Photo: NBC/Will Heath/NBC
Her music doesn’t tell you this, but Adele’s funny. In the past, she’s only appeared as SNL’s musical guest, or as the glue holding American families together, but her less melodic appearances make it clear she’s got more than just a good sense of humor. She speaks with unselfconscious sass, and takes celebrity in stride; she doesn’t just commit to the dumb games she’s made to play on talk shows, she elevates them; she makes Beyoncé laugh and lets Jennifer Lawrence tackle her in the gay bars of New York. All this, and she’s got a delightfully wicked cackle.
SNL didn’t confirm Adele until late last week, but even if she was a late invitee, Lorne Michaels’s instincts about her proved out. Whether as a vengeful ghost or a noxious version of herself, Adele throws herself into roles; despite confessing nervousness, she seems quite at home. She enjoys herself so much, in fact, that she nearly derails a sketch by laughing so hard. Here’s our breakdown, scene by scene.
As per tradition, this week’s sketches are ranked here from best to worst.
Much of Update’s first half is devoted to a dissection of the final debate, and much of that is Colin Jost lecturing Joe Biden about what he didn’t do. The best moment comes when Michael Che cops to having a hard, strange week and then delivers a shamefaced admission that he thought the president was going to die from COVID-19. After some gags about the age of the presidential candidates, Melissa Villaseñor arrives to talk about quarantining alone. She delivers micro-impressions of the Little Rascals, Link from Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda games, Stevie Nicks, and Sia. While the entire piece feels fractured, Villaseñor is such a likable, talented mimic that it ultimately doesn’t matter.
Jokes in the second half take on Mitch McConnell’s strange bruises, Thanksgiving at Popeye’s, and the terrible things that happen on playgrounds near the Vatican. There’s a great one about a new Elton John–themed Barbie doll, and the anchors get credit for following through on a truly and exquisitely dumb Phil Collins joke. Update ends with an appearance from the costume-loving ’70s collective the Village People, who sing a doctored version of “YMCA” to issue a cease and desist to the Trump campaign for using “YMCA.” The vibe is silly, the dancing energetic, and everything Kenan Thompson does is gold. It’s also a lot funnier the second time, given the posted version with lyrics printed at the bottom — in trying to cram lots of information into the syncopated lines, some specifics got lost. Didn’t catch that Epstein line at all in the live show.
Ah, how ignorant, how unafflicted, how hopeful we were just 12 months ago! This sketch, about one very canny psychic’s predictions for her customers waaaaaay back in 2019, serves up the strange, unbelievable world of 2020 to those who have never heard of COVID-19. The washing of Doritos, the use of adult coloring books, the slighting of Louis DeJoy — all of these nicely chosen details really give a sense of how far the world has come since March. While the titular character may not be Kate McKinnon’s most detailed, McKinnon of course does a fine job keeping the sketch moving — not to mention doing her best to make Adele break. The Jeffrey Toobin stuff feels a little gratuitous, but it doesn’t upend the otherwise smart reframing of the absurd present.
Given SNL’s take on the debates thus far, and the fact that the third debate was hosted on NBC, the content of this sketch feels preordained. As Kristen Welker, Maya Rudolph has plenty of dialogue but no stand-out bits. Not a lot in the general debate recap stands out, either. The writers continue to address Joe Biden’s inner monologue, and with it, Jim Carrey gets time for a bit of scenery nibbling. Some of the jokes the writers lean into, e.g., Biden Bingo, feel a bit stale. (For this reason, Rudy Giuliani’s appearance — which plays on his appearance in the new Borat movie — comes as a welcome, silly aside.) There is some nice, careful writing, in particular during the candidates’ closing statements. Here, Trump’s messy word salad sums up quite a lot about his person and his presidency, and Biden’s septuagenarian metaphors get to the heart of his blessedly inoffensive appeal.
Unlike the usual Bachelor sketch format of shallow personalities spouting inanities, the presence here of Adele — as herself — changes everything. With every little slight, the overbearing, needy Adele is on her feet belting “Someone Like You” or “Hello” in order to cope with her many, many feels. With H.E.R. serving as SNL’s musical guest for the night, this sketch allows us to have our cake and eat it, too: Adele sings a medley of her big hits, which just happen to double as comic punctuation. While the sketch doesn’t expand or change beyond its initial premise, Adele’s complete willingness to prod her persona and her art make this one a winner.
