Picture this: It’s Jan. 29, and (presumably your favorite actor) Willem Dafoe is hosting Saturday Night Live (presumably your favorite show). “This is it,” you think. “The best night of my life is about to commence.”
It doesn’t. The night is average, and you go to bed disappointed. “At least the Weekend Update was kind of funny,” you say to yourself, succumbing to dreams of Katy Perry’s phallic mushroom backup dancers.
Brandishing some fantastic recent performances, extensive theater experience and a proclivity to fully commit to over the top roles, Dafoe’s showing should have been a slam dunk. And yet, even with all the pieces in place, the most recent episode of SNL fell flat.
I felt the same way during the prior week’s show, hosted by SNL alumnus Will Forte. Actually, I felt this way quite a few times throughout season 47. So what gives? Why are these great performers getting stuck with uninspired sketches and forgettable episodes? Is this the end? Is SNL spiraling into critical disrepair on its rickety last limbs?
It isn’t, but there is a problem. A lot of people would blame the cast, but while there aren’t any Murrays, Ferrells or Haders in the current lineup (the three best Williams in SNL history), I don’t think the issue stems from the cast. The issue is, perhaps, a less obvious one: SNL isn’t always great at playing to its hosts’ strengths.
The most recent episode of SNL embodies this trend. Coming off the hot streak of “The French Dispatch” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” it made sense that SNL would bring Dafoe on to host sooner rather than later. Dafoe is known for leaning into over-the-top roles and fully committing to outrageous performances; I had no doubt in my mind that he was going to crush it.
But a stellar host is not enough to make for good television. Dafoe’s episode is weighed down by a string of sketches stretching from underwhelming to just plain bad. From an exhaustingly unfunny dog show to a sketch that somehow manages to make Willem Dafoe miming autofellatio boring (I’m as surprised as you are), the most recent episode of SNL didn’t live up to the hype I’d optimistically thrust upon it.
Willem Dafoe isn’t really known for being a comedic actor, but the man oozes pizzaz. His performances are animated, his face is expressive and his enthusiasm for oddball roles is electrifying. The man is hard to look away from, yet the show cast him as a straight-faced dog show announcer and a self help book author.
Dafoe never does a bad job. He’s versatile, and frequently the highlight of the sketches he’s a part of, but he never really feels properly utilized. The majority of sketches felt remarkably lackluster, and the few that really felt made for Dafoe kind of fell to the sidelines.
His appearances as the infomercial spokesperson in the insomnia song and the giddy Frenchman in the “Beauty and the Beast” sketch felt like Dafoe at his freest, but they too seemed bogged down by the framework of the sketches they’re trapped in.
The best sketch of the night was the charmingly unhinged “Office Song,” containing a spontaneous cover of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and Dafoe throwing a chair through a fifteenth story window. The sketch is unpolished and nonsensical, but it shows just how much a performance can be elevated when a guest host gets to do their thing. Dafoe wields the spotlight, but he doesn’t crowd it. The whole sketch works in his favor, and he works with it.
SNL thrives when sketches play to hosts’ strengths: take Billie Eilish’s episode in December. SNL can feel like it “writes around” their non-comedian hosts, putting them in the background as though they’re obstacles to comedy, but Eilish does a great job. She’s not known for being an actor, but the show gives her lots to do within her comfort zone, including a fun throwback musical sketch, a charmingly deadpan hotel ad and the delightfully dark and expressive “Lonely Christmas” sketch.
I went in hesitant, but the Eilish episode of SNL impressed me. It’s proof that the current writers have the ability to properly utilize their guests’ talents when they think outside the box while still working within their host’s wheelhouse.
Folks have been lambasting SNL for decades. It only takes a quick look at Twitter or the YouTube comment section to find a slew of comments stating that SNL hasn’t been good in 10, 20, 30, 40 years, if it was ever good at all.
And yet, the show continues. It’s an American ritual, like going to a baseball game or eating too much fast food. It’s not always enjoyable, but what would we as a nation be without it? SNL is a lot like a sports team. It has ups and downs, on seasons and off seasons, but you never know exactly how a show is going to go until 11:30 p.m. EST on Saturday night.
It’d take a lot to kill SNL, and a chain of disappointing performances is far from doing that. Despite this recent trend of squandered potential, I am hopeful. We’ve seen that SNL has the capacity to properly apply their hosts. It’s time they get to doing it.
Don’t make me rescind my hope, upcoming fifth John Mulaney episode. A lot is resting in your hands.
Gerrit Punt PO ’24 is a thing-watcher from Montana. His hobbies include pacing nervously, and he wishes more than anything that TSL would let him use an oxford comma, even just once.