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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Zach Vasquez

Saturday Night Live: Elvis’s Austin Butler says hello while Cecily Strong says goodbye

Lizzo, Austin Butler, and Cecily Strong
Lizzo, Austin Butler, and Cecily Strong. Photograph: NBC/Rosalind O'Connor/Getty Images

This time last year, the Covid pandemic forced Saturday Night Live to cancel its planned Christmas episode and throw together a makeshift special without an audience or most of their cast. Despite the current Covid spike, things are back to normal at studio 8h this holiday season.

We kick things off with a message from former president Donald Trump (James Austin Johnson), who shamelessly hawks his ridiculous new line of NFTs, which “seems like a scam and in many ways it is”. Trump shows off the various “trading cards” that see him dressed up like an astronaut, romance novel cover model, and Jessica Rabbit, before delivering a free-associative rundown in which he rambles about A Christmas Carol (“Last night I was visited by three ghosts, including, actually, I think it was four if you count Epstein”), Ron “DeSanta”, and Avatar.

Considering how beyond parody Trump’s latest gambit is, it’s a wonder that SNL can mine any extra humor out of it, but by sheer force of Johnson’s impersonation and delivery, they manage to.

Austin Butler makes his SNL debut as host. The Elvis star reminisces about being homeschooled as a child (“So I was also weird”) and how he’d do silly voices – such as Gollum – to make his mom laugh, explaining that his desire to entertain her is what broke him out of his shy shell and led him to acting. He gets emotional talking about his mom, who has since died, which makes for a sweet opening, if not a particularly funny one.

The Phrase That Pays is a word puzzle game show that’s basically “Wheel of Fortune, but with no wheel”. Butler’s dim bulb contestant manages to guess each of the increasingly long and convoluted answers correctly on first try, much to the anger and bewilderment of the other contestants. The entire sketch is built around this one joke, with zero build or payoff.

A Christmas Epiphany is black-and-white holiday fable that’s like It’s a Wonderful Life meets Revolutionary Road. Butler’s lovelorn loner goes on a drunken stroll through the snowy streets and ends up peering into the window of a suburban home. While the scene of domestic bliss he stumbles upon moves him to tears, his drunken presence freaks out the family inside. This leads to an argument between the parents in which deep-seated resentments and buried betrayals come to the surface. Things peter out too quickly, but Andrew Dismukes and Heidi Gardner are very good as the unhappy couple.

A commercial for marzipan sees Kenan Thompson’s effete pitchman and a group of “strange English children” testify to their love of the “mostly almond almost-candy”. The cast mugs it up in one of the most insufferable sketches of the season so far.

Next, Butler dons full drag as a member of a Jewish retirement home gathered for a show by their favorite star, Jewish Elvis (Sarah Sherman), who inserts a lot of loud kvetching to the King’s hits (“It’s a little bit of singing, but mostly complaining”) that drive the audience of blue-hairs crazy. Butler is wonderfully unself-conscious here and his horny antics are a lot of fun, but it’s Sherman’s Loony Toons-like physical performance that lands the biggest laughs.

On Weekend Update, Colin Jost welcomes on Krampus (Bowen Yang), Santa’s demonic, child-eating foil. The horned monster talks about the stress he experiences at his job and vents about people dressing up as him (“My culture is not your costume!”), while dropping faux-insightful quotes from the likes of Brene Brown, SZA and his therapist, Ghislaine Maxwell. It’s the standard Yang character, but pitched at a lower frequency, which makes it more tolerable.

He’s followed by Jost’s great-aunt Pat (Gardner), a heavy-drinking southern vamp from out a Tennessee Williams play. Ostensibly there to dispense etiquette advice, she spends her time molesting her manservant Mikey Day and incestuously flirting with Jost. It’s an enjoyably messy and raunchy bit that makes the most of Gardner’s broad camp sensibilities.

In case one hot mess wasn’t enough, she’s followed by Cathy Anne (Cecily Strong), the hard-living white trash princess. She’s there to say goodbye, as she’s facing down a life sentence in prison for the various crimes she’s admitted to on Update over the years: “Drugs use, trespassing, destruction of property, crack, impersonating a police officer, meth and crack …” As it carries on, it becomes increasingly clear that this is a goodbye from Strong herself, whose departure from the show was announced earlier in the day.

At a company holiday party, a white elephant gift exchange gets tense when Butler’s working stiff objects to his cool catch-all ashtray gift being “stolen” by a co-worker. The others try to move on, but he just won’t let it go. Just as things are getting good, with Butler really selling his fury, it cuts away to a pointless message from Santa Claus to wrap things up.

A Christmas message from Jennifer Coolidge (Chloe Fineman) sees the popular character actress getting excited over various Christmas gifts. As with most of her celebrity impressions, Fineman mostly misses the mark.

Then, a new Please Don’t Destroy skit sees Ben, John and Martin pitch their terrible idea for the Plirt – “the world’s first shirt made of 100% real plastic” – to a very confused Butler, in the hope that he’ll invest. With some help from Lizzo, who happens to be dating Martin, they eventually win him over. PDD continues to be one of the highlights of the show, but it feels like the zaniness and surrealism has been a little toned down this season in favor of celebrity cameos.

The episode concludes with a proper goodbye to Strong, given by a choked-up Thompson. He brings on Butler as “casual Elvis”, who performs a rendition of Blue Christmas alongside Strong and the rest of the cast. It’s a well-deserved and touching sendoff to one of the show’s best and most reliable cast members of the last decade. Her absence will definitely be felt when the show returns next year.

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