The Surprising Comedic Genius of Daniel Kaluuya

Actor Daniel Kaluuya hosts "Saturday Night Live"
On "Saturday Night Live," Daniel Kaluuya showcased a remarkable range that buoyed the entire show.Will Heath / NBC

Who’s afraid of Daniel Kaluuya? According to the actor, that would be the British monarchy. “I’m Black and I’m British,” he explained in his opening monologue during last night’s Saturday Night Live. “Basically I’m what the Royal Family was worried the baby would look like.”

That dig at the royals comes just a few weeks after Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, told Oprah Winfrey that there had been “concerns and conversations about how dark” their son would be when he was born. Kaluuya didn’t dwell on the royals in his monologue, though. The British Ugandan actor swiftly moved on to comparing American and British racism: “Let me put it this way: British racism is so bad, white people left. They wanted to be free—free to create their own kind of racisms. That’s why they invented Australia, South Africa, and Boston.” (As if solely to prove his point, a now-edited headline from the British newspaper The Independent contended that “Kaluuya Lashes Out at Royal Family” in his remarks.)

Kaluuya, who just won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton in Shaka King’s frenetic biopic, Judas and the Black Messiah, has risen to fame in the United States largely for tackling meaty, dramatic roles. Before Hampton, he played one of the titular characters in Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas’s overwrought police-violence saga Queen & Slim, a glowering villain in Steve McQueen’s Viola Davis–led heist film Widows, and, of course, the lead role in Jordan Peele’s genre-revitalizing social thriller, Get Out. But on last night’s SNL, the actor also proved that he’s a formidable comedic talent. In his opening monologue and skits throughout the episode, he showcased a remarkable range that buoyed the entire show—no small feat on a series that consistently struggles with topical humor.

In Kaluuya’s first skit, the actor played a doctor moonlighting as the host of a Family Feud–style game show called Will You Take It?, on which he tries to convince his reluctant family members to get vaccinated. “If you answer this first question right, I will hand you $500 in cash,” he begins. “Listen carefully: Will any of you just take the COVID vaccine right now? Anybody? Any takers?” he asks, his delivery so pointed, drawn out, and dramatic that it evokes Ben Stein’s iconic “Bueller?” chorus. Kaluuya’s demeanor grows more frustrated, especially during the “Ask a Doctor” segment, when his family members pepper him with questions that are clearly informed by Facebook misinformation: “Okay, you’re not wrong about Tuskegee, but still,” he pleads after his cousin Tasha (played by Ego Nwodim) cites the cataclysmic 20th-century syphilis study as the reason she doesn’t trust white people’s assessment of the vaccine. (Across racial demographics, lack of access to vaccination appointments accounts for more of the inequity among populations than reluctance to be vaccinated.)

The game recalled “Super Bowl Pod,” one of SNL’s better recent attempts at deploying COVID-related humor. But instead of reproducing the silliness of that sketch, Will You Take It? features Kaluuya in a role that depends on his ability to marry humor, urgency, and palpable irritation with absurd circumstances. Elsewhere in the episode, he plays the straight man with similar finesse. In “Salt Bae,” he reacts with utter bewilderment when the social-media-famous Turkish chef makes obvious—and food-related—advances toward Kaluuya’s date (Cecily Strong). The scene dramatizes a real-world event that predictably set certain corners of the internet ablaze, and Kaluuya serves as a proxy for an audience that may be unfamiliar with the sexed-up salt purveyor. “Spanking the meat,” he observes through gritted teeth. “I understand you, I see what you do.” His voice strained and his face contorting, he practically begs his fellow diners to acknowledge the outrageous behavior they’re witnessing. “It’s just not sanitary,” he says at one point, an all but evergreen sentiment now.

Contrast that segment’s levity with the show’s cringe-inspiring cold open, which attempted to tie in jokes about the musician Lil Nas X’s “controversial” recent music video with references to the ongoing investigation into whether Representative Matt Gaetz paid women for sex and trafficked a 17-year-old girl. On Oops, You Did It Again, a talk show hosted by an uncomfortably bimbo-fied Britney Spears (Chloe Fineman), Lil Nas X (Chris Redd) rejects the idea that his “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” video is a work of religious blasphemy. “To help bring people together, would you be willing to give a lap dance to God, to even things out?” Britney asks him. The physical comedy of the ensuing scene is eye-roll-worthy, but the skit manages to go south from there. Addressing Gaetz (Pete Davidson), Spears expresses skepticism about the congressman’s story. “I don’t know, Matt. I think I can spot a teen predator when I see one,” she says. “After all, I was on The Mickey Mouse Club.”

The line, and the face that Fineman makes after delivering it, do little to skewer Gaetz. Rather, they rely on—and reproduce—the relentless objectification and cruelty that Spears has faced since the earliest days of her career. That Gaetz later offers Lil Nas X a lap dance, attempting to take a cue from the 21-year-old musician, further muddies the show’s critique of him. Is he a predator, or simply a scoundrel? To SNL’s credit, last night’s “Weekend Update” did include a number of better-executed jabs, beginning with co-host Colin Jost saying that Gaetz “looks like a caricature artist’s drawing of me.” Jost also ties the Gaetz story to the voter-suppression bills being advanced by Republican lawmakers, joking that “Gaetz believes that only voters should have to show ID.”

For the most part, Kaluuya’s skits deviated from SNL’s usual staid political humor. And like some earlier SNL episodes in this season, Kaluuya’s monologue took more earnest turns, too. He credited Fred Hampton with developing strategies for free education, free health care, and free breakfast for children. He also admitted that as a 9-year-old, he’d written a play based on the ’90s sitcom Kenan & Kel, then took “this moment, in front of Kenan [Thompson] and the whole world, to say thank you, Mum; thank you, God, and thank you, Kel” for making his own career possible. It was especially satisfying, then, to see him play opposite Thompson. In “Half Brother,” Kaluuya creates discomfort and chaos at his reluctant relative’s home for a birthday celebration. Thompson’s character reacts with resigned disdain as his half sibling, Kaluuya, insists on playing the upright bass for the party’s guests. The instrument, which he and his wife refer to as the “upright B,” anchors a performance from Kaluuya in which the actor commits fully to his role as a sentient jazz hand. Clad in black turtleneck and indoor sunglasses, he sings, strums, and scats alongside Strong. Try not to die of secondhand embarrassment.

The best skits of the night were those in which Kaluuya was given free rein to play characters like that half brother, who can only be described as utter weirdos. In seeing him clearly delight in the opportunity to do so, one might wonder why Hollywood isn’t throwing comedic roles at the actor. If he can enliven SNL, there’s no challenge he can’t conquer.