Saturday Night Live: host Rami Malek gets upstaged by 007 himself

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Saturday Night Live opens with a message from the National Football League. Universally despised commissioner Roger Goodell (Colin Jost) addresses the scandal that’s enveloped the league following the leak of Las Vegas Raiders’ head coach Jon Gruden’s emails, which contained numerous racist, misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic comments. Goodell is horrified and offended by the content of the emails, not least of all because he factors heavily in many of them, with Gruden referring to him as “the F-word, the P-word, the C-word, the R-word, the F’ing-R-word, and the F’ing-R-word-P-word. And once, weirdly, I was called a DILF.”

Related: Saturday Night Live: host Kim Kardashian West struggles to keep up

He then hands the mic over to a series of speakers, including Gruden himself (James Austin Johnson), who plays innocent (“I hope you won’t judge me on one email I sent ten years ago … or the 20 emails I sent last Tuesday”); Raiders owner Mark Davis (Alex Moffat), aka, “the botched circumcision”; new chairman of women’s relations for the NFL, a cheerleader from the Washington football team ([Heidi Gardner], “I, just like my team, don’t have a name”); a new, mascot, Giuseppe, the Stinky Italian (Mikey Day); Colin Kaepernick (Chris Redd), who sarcastically wonders if anyone had recently raised warnings about racism in the NFL; and, finally, the Raiders’ new head coach, LaVar Burton, who sings everyone off with a new, football-themed rendition of the Reading Rainbow theme.

Another week, another SNL cold open built around a seemingly endless stream of brief, walk-on impersonations, most of which leave us wanting. Still, there’s some decent stuff to be found here – Johnson does a good (if not particularly memorable) impression of Gruden, Day is funny as a conscience-stricken stereotype, and the show makes good use of Jost’s inherent smarminess by casting him as Goodell.

Tonight’s host is Oscar winning actor and new James Bond villain Rami Malek. Speaking of Bond: the last episode of Saturday Night Live before the Covid-19 pandemic went into full swing saw host Daniel Craig promoting his latest (and last) entry in the 007 franchise, No Time to Die. Obviously, that film would be shelved for 19 months, during which time SNL would go on hiatus, before transition to remote and limited capacity tapings for a long while. With the film now finally out in theaters and the show pretty much back to normal, this episode marks something of a milestone for both institutions. The only question now is: can Malek rise to meet the occasion?

He admits right off the bat that he’s not too practiced at comedy, his “resting villain face” making him gravitate towards playing bad guys in serious dramas (although a quick perusal at the actor’s filmography puts the lie to this claim). He proves his point by hurrying through an annoyingly mannered stand-up routine about how villains are always misunderstood: “Jaws is hungry; Dracula is thirsty, Frankenstein is horny … Darth Vader is just trying to reconnect with his son … Freddy Krueger is just encouraging kids to dream.”

Malek mostly sticks to the background in his first sketch, playing one of a group of awkward middle schoolers dressed as insects for a bug assembly. (“It’s sort of like Burning Man for the weird kids,” their teacher explains.) This is all Bowen Yang’s show, as he vamps it up to the nth degree in his daddy long legs costume, dancing to techno music and playing the diva (“I’m hot, I party, I walk into the room and I’m respected – NO MORE QUESTIONS!”). Yang’s fans should find a lot to enjoy here, although there is a palpable theater kid energy to the whole thing that many will likely find off-putting.

You figured SNL wouldn’t pass up the chance to satirize Netflix’s latest cultural juggernaut, and indeed, the show delivers a parody of the hit South Korean dystopian drama Squid Game, by way of a modern pop-country ballad as sung by Davidson and Malek: “Yes I’m broke and it’s a damn shame/Guess I gotta play the Squid Game.”

If (like me), you’re one of the handful of people who hasn’t seen an episode, you’ll likely by lost by the highly specific jokes and visual references (so specific that they apparently spoil the entire arc of the series), but there’s some solid laughs to be mined from it regardless – particularly Malek and Davidson’s traumatized reactions to watching their teammates get gunned down by a giant robot schoolgirl and a closing stinger aimed at the New York Jets.

