needed coolness to what could have been an overly performative monologue. (Photo provided by @nbcsnl via Twitter). 

SNL season 47 kickoff has charming host, so-so jokes

Saturday Night Live’s season debut screamed “rebrand.” Although the show kicked off with a traditional political cold open, the sets looked about the same, and cast favorites Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong stole the show, the cast’s dynamic changes couldn’t be ignored. For one, Joe Biden was played by a newbie. 

Last season, the respectably subtle Alex Moffatt gave the current U.S. president a go after guest impressions by Jim Carrey, John Mulaney and Woody Harrelson fell a bit flat. Moffatt’s impression was received relatively well. But it appears the show-runners have already moved in a new direction. 

This time, when the cameras queued, the face of Biden, which is typically only partially permuted by prosthetics, was unplaceable. His name is James Austin Johnson, a quick Google search confirms, and he was in four of the major live sketches tonight. Many in the Twitter-sphere have already started comparing his likeness to early 2000s cast member Darrell Hammond. 

He is not the only featured player to get a significant amount of airtime for a season debut, as the kooky stylings of Sarah Sherman certainly made an impact on the audience. In the goofy episode closer, she and second-year featured player Andrew Dismukes play overenthusiastic scientists in a stool-testing service infomercial who vow they will not play with the mailed-in feces. 

Along with the strong presence of these new faces, there was a certified lack of regulars. Beck Bennett is the only main cast member to have left the show over the summer, and the lack of zany Bennett-Kyle Mooney chemistry certainly left something to be desired, but Bennett wasn’t the only hole in the episode. Kate McKinnon was nowhere to be found. Chris Redd and Mikey Day were virtually excluded. Emmy nominee Bowen Yang made a memeable impact with his one line in the School Board Meeting, but it was still only one line. 

Additionally, the new title cards have a slow-fade, artsy look, in stark contrast to their previously upbeat style. The distinct reputation of its late night, New York setting is somewhat lost upon these creative choices.

Not all of the newness was a bad thing. First time host Owen Wilson brought a much-needed coolness to what could have been an overly performative monologue. Drawing attention to his teenage rebellion and “golden retriever-like” traits, Wilson’s politically ambiguous, brother-centric stand-up did just what it needed to do to reassure the viewer that whatever happens happens. Perfection is unattainable, and we’re all just along for the ride.

Wilson contributed solidly performance-wise, playing the straight man in almost all of the live skits. His acting peaked with a Jeff Bezos impression in the Star Trek: Ego Quest digital short, but, even after, his presence proved comforting. His signature voice (a bit nasal, with rounded vowels and soft tone), came in handy for the nondescript roles of doctor, priest, sports commentator, teacher, and of course, Owen Wilson himself, in a silly Cars 4 voiceover skit that probably made a bunch of fifteen year old boys lose their minds.  

Weekend Update still remains the highest quality segment the show has to offer, with Colin Jost and Michael Che coming in strong with timely jokes despite the less “exciting” political atmosphere. Che challenged viewers with two off-color R. Kelly zingers, and Pete Davidson performed his self-deprecation schtick looking the healthiest he’s ever been. A tribute to the late Update host Norm MacDonald gave the section an undeniable edge in comedy and sentimentality. 

After Weekend Update, it appears the show ran out of jokes. An entire skit dedicated to riffing on someone’s dead grandma loving R. Kelly, a dry piece about a strange reality TV show that two NFL commentators are required to advertise, and last but not least, the mail-in stool sample infomercial. Nothing worth discussing or even commending for creativity; just a bunch of ideas that will fall into the Youtube abyss indefinitely.

Having kept up with the cast and the show for quite a few years now, I do have faith the cast can adapt to this transitional weirdness, especially once McKinnon returns. However, next week’s host is Kim Kardashian West, a commercial move that doesn’t inspire much faith in the comedic process. 

The show should fall into its groove by the time Jason Sudeikis returns to the show (his first time back since leaving the main cast in 2013). However, that won’t be until October 23. SNL is trusting its audience to hold out through two awkward hosts, Kardashian West and Rami Malek, which may test some longtime fans’ patience. 

The best thing for the show to do in the meantime is to bring back the Redd-Nwodim-Thompson digital short songwriting team, give a Kyle Mooney solo outing a chance, and allow Cecily Strong lots and lots of screentime. The featured players can sub in where convenient. 


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