Though the satisfied divorcees of this tourism ad (Adele, Kate McKinnon, and Heidi Gardner) seem to be discussing some tropical island quite a bit smaller than Africa, it hardly matters — the only thing that holds sway is all the great “bamboo” provided by the many, tall “tribesman” with whom the ladies seem pretty taken. Yes, these mature ladies are all about getting their share of vitamin D, and all of the suggestive metaphors get Adele giggling—so much so that she’s missing her cues. There are plenty of great little ideas here, e.g. connections that are so deep one can “feel them in her stomach,” but it’s going to be remembered for Adele doubling over with laughter.
While gathered below their grandmother’s balcony at the old folks’ home, some adult grandchildren try (and fail) to communicate the difficulties they’re going through during the pandemic. As grandma, Maya Rudolph is pitch perfect. Add up the syllables, and she probably has less to say than any of the other characters, but she fills out every single bewildered “Wha?” and affirming “O-kaay.” This sketch works on a couple of levels. The most obvious: It’s a gag about grandma’s hearing, and what it is she’s willing to hear. Additionally, there’s an idea here that the nuances of millennials’ lives don’t mean a thing to older generations — and maybe millennials complicate things that are, at the end of the day, pretty black-and-white.
Can the nation handle four more years of “scandal, name-calling, and racial division”? The voters in this ad suggest that it can’t — but if Biden gets elected, what exactly are we all going to talk about? This sketch is about the withdrawal many Americans might endure after the constant barrage of tweets and headlines generated by Trump’s presidency ebbs. There are some painful truths here: Some people have made hating Trump their “entire personality,” while others can’t help but be impressed by the “next-level shit” with which Trump manages to get away. This one’s about the text rather than the performers, but the ensemble does create a nice rhythm (with the help of editors).
This gauzy ’80s jeans ad features plenty of feathered hair and whispery dialogue, but the perfumed Ass Angel jeans are significantly more dangerous than Jordache. With its weird-ass concept and unusual trajectory, this is a true 10-to-1 sketch. The frame’s pretty elaborate, considering that it’s about pants that smell like cake and burn the wearer. That said, Beck Bennett’s hamming, the head-to-toe denim outfits, and Adele’s genteel American accent make it all fairly hypnotic. While the audience at 8H remains pretty quiet and presumably baffled by all this, there will no doubt be stans online flaunting Ass Angel tats in the near future.
The longer that irresistible, monosyllabic lunkhead Chad (Pete Davidson) sticks around in the SNL character stable, the more he becomes a gimmick. While it’s admirable that the writers want to up the stakes, supernatural circumstances don’t seem to suit Chad. This time, as he visits a haunted mansion, a ghost (Adele) tries to scare him and then enlist his help in a revenge plot. Adele does everything right, riding the wave of Halloween-y melodrama and finding little moments to fill out every beat of her story. And Davidson is still the same Chad. Beyond the unlikely setting, what seems to be missing here is what made the earliest Chad sketches work so well: genuine, personal stakes that keep the other person on the inexplicable roller coaster ride that is Chad.
Adele speaks from the heart about her first SNL appearance, her weight loss, her excessive swearing, and her thanks to the frontline workers in the audience. There are a couple of gags thrown in there, including the giant “swear jar” over which Kenan Thompson hovers, and they’re perfectly good. It doesn’t feel exactly fair putting this monologue on our sketch hierarchy, though; while it’s nice to hear Adele settle in with material that feels tailored to her, it also feels as though she decided she didn’t want anything too jokey.
As an actor and a host, Adele clearly held her own. Even in the sketches that required lots of line-reading from cue cards, she had an easy way about her. And, of course, with “The Bachelor” sketch, fans weren’t left pining for her music. As for Maya Rudolph, she makes enough appearances this week that it feels like she’s a regular cast member again.
Taken as a whole, the show featured a true variety of sketches, and remained pretty consistent: There were bright spots, as with the Village People bit and Adele’s laughing fit over dick jokes, but nothing stood out as truly stellar; there were lulls, but nothing bombed outright. At the very least, Adele confirmed her comedy chops on a big stage — making her the second successful debut host in two weeks. Next week, SNL continues its marathon five weeks with rightfully popular host (and former writer) John Mulaney and musical guest the Strokes.