One of the stranger modern-day quirks of Saturday Night Live is how the show still draws some of its talent from the stand-up scene. This wasn’t necessarily the case for most of the aughts, but in the last few years, the late-night program has reverted to its ’90s strategy of throwing stand-up comedians in with all of the veteran improvisers and writers-turned-performers. Despite this tradition and its variety-show bona fides, Saturday Night Live isn’t especially built for stand-up. Instead, performers who want to flex those muscles traditionally have to head to Weekend Update, where Pete Davidson and Leslie Jones have found a stage in recent years. This season, though, a whopping four of the six hosts so far have been stand-up comedians, and their performances are subtly toying with the show’s sometimes-rusty mechanics.
That feels like a strange thing to say about a show that requires every host to participate in a five-minute monologue, even if said host has no facility with holding a stage on their own. This adherence to formula has since resulted in some familiar monotonous beats: the song, the audience Q&A, the fake backstage tour. Though these pieces can be amusing, there’s admittedly always a relief in seeing a host come out with an actual wireless mic and perform stand-up, something that typically happens once or twice a year. Most recently, it’s been in whatever episode John Mulaney hosts (whose number was called last week for Halloween), and it happened again last night with blockbuster comic Dave Chappelle. This wasn’t happenstance. If you recall, Chappelle was booked for the post-election episode in 2016, and seeing how SNL cherishes tradition, it’s not surprising that producer Lorne Michaels brought back him back this year to guide us through whatever nightmare awaited in 2020.
As it turned out, Chapelle was presiding over a far less fraught situation this time. (In case you missed it, the protracted 2020 presidential race was called for Joe Biden on Saturday. The world is still celebrating.) Though the show’s cold open included some bits referencing same-day news, it probably didn’t have to be radically revised (or recreated whole-cloth) when the news finally became official. Chappelle, though, performed with a half-nimble, half-leisurely rhythm that suggested he could and did tinker with it to accommodate whatever happened that day. Some of the comic material was fresh, musing on Trump’s loss. Some of it was recap, reaching back to earlier moments in Trump’s administration (including a not entirely formed but very funny riff on the president’s way-above-average health care). Elsewhere, he barely did stand-up material at all, circling around pet topics (the Black experience in America) and personal grievances (wokeness, in a passive-aggressive sort of way; his neighbors in Ohio who complained about noise from his comedy shows over the summer).
Chappelle has spoken out so often against “cancel culture” that a certain segment of his audience is now with him for life, just for his perceived ability to irritate humorless liberals. But part of what made his SNL stand-up so interesting is that it was hardly the master-at-work lesson in craft his most ardent fans would prefer to see (and may see no matter what he says or does). If anything, it played more like a compendium of what was on a comedian’s mind at this particular point in time, a draft that he was revising as he went along. But at this point, Chappelle is so at ease with his abilities that he can open his monologue with a full minute of background on how his great-grandfather was a freed slave — just long enough to leave us wondering if he’s going into more serious territory (as he did in this year’s devastating “8:46” special for Netflix) — all before chasing this reflection with a bitter complaint about not getting paid for the streaming rights to Chappelle’s Show. It’s a pretty good punchline that most comedians wouldn’t dare to spend a somber minute setting up.
Eventually, Chappelle went on to deliver Trump material that, albeit not earthshaking, still felt like it was out-manuevering the creakiness of the show’s more prominent political comedy. Saturday Night Live obviously considers current events part of its beat, and part of its failure in the Trump era has been the show’s absolute refusal to pick and choose among various absurdities and atrocities. Many political sketches, including tonight’s limp cold open, strain as they try to hold as much of this material as possible in their grasp, strangling out any genuine inspiration (or even a clear concept beyond “introduce political figures talking about stuff that happened”). But Chappelle can muse about Trump and racism, and John Mulaney can riff on Andrew Cuomo’s press conferences this past spring, and Chris Rock can tackle the anti-mask sentiment, all without feeling like they’re terribly out of date, or too serious, or too esoteric. Somehow, an individual performance feels less freighted with expectations. This isn’t the show talking, after all. It’s just a comedian.
Of course, stand-up comedy can throw the show off a little, too. Chappelle evidently had little interest in doing much else beyond bookending his last post-election monologue. He participated in one very funny sketch about the firing of racist food mascots — which, judging from his personal introduction, must have been something he at least co-wrote — and then more or less disappeared. Literally. Save for a quick bit that placed Trump into an O.J. Simpson-style white Ford Bronco — a bit that felt like a Chappelle-authored sketch, but who knows — the blockbuster comic was nowhere to be seen. In that sense, he made a vaguely celebratory 2020 post-election episode feel nearly as strange as a downbeat 2016 post-election episode. Then again, not every stand-up comic can exert that kind of power over their occasional SNL hosting gig; in fact, most can’t, and that’s probably for the best. But in a season that has sometimes felt staid and routine in comparison to some inventive at-home episodes last Spring, stand-up comedy has given the show some welcome, ragged edges.