Live from New York: Dan Levy hosts a jovial ‘Saturday Night Live’

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Despite 2016-era rumblings about how Donald Trump’s dangerous brand of lunacy would be “good for comedy,” I’d argue his tenure in the White House has been significantly detrimental to “Saturday Night Live.” The incalculable, exhausting trials of the Trump presidency stretched the “SNL” writing staff as no other politician has — how do you heighten a reality that’s this crazy? — resulting in turgid, cameo-laden political sketches that often amounted to verbatim recitations of the week’s news with no comedic spin.

It will be interesting to watch “SNL” leave the Trump era in the second half of its 46th season, hopefully transitioning to more cold opens that don’t include Alec Baldwin’s shopworn Trump impression. The show had a tough time of it last week, serving up an episode that gave into the show’s worst impulses (Kate McKinnon breaking the fourth wall, John Krasinski and Pete Davidson kissing in an ill-conceived grasp at a viral moment). Thankfully, this week’s episode was a step forward. The politics were mostly relegated to “Weekend Update” (a good move until “SNL” figures out how to regain some of the hilarious acid it’s lobbied at administrations past) and Dan Levy’s hosting performance was decidedly skillful, infused with the relentless optimism and easy snark that defines his much-lauded “Schitt’s Creek.”

This week’s cold open was the first of a few Super Bowl-related sketches, showcasing Kenan Thompson as “James ‘No, Not That One’ Brown,” the host of a pre-game show. The format mostly facilitated a loose collection of jokes rather than a unifying premise; the best jokes came from mocking impending “woke” Super Bowl commercials. Levy’s ensuing monologue, which saw him go backstage to show off the studio’s coronavirus precautions, was enthusiastic but uneven. It’s hard to make people chuckle at COVID-19 protocols, but at least Levy’s father Eugene made a sweet appearance.

Other Super Bowl sketches included “Super Bowl Pod,” in which a group of friends accept each others’ increasingly nonsensical excuses for why it’s safe to gather — “I’m a mouth massager, but like, that’s work!” — before discovering that they can’t taste the chili they’ve just been served. This was one of the show’s better attempts at COVID-related humor; making fun of hypocritical behavior is an easy mark. The sketch ended on an odd button, though — we’ve been watching a PSA, and here’s McKinnon as Dr. Fauci introducing… Psy? 

“Weekend Update” introduced some great new characters, including a hysterical bit with Heidi Gardner and Mikey Day as Twitter activists who “cancel” children. Colin Jost took a jab at Joe Biden — “This economy needs a massage, and Joe Biden isn’t waiting for permission” — while Michael Che incorporated a couple of stand-bys (implying Jost is racist and lobbying digs at NBC) with a punchline about country star Morgan Wallen.

The rest of the night’s sketches were neither political nor topical, relying on situational humor and character work. The pre-taped segments were particularly strong this week. “It Gets Better” checked in on campaign participants in their adult lives, who used the opportunity to complain about new worries such as income tax and getting bullied about their opinions on Chromatica. “Zillow” was especially funny, positing that adults in their late 30s now get erotic pleasure from browsing houses online — Bowen Yang’s sensual “Oh, fuck!” after Levy tells him the guest house comes with a kitchen merited a chef’s kiss. 

Levy shone in his energetic portrayals of a coffee-addled trainee in “Universal Tram,” a passive-aggressive friend of the bride in “Wedding Friends” and an insufferable white “ally” in “Lifting Our Voices.” Levy’s demeanor in these offered glimpses of the quirks he embodies as David Rose on “Schitt’s Creek” — familiar, if reliably crowd-pleasing territory. These sketches, especially “Universal Tram,” relied on straightforward premises that mostly landed: Day as an experienced, plucky Universal Studios tour guide and the wonderful Ego Nwodim as an enabling tour bus driver provided great comedic support for Levy’s character.

All in all, this week’s “SNL” was an upbeat, back-to-basics affair. Hopefully, the show manages to maintain this momentum in next week’s episode, hosted by the great Regina King!

Sketch of the week: “Zillow”

“Update” line of the week: “Former social media influencer Donald Trump will not testify at his impeachment trial next week.”

Grace Orriss covers television. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @graceorriss.