The casting process for a new biopic of Prince – to be directed by Jordan Peele – comes down to between Malek and Kenan Thompson, resulting in a “Prince-off” (a series of brief, monosyllabic twists and grunts that repeat way too many times). Ultimately, despite Malek looking way more like Prince, the job goes to Thompson, since he’s black. “My parents are from Egypt! That’s in Africa,” Malek protests, but the producers aren’t biting. Before things wrap up, we’re treated to a surprise appearance from Daniel Craig, who barges in demanding to audition for what he believes is the part of a royal prince. His game energy gives the sketch – and the show as a whole – a brief shot in the arm.

On the game show Celeb School, the famous faces that make up the guest panel include John Oliver (Mikey Day), Jennifer Coolidge (Chloe Fineman), Adam Driver (Johnson), Kristen Wiig (Melissa Villaseñor), George Takei (Yang), Lil’ Wayne (Redd), and bug-eyed doppelgangers Rami Malek and Pete Davidson (each playing the other).

Oliver bungles a question with one of his rote rants, Coolidge rambles her way into a correct answer, Weezy ghosts it, Wiig goofs around, Driver immediately flies into rage mode and Takei whines about his former Star Trek co-star/rival William Shatner’s recent trip into outer space. The impressions are all pretty spot-on, including Malek and Davidson’s. It would have been easy enough for the show to simply acknowledge their resemblance, but credit to both, they do a pretty good job actually aping one another.

On Weekend Update, Jost shares a recent picture of Timothée Chalamet in costume as a “twink Willy Wonka” for a forthcoming prequel film about the character. He then introduces – and accidentally outs – his first guest, A Proud Gay Oompa Loompa (Yang). The green haired, orange skinned munchkin, who planned to discuss an upcoming worker’s strike at Wonka’s candy factory, worries what his family will think of him (“They live in Loompa Land. It’s not as progressive as here, they, like, just got Will & Grace.”), while also using his newfound freedom to unload on his idiot boss: “Point blank, the man doesn’t know how to make chocolate! He’s an ideas man who’s never touched a machine. He just tumbles into the inventing room and says something like, ‘Oh, what about a gumdrop that makes children dream silly dreams?’, and it’s like, yeah, bitch, what about it? Meanwhile, we’re up all night rehearsing the little song and dance we do when a child DIES.” Yang’s appearances on Update can often feel very one-note, but this one evades that by switching back and forth between two different, and enjoyable, premises.

Next up, Chris Redd joins Michael Che to address his controversial comments during his last Very Important Unimportant News segment back in February of 2020, in which he signed off by saying “Black people can’t get coronavirus!” Redd defends himself by noting that “I was just saying something crazy! I’m not a scientist – I went to community college, which is like high school, but you can have sex with your teacher!” He also devotes a couple of funny minutes to questioning the existence of blimps and defending “Superman’s son in the comics being a little bi-sex boy now”. Redd is always good on Update, and hopefully he becomes a mainstay of the segment this year.

Then, a married couple shopping for a new mattress test some of the models by acting out their nightly routine: an ultra-venomous back-and-forth that sees Aidy Bryant’s wife viciously laying in to Malek’s henpecked husband (“You reek of vermouth and WHORES!”), while he angrily masturbates under the covers. A funny, inspired send-up of psychosexual stage dramas like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Yang’s horrified salesman even accuses the couple of “doing a little play” at one point – this sketch unfortunately loses the thread, devolving much less enjoyable slapstick mugging during its back end.

In the final sketch of the night, Craig and Cecily Strong play a couple out on a date at a nightclub. They’re there to see a musician named Angelo – newcomer Aristotle Athari, getting his first big moment in the spotlight (literally) – who improvises songs based on words suggested by the audience. Craig’s suggestions – “bicycle”, “banana” and “road trip” – earn the same confused query from the soft-voiced French singer: “Say for me?”

Eventually, Angelo is joined by Malek’s equally enigmatic dancer, Todd, who awkwardly sashays about the stage. The specificity of these bizarre characters earns some bewildered laughs from the audience, although Craig’s befuddled everyman and Strong’s increasingly annoyed date make for the more engaging characters.

After a bit of a rocky start, Malek ended up acquitted himself just fine as host, although the contrast between him and the far more charismatic and comedically inclined Craig didn’t do him any favors. Here’s hoping Craig comes back for another hosting gig sometime in the near future.

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