7:17am PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: Kate McKinnon's 'Hallelujah,' Dave Chappelle's Monologue Spark First Post-Election 'SNL'
I committed to writing about the Nov. 12 episode of Saturday Night Live a couple weeks back when the assumption was that, airing four days after election night, it would mark a likely wrap for Alec Baldwin's necessity as Donald Trump.
As you may possibly have heard, rather than canceling Trump, the American people — not a majority or a plurality, but still — gave him a four-year pickup in a vote that still has a lot of the country feeling somewhere between perplexed and emotionally decimated. That turn of events made this week's SNL worth checking in on, hopefully ameliorated by the beyond-enticing combination of unpredictable genius Dave Chappelle as host and hip-hop legends A Tribe Called Quest as musical guest.
It happened that Trump (and Baldwin) was nowhere to be seen on Saturday's episode. I don't have Baldwin's booking schedule or Lorne Michaels' call sheet handy, but I'm just going to assume that a decision was made that this wasn't the time to try to make viewers laugh at a caricature of the president-elect. That's not to say that SNL was aspiring to respect or kowtow toward Trump, not that you'd be so wrong to suspect that of a show that squandered incalculable credibility when Trump hosted almost a year ago tonight, but rather to suggest that many things that made viewers laugh when it came to Baldwin's take on Trump might not play as funny for at least another few days or weeks or months.
I don't think SNL and Baldwin have made an announcement about an ongoing Trump relationship, so we'll have to see how that goes. SNL likes to do presidential sketches, but remember how long the show made do with Fred Armisen's embarrassingly bad Barack Obama impression and then even though Jay Pharoah was better, try to think back to when we last had an Obama sketch and that's even before Pharoah left. Baldwin could either be utilized regularly once every few episodes or never.
Instead of showcasing Trump, Saturday's episode began by playing to that portion of the audience feeling emotionally decimated about the election, combining it with sadness at this week's passing of Leonard Cohen.
The opening was Kate McKinnon at a piano singing "Hallelujah," and although I've been a part of that mob saying that the greatest tribute to Cohen would be a moratorium on aggressive and manipulative overuse of "Hallelujah," it turns out that what the song really needed was to be covered by Hillary Clinton. Or was the performance McKinnon, in her Clinton wig and pantsuit, reflecting personally as a salute to a woman she's grown closely associated with? McKinnon wasn't really "doing" her Hillary impression, but she was filtering Cohen's haunting song through an image of Clinton.
I was just relishing a well-sung, but familiar, cover of "Hallelujah" until McKinnon/Clinton got to this verse:
"I did my best, it wasn't much / I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch / I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you / And even though it all went wrong / I'll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah."
McKinnon's voice was cracking slightly as she sang, but I don't even know how she did that well. If SNL had been rewriting the song to speculate on Clinton's most personal, internal reaction to her election defeat, you'd have thought that verse was too on-the-nose, but coming directly from Cohen and through McKinnon, it was almost too perfect. I think that even if you're not a Hillary supporter and you don't believe that verse coming from her in sincerity, you can still interpret it as a powerful note of self-justification.
She closed the song with, "I'm not giving up and neither should you," and once again it could have been Clinton or McKinnon speaking.
I immediately fell behind in the episode to watch "Hallelujah" two more times. It was that good. Now in most SNL episodes, chances are solid that things wouldn't just be downhill from there, they'd drop off a cliff, but Chappelle then gave one of the best "standup"-style monologues in recent memory, a mixture of scathing "too soon" commentary on the election and race relations and the problems facing our splintered country, followed by an earnest conclusion that you can either endorse or not.
"I didn’t know that Donald Trump was going to win the election," Chappelle began. "I did suspect it. It seemed like Hillary was doing well in the polls and yet — I know the whites. You guys aren’t as full of surprises as you used to be."
Yeah, some of Chappelle's monologue felt like it needed more work. "We’ve actually elected an internet troll as our president," Chappelle cracked early on, which would have made him only the 75th person in your Twitter feed to make basically the same joke, but he started shallow and dug deeper, touching on mass shootings, the challenges of upward mobility in the black community and his response to friends asking if he's going to leave the country after the election results.
"All my black friends who have money said the same thing when Trump got elected: 'That’s it, bro, I’m out. I’m leaving the country, you coming with us?' 'Nah, I’m good, dog. I’m going to stay here and get this tax break, see how it works out,'" said Chappelle.
Maybe that was a joke, but maybe that also was why Chappelle closed his monologue with an almost punchline-free (unless you're Bradley Cooper) two minutes about the pride he felt at a recent BET party for Obama and the hope that even in a moment of darkness, things might stay on course. "[I]n that spirit, I’m wishing Donald Trump luck. And I’m going to give him a chance, and we, the historically disenfranchised, demand that he give us one, too."
Might I have bought Chappelle's closing better if there hadn't been reports about his pre-SNL comedy appearances working out new material that included the BET story and a surprising amount of support for the pre-election Trump? Yes. But I still appreciated the effort to find a point of reconciliation that had nothing to do with any actual faith in Trump and more to do with optimism about the moral arc of the universe.
Chappelle was actually even more pointed in the episode's first sketch, in which he and special guest Chris Rock attended an election party in which media-savvy white friends started election night enthusiastic and gradually came to suspect, after a long evening of voting results, that America may still have a few issues with racism as Rock and Chappelle laughed. And then the election coverage continued with a lengthy "Weekend Update" segment that wasn't hugely funny, but did include McKinnon as Ruth Bader Ginsburg guzzling a huge quantity of dry Emergen-C. Those highlights were enough that the rest of the episode mostly got to coast.
A bevy of Chappelle's Show characters, most notably crack-loving Tyrone Biggums, appeared in a filmed bit lampooning this season's brutal The Walking Dead premiere, and while it wasn't very deep, neither was the Walking Dead premiere and it's OK to just want to miss Chappelle's Show for a couple minutes. I chuckled a couple times at a disastrously bad sketch that became a post-sketch press conference about what went wrong. I dug how gung-ho Chappelle and McKinnon were in the last call at the bar sketch.
And A Tribe Called Quest was fantastic. In any given SNL season, there might only be an episode or two in which I'll watch both musical performances without fast-forwarding, but "We the People …" with an extended tribute to the late Phife Dawg was great, and guest appearances by Busta Rhymes and Consequence kept me watching their second number, "The Space Program." Given how rarely Tribe does appearances like this, I'd have traded a sketch for a third number, something from Tribe's back catalog, but I also understand they were there to push a new album and so be it.
Watching Saturday's episode, I was left with no idea of how SNL plans to handle our post-election new normal — it's not like this is the show's first election — but they handled the immediate aftermath well.