Chance the Rapper pulled double duty as host and musical guest on this week’s Saturday Night Live, and the result was the best episode since John Mulaney hosted last spring, at least when Chance was on screen. His best sketches were great, his worst sketches were not actively painful to watch, and with the exception of the obligatory Alec Baldwin cold open and Weekend Update, no other sketches were about American politics, which, let’s face it, just aren’t that funny anymore. And when Chance did touch on politics in his opening monologue, he managed to do it in a way that was hopeful and inspiring, rather than bitter and depressing.
The Chicago-based rapper famously donated $1 million to his local school system back in 2017, and his hometown ties remain strong: He came on stage in a Chicago Teachers Union shirt and voiced support for the teachers in their ongoing strike. (In the episode’s closing segment, cast members Alex Moffat, Cecily Strong, and Chris Redd, all of whom hail from Chicago, donned CTU shirts of their own.) Then viewers were treated to something even rarer and more surprising than someone siding with labor on national television: A genuinely hilarious Saturday Night Live opening monologue. Inspired by Chicago’s famous nickname, “America’s Third City, Which Used to Be America’s Second City Until 1984, When Los Angeles Surpassed It,” Chance performed a rap tribute to second place finishers, from Burger King to Pepsi. It’s a landmark monologue: Kyle Mooney gets his first and undoubtedly last guest verse on a Chance the Rapper track, California Dreams gets what is maybe its first but undoubtedly its last mention on Saturday Night Live, and Heidi Gardner and Melissa Villaseñor do their best Bob Dylan impressions:
Chance’s monologue was essentially a musical performance, which played to his strengths. But after killing it live, he went on to kill it in a music-free pre-taped sketch that was all about killing:
Chance had a harder time keeping a straight face without the benefit of multiple takes, as his turn as the judge on “First Impressions Court” demonstrates. In his defense, the sketch is essentially an excuse for the SNL costume department to go buck wild, and boy did they ever rise to the occasion. It was also an excuse for surprise guest Jason Momoa to go buck wild, and he, too, rose to the occasion: he’s funnier here than he was in most of the episode he hosted. But it was Bowen Yang who got Chance to break:
Yang was not the only person to reduce Chance to helpless laughter. In “Dance Rehearsal,” a sketch with Kenan Thompson at his absolute silliest, Chance wanders into a shot positively convulsing at Thompson’s exuberant lunacy. Chance didn’t have that much to do in this sketch, but Thompson has so very, very much to do, and is having so much fun doing it, that it’s a complete delight:
Chance did pretty well at making it through a Kenan Thompson sketch without collapsing completely, but that sketch seems to have gone more or less as planned. The true test of a Saturday Night Live host is making it through a sketch that descends into chaos, by accident or design. “Love at First Sight,” which draws heavily from doomed high school productions of Peter Pan, was that sketch this week, and Chance the Rapper and Cecily Strong somehow managed to land it safely.
The version of this sketch that SNL put up on YouTube is actually much less of a disaster than it was in the live broadcast—the gifs on the show’s official GIPHY channel come from the broadcast version and feature way more careening. But in both versions, Chance and Strong made the best of a ridiculous situation. There’s an amazing moment at about 3:00 in the YouTube version where Strong sees that Chance is cracking up and pulls him out of it with the kind of “carefree” laugh you’d get from an actress in a mental hygiene film from the 1950s. Chance picks it up and turns his genuine laughter into a similarly pitched performance, at which point Strong loses it herself. But as good as Chance was as a flying barfly, his best comedic performance of the night was in an elaborate spooky Halloween song, which combined animation, puppetry, music, and the most embarrassing death imaginable into an instant holiday classic:
Correction, Oct. 27, 2019: This piece originally misstated that this was Kenan Thompson’s last season on Saturday Night Live. Although his departure was rumored when NBC announced it was making a pilot for a sitcom he’d star in, Thompson later said he has no plans to leave the show.