‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: Natasha Lyonne Makes Her Hosting Debut

“Russian Doll” star Natasha Lyonne dropped by Studio 8H to host the season finale of “Saturday Night Live.”

“Saturday Night Live’s” 47th season was an interesting experiment, with the majority of hosts being first-timers. (And even for those return hosts, they were usually either stalwarts like John Mulaney or actors who hadn’t hosted in quite a while since their first time like Jake Gyllenhaal. Or they were Paul Rudd, who managed to wring multiple appearances out of his somewhat dashed version of his fifth time hosting.) This choice led to a much-needed freshness for the sketch comedy institution, and it all wrapped up with “Russian Doll” creator and star Natasha Lyonne in that first-timer hot seat.

Host: Natasha Lyonne

Now, despite Lyonne’s first-timer status as an “SNL” host, as she made clear in her opening monologue, the people at “SNL” were already her chosen family. Not only had she gone to “SNL” all the time as a New York teen, but she’d also had a long romantic relationship with Fred Armisen — which just ended last year — and was friends with people like him, Maya Rudolph, and Amy Poehler (who she’d co-created “Russian Doll” with). (By the way: Can it be considered a crime that Rudolph didn’t pop up in a sketch at all in this episode, when Armisen did? It should be considered a crime.)

And also despite Lyonne being a capital-a “Actress,” it was an interesting choice that — after Armisen and Rudolph gave their Lyonne impressions, which Rudolph truly excelled at, that is — she ultimately went the stand-up tight five route for her monologue. She even brought in archival footage, both of her childhood time on “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” and that time Fabio got a bird to the nose — the latter of which she was not a part of.

Lyonne’s had an interesting career, which as she noted included a bunch of “American Pie” movies and the terrific cult classic “But I’m a Cheerleader.” But she also mentioned the drug and arrest struggles she dealt with, something that almost feels like a fever dream if you’d followed her career from point A to the current point C.

Lyonne, of course, noted at the end of the monologue that she was “conflating events” and “glossing over entire decades,” but it was still quite a tight five in doing so. The point was her final beat, which was that, “There’s always hope in despair.” Considering how the world is going as this season wraps up, it’s something good to remember; and on a superficial level, with four cast members leaving after this episode (Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, Kyle Mooney, and Pete Davidson), it was quite an optimistic and triumphant way to close things out.

Kenan Thompson’s Treece Henderson is no Diondre Cole or even Reese De’What, but he’s definitely on solid ground when it comes to a Thompson recurring character. (This isn’t counting every Thompson game show host character. By the way, there was no game show sketch this week.) And his hotel lounge-singing, plenty of issues-having Henderson really is an old reliable type of character, especially when it comes time to wrap up a season. “Tweedle Dee…” is catchy as hell, even though that’s not the full content of this sketch. In this sketch, it was all about Thompson, Lyonne, and even Cecily Strong — as well as the audience members played by Chloe Fineman and Bowen Yang. (It’s worth noting it was never about Kyle Mooney, who was the keyboard-playing part of Henderson’s group, even when Strong’s character’s bit was just that she dances off to the side.) Fineman and Yang provided the tiny twist on the bit, with him being “gay” and her his “psychic” who just happened to be a psychic. But it was also a sketch that just relied on us all enjoying these performers, as there wasn’t more there to it than Lyonne playing harmonica in between her and Thompson’s conversations.

Actually, to be fair, the bit with her leading her ex to “Angela Bassett” Thompson’s clothes was funny. It just lost its teeth when Thompson proceeded to explain the “Waiting to Exhale” reference he’d just made and the live audience had seemed to get.

It was surprising that “Women’s Commercial” ended up not being a “lesbian sketch,” considering the initial use of “Closer to Fine” and then “Something to Talk About” and, of course, Bryant and McKinnon as a pairing one more time… Alright, it ended up being a polyamorous sketch, so close enough. This was the sketch of the episode where Lyonne didn’t get to be a central figure, but it was understandable because of the duo. (If they’d done all Bryant and McKinnon sketches this episode, it would’ve been okay.) The concept of “grey adult pigtails” (and “Richard” — Kyle Mooney) has made for sketch premises all by themself, so again, it was a delightful send-off

“PSA” had the task of being about “stupid” people — who, in case you missed it, also vote — and it succeeded, partially because it made it clear none of this was about mental health or learning disabilities. (It didn’t mention how words evolve, but that’s a whole other discussion, not a  sketch.) Thompson and Lyonne were especially funny as the dummies of the sketch, but Strong’s unnecessary voicebox and Bryant’s family being torn about by an interloping smart person were also high points. So don’t forget to vote.

Best Sketches of The Night: “After High School,” “Mr. Dooley,” & “Forgot About Lorne”

Call it a riff on “The Wonder Years,” call it a riff on the teen comedies of the ‘80s or ‘90s, the pre-tape sketch “After High School” hit on all fronts. (You could honestly also call it a riff on the works of Stanley Kubrick if you wanted to.) Andrew Dismukes ended this season that was both a feature on him and one that gave everyone a chance to shine in “After High School.” Voice-overing about where everyone ended up is a staple of the genre… but there was something to the sinister turn it all took, even before it all boiled down down to Rachel Finnster (Lyonne) and the final big reveal.

