Saturday Night Live ’s been shakier than usual for the last few years, but it wrapped up 2018 with a perfectly good Christmas episode that might’ve been the best of the current season so far.
It’s surprising that Matt Damon has only hosted the show twice. He’s the kind of guy you’d think they’d want to bring in as much as possible, a legit movie star who’s good at comedy and fully commits to every sketch, and who (despite some frankly embarrassing comments about #MeToo) has also maintained a largely positive public image throughout his career. Perhaps he’s too busy to clear a week off his schedule all that often. Whatever it is, he showed why he should be in demand by the show last night, in a great hosting performance that might be the best of 2018.
He was even one of the few bright spots in a weak cold open. “It’s a Wonderful Trump” brought the show’s regular Trump administration impersonations together again for a predictable riff on It’s a Wonderful Life. That included cameos from Alec Baldwin, Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro, which brought the kind of extended applause that has messed up the show’s timing so often this season. (Last night’s episode ended abruptly, without any good nights or credits, and presumably the solid 90 seconds or so of clapping in that cold open had something to do with it.) Damon’s return as Brett Kavanaugh was actually funny, perhaps because that impression hasn’t been beaten into the ground yet. Other than that and the always good Kenan Thompson, this was a predictably weak, overstuffed conclusion to another year of weak, overstuffed Trump cold opens.
Damon’s largely sincere monologue might have set off the schmaltz alarms for anybody who can’t stomach the slightest bit of earnestness or emotion in their comedy. His story of watching SNL with his dad, who passed away a year ago, and now sharing that experience with his own children might’ve been understandably light on jokes, but was a welcome change of pace for one of SNL’s most hidebound segments. Also, if you don’t like bittersweet stories about family, you probably should avoid any and all media made about Christmas.
With the mandatory Trump sketch and monologue out of the way, last night’s episode set off on an hour or so of comedy mostly devoid of recurring characters or familiar situations, and with a very steady host easily fitting in. There were some bumps along the way, but it’s hard to remember a recent episode that had a better ratio of good sketches to bad.
That streak started with “Westminster Daddy Show,” where adorable dog breeds are replaced by men who were at least 46 years old with great jobs and salt-and-pepper temples. Combining the unusual conventions of a dog show with various stereotypical depictions of successful middle-aged men might not sound like a winning recipe, but between keen observations and great character work from all involved (especially Aidy Bryant as the judge and Kate McKinnon as a commentator), this is a very funny sketch.
“Best Christmas Ever” is built on an idea that might feel too obvious at first, but only because it’s both true and universal. Our memories of Christmas might be all warm and glowing, but most of the time getting through the day itself can be a struggle, at least if you’re the adults saddled with all the responsibility. Cutting between the instant end-of-night nostalgia and the madness of the day itself sharpens the jokes to a fine point. You can bet this video will be a regular part of SNL Christmas specials for decades to come.
After that came one of the two strongest sketches of the night. “Christmas Ornaments” takes an Island of Misfit Toys approach to ridiculous novelty ornaments, focusing on the section of the tree facing the wall, where all the embarrassing or broken ornaments go. (Don’t ask why they’re still hung up instead of getting thrown away.) It touches on the inherent absurdity of these kinds of ornaments, from Beck Bennett’s Drunk Santa, to Matt Damon’s 1997 promotional ornament for Good Will Hunting (complete with a Weinstein Company logo on the back, even though the movie was released by Miramax). It even dredges up a bit of real pathos with Cecily Strong’s angel, a former tree-topper with a beautiful voice who’s now resigned to the ignominious back side because half her face broke off. It’s an original idea that’s smartly executed and performed, which is all you can ask for from a comedy show.
The other contender for sketch of the night came later in the show, after Weekend Update, and is such a highly specific situation that it’ll probably leave at least half the audience cold. What looks like a nice, convivial Christmas meal among neighbors devolves into an angry shouting match over Weezer, of all things. Matt Damon’s in the camp that Weezer has remained good all along, whereas Leslie Jones has the more relatable belief that it’s been all downhill since 1996’s Pinkerton. (True music fans, of course, realize that the first Weezer album was an okay major label ripoff of Pavement, and that everything since has been equally terrible. Yes, even Pinkerton, a record that should’ve been setting off #MeToo flags since before #MeToo was even a thing.) This feels like it was written explicitly for people who were in high school when Weezer got started and who write for music magazines like Paste (i.e., people exactly like me), and was clearly written by somebody who knows Weezer’s career and the arguments around it in intimate detail. Jones and Damon spout their lines with true conviction, while everybody else at the table looks on in increasing confusion and dismay, in a postcard perfect snapshot of how a passionate argument about a seemingly insignificant opinion can throw an entire room just completely off balance. I won’t lie—I maybe haven’t had heated arguments about Weezer specifically, but I absolutely know what it’s like to get so worked up over a band.
The Weezer sketch wasn’t the only comedy about music on the show. “Jingle Bells” is a kind of bygone showbiz parody that SNL has done often in the past, from Bill Murray’s lounge singer to Jan Hooks and Nora Dunn’s Sweeney Sisters. Strong and Damon play a pair of overzealous musical theater performers who pepper a weird arrangement of “Jingle Bells” with overly practiced banter. I hesitate to call it funny—it didn’t make me laugh—but it’s a genuinely wonderful performance from the two in a sweetly weird sketch that I greatly enjoyed.
Even Weekend Update is more entertaining than usual, without the bothsidesism and “none of this actually matters” privilege typically seen from Colin Jost and Michael Che. A bit where the two supposedly wrote jokes for the other to read, sight unseen, might be a lazy gimmick, but even if Che didn’t really write Jost’s jokes, they still play on Jost’s affluent white preppie status with an enjoyably uncomfortable sting. It’s more than questionable to have a rich, famous TV host tell racist jokes as a joke in and of itself, but the way it’s framed here, and the way Che reacts, turns Jost and his persona into the butt of the joke, and that makes it work. Meanwhile Heidi Garner returns as Angel, Every Boxer’s Girlfriend From Every Movie About Boxing Ever; as well-performed and realized as this character is, it’s still one-note, which makes Matt Damon’s appearance as the boxer in question a welcome new wrinkle for a character that was quickly wearing out its welcome. Also, as a guy who lived in Boston for years, I’ll always probably laugh at exaggerated Boston impressions.
The only true clunker after the cold open came at the very end. “Happy Christmas, Britain” does to Theresa May and British politics what SNL does so often to Trump: turn it into a lifeless, uninquisitive mash of vague impressions and pop culture jokes. That means framing the sketch as a Christmas special with May hosting Voldemort and a tanned, relaxed former prime minister David Cameron. Damon’s imperceptibly smug Cameron is the only note that lands at all in this sketch, which brought the episode to a sudden and awkward close.
Two bad bookends aside, Saturday Night Live ended 2018 with an episode full of smart and funny sketches. If the show could resist the temptation to call Baldwin and De Niro into the studio every Saturday, it could maybe have a strong 2019 in store. We’ll find out next year.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.