SNL Serves Up a Disgusting Highlight

The show acknowledged the crisis in Ukraine while sticking to its comfort zone. Then it made a turn to the bizarre.

The meatball scene from "SNL"
"SNL" seemed preoccupied with the same entertainment products that Americans use to distract themselves. (NBC)

After the first week of fighting in Ukraine, viewers may have tuned in to this week’s Saturday Night Live with some curiosity and fear about how the show would tackle the biggest news story in the world. The series had gone the quiet and respectful route last week by having the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York replace the usual episode-opening antics. But at a certain point, audiences surely expect, the show will be unable to avoid commenting on what’s actually happening in the conflict. Can SNL balance sensitivity and satire while, say, riffing on President Vladimir Putin’s bizarre TV appearances, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s selfie videos, or the purported morale problems among Russian forces?

Not this week, apparently. The show instead acknowledged the crisis while sticking to its comfort zone: sending up Donald Trump and Fox News for the zillionth time. The writers certainly had fodder to work with. As cast members recounted in the “Live From Mar-a-Lago Fox News Ukrainian Invasion Celebration Spectacular,” the broadcaster Laura Ingraham recently called Zelensky’s peace plea “pathetic”; Tucker Carlson suggested liberals are worse than Putin; and Trump praised Russia’s invasion as “smart.” The concept of a telethon for oligarchs had some punch—but the sketch mostly just coasted on James Austin Johnson’s excellent Trump impersonation. As his version of the former president ranted about random topics—Rihanna’s pregnancy, his own popularity with whales—numbness set in: The world may get scarier, but SNL will still play it safe.

Beyond the opener and a few “Weekend Update” cracks, SNL seemed preoccupied with the same entertainment products that Americans use to distract themselves. In one sketch, the episode’s host, Oscar Isaac, played a discontented resident of a town whose emergency services were handled by the Paw Patrol dogs. Another segment, inspired by Netflix’s Inventing Anna, featured Chloe Fineman adopting the strange accent and chutzpah of the scammer Anna Sorokin (she conned her way into taking over the gig of impersonating Joe Biden). These sendups of other TV series had their charms, as did a bit portraying a raunchy HR seminar, but generally, SNL was sticking to familiar territory.

Yet one sketch did force viewers out of their daze—by triggering their disgust. It opened with a man and a woman (cast members Chris Redd and Sarah Sherman) on a couch after a nice date. Redd’s character asked Sherman’s why she wore a green ribbon around her neck at all times, and Sherman, bashful, replied that she’d show him if he didn’t get all weird about it. Audience members might have expected a twist on the classic children’s story about a girl whose head is barely attached to her body. But something even more terrifying was revealed when Sherman removed the ribbon: a large, dangling pustule that was dancing and singing a nonsensical song.

As the sketch progressed, Sherman showed off more pustules on her body, each one featuring a different cast member’s face and a different gimmick: playing a tambourine, eating cheese, barfing up black gunk—all together creating a freakish little symphony. “And to answer your question, yeah, they harmonize and sing together in time,” Sherman said, certainly not answering the actual questions on Redd’s character’s mind. Lyrics popped up on the screen with follow-the-bouncing-ball animations; eventually viewers were plunged into a cartoon hellscape of human meatballs and spaghetti.

Sherman, a new cast member, is known for this kind of gruesome humor. Her Instagram (under “Sarah Squirm”) is full of disembodied eyeballs and disturbing clown makeup. SNL was making use of her particular talents while also indulging in the show’s glorious tradition of achieving new heights through go-for-broke absurdity. Redd played the audience proxy, revolted yet also unable to look away. When he tried to break up with Sherman’s character, one more pustule was revealed: a keyboard-playing armpit dweller voiced by Charli XCX, this week’s musical guest. “Don’t give up on love just because of some meatballs,” she crooned wistfully. I found myself laughing and, in a weird way, relieved. SNL had transported us to another reality—one nauseating for a different reason than our own.