The instrumental of Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” was the natural music cue, the first of a few natural music cues in this episode. But even without realizing where it was all going to end, some things were pitch perfect: things like Thompson’s as the school DJ (a la Usher in “She’s All That”) and Ego Nwodim’s Kelly Rowland-esque hair (that some of us decided to try in middle school). The Rachel Finnster stuff went from funnily sad — of course in all of her chaos she ended up joining an anti-LGTBQ+ church—to scarily funny. Pretty much everyone got a bit in this sketch, which was the best way to end the season.

In case you have fond memories about the “Weekend at Bernie’s” movies and those memories tell you they were good movies, you shouldn’t. You know what was a good movie in the ‘80s? “9 to 5.” And Dabney Coleman was an integral part of both of those movies. So naturally, “SNL” decided to do a mash-up of the two movies, with Heidi Gardner’s Dolly Parton-inspired character killing Lyonne’s Coleman-inspired character to kick off the “Weekend at Bernie’s” part of the bit. 

“Mr. Dooley” was an extremely dumb sketch that worked because of how extremely dumb the original “Weekend at Bernie’s” premise was in the first place. (The ‘80s! Cocaine!) Poor, ticklish Natasha Lyonne? It was an exercise in ridiculous physical comedy, and that’s 100% why it worked. The low point was Armisen (doing a guest sketch appearance, perhaps for familiarity reasons) and Mooney’s characters easily figuring out Lyonne’s character (her second male character of the episode was dead), because it led to the window-jumping ending that suggested “SNL” had no idea how to end it. But at the same time… Armisen proved that it’s always funny to say “tickle” as you tickle someone (that’s where the familiarity came in, with the aggressive tickling) — which was ultimately the point of the sketch. Lyonne broke throughout the episode, but it was always in a way that involved a strange physicality, and this sketch was the perfect distillation of that.

Also, Gardner, Strong, and Nwodim were stupid funny in this sketch. It was messy but in the best way possible.

“I would just stop. … Yeah, they all suck.”

Davidson also got a cut for time sketch for his goodbye, “Forgot About Lorne” (“written by Lorne”). Davidson’s Lorne impression is no Dr. Evil… but he definitely had one, as shown by both Weekend Update and this sketch. The sketch also ended up being a full goodbye for the whole departing foursome, including our Lil’ Baby Aidy.

That one of Davidson’s best rap parody sketches — ending with a callback to his initial Adam Sandler comparisons — ended up cut for time is hilarious in and of itself, isn’t it?

Worst Sketch of The Night: “Final Encounter Cold Open”

Once again: In this case, “worst sketch” does not mean bad sketch. In fact, this sketch succeeded as soon as it revealed that its “political” premise was a bait and switch. To reiterate: This was a good sketch compared to what could’ve happened in previous cold opens. (The Benedict Cumberbatch cold open is still the contemporary gold standard though.) Alright.

Now, despite the fact that this sketch seemed to exist solely to get the guest (and Bryant) to break — or maybe just Ryan Gosling made it seem that way — these “Encounter” always manages to actively work against that premise. The camera work ends up being framed in a way that you’ll never really see the host’s reactions until the last bits — which was the case here, with McKinnon really trying to get Lyonne to break, which wasn’t as successful as in the “Mr. Dooley” sketch — despite it being the supposed point of the sketch. Again “worst” sketch of the night typically doesn’t actually mean bad, so let’s not pretend McKinnon’s send-off at the end wasn’t actually touching. But in the pantheon of the Colleen Rafferty sketches, it was certainly the weakest of the bunch. (That Strong is also the same character throughout these bits but not “the draw” should be noted too. And the audience definitely knew that and reacted accordingly when they went wild for this.)

Final Thoughts

In terms of the goodbyes to the departing cast members, Kyle Mooney was the only one who didn’t really get any fanfare. In that case, supposedly you could say his Baby Yoda bit on Weekend Update last week was his official farewell, but that would be disappointing. (If only there could’ve been one final Chris Fitzpatrick sketch.) Davidson was able to say goodbye while clowning on Colin Jost — who, unfortunately, didn’t get to trade jokes with Michael Che — and talking about how much Lorne Michaels truly meant to him as a father figure.

Hours before this episode, I’d tweeted about how Bryant deserved her flowers for her time at “SNL.”… and then the returning Trend Forecasters feature allowed her to literally get them. In fact, I typically don’t personalize these reviews, but I have to mention that I cried at both Bowen Yang and Michael Che kissing her on the cheek to end this bit and Che literally giving her her flowers. We’ll miss you Aidy B. Not so much, Navel Oranges.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrdisQEnCajwdM

In another life, Lyonne easily could’ve been an “SNL” cast member. This is not being said in the Justin Timberlake way — which, as good as he was and would be should he return, the discourse of him basically being another cast member was always exhausting — but in the fact that her acting chops and her connection to people in the “SNL” camp could’ve easily parlayed her way into such a role. Plus, this episode already had Davidson say anyone could be an “SNL” cast member, so it’s not like Lyonne would be on the bottom tier of “anyone.”

As the initial sketch of the episode — not counting the cold open — “‘50s Baseball Broadcast” truly was a tour de force for Lyonne, simultaneously channeling a mess of a male ‘50s radio broadcaster and Lucille Ball (the thumbnail for the video is uncanny in that way). Not just in her performance in times of her line delivery but in her physical comedy too, as she was constantly undressing and redressing herself throughout.

And even when Lyonne wasn’t the focus of the sketch, it still felt like “SNL” wrote for her, which was not quite the case for Selena Gomez (who was a great host) last week.

Grade: A-

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: The Best and Worst of Natasha Lyonne’s Hosting Debut

About: Bunga Citra