Last summer, Lorne Michaels made an honest admission: "Weekend Update," the most storied and longest-running feature on Saturday Night Live, just wasn't working. In announcing his decision to replace cast member Cecily Strong with writer and stand-up comedian Michael Che, Michaels told The New York Times, "['Weekend Update'] struggled to find an identity last season … because what had come before had been pretty brilliant." Che has been behind the "Update" desk with head writer Colin Jost for five months now, but his promotion only seems to have quickened the segment's decline.
Che's hiring last year seemed like a smart and fast response to the growing "Update" problem. Since the departure of Seth Meyers, who'd anchored the segment for eight years (first with Amy Poehler, then solo, then with Cecily Strong), the series' most reliable feature was beginning to feel like a gaping hole in the middle of every show. Strong had been promoted as the future solo "Update" host, with Meyers working alongside her for half a season just to help her find her sea legs. But once Meyers departed, Jost took his place—and things haven't been quite right since.
Jost, an unknown face outside of the New York comedy scene, is a veteran presence at SNL but had quite a few burdens to contend with from his first episode onscreen. He presents similarly to Meyers: a handsome wiseacre with a smirky edge to his punchlines. But there were understandable nerves that took a while to settle, and he never developed much chemistry with Strong, who was still new to the job herself. Michaels had made the mistake of re-applying a formula that had worked before: pairing the head writer and one of the show's breakout stars. The duos of Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon, then Fey and Poehler, then Meyers and Poehler, each found their own unique rapport. But at best, Jost and Strong felt like a flimsy copy, and furthermore Strong was being kept from doing any Update characters, something she'd excelled at from her debut.
So last summer's switch made sense on paper—let Strong get back to what she does best, and find someone Jost could play off. Michaels apparently tried "a number of different combinations" before settling on Che, who was working as a writer on SNL and a correspondent on The Daily Show. Che would be the first black "Update" anchor in the show's 40-year history, and the two could build on their own chemistry without worrying about the segment's baggage.
There have been some promising moments. When Che does longer material that sounds like his standup act, such as a riff on Black History Month stamps, it tends to kill. The comedian was also very funny dressing down Jost over the use of the word "bae" in their second episode together. "It just feels like you can say everything!" Jost complained. "There's things I can't say," Che retorted. "Like, 'Toodle-oo,' or 'Skinny macchiato,' or 'Thank you for your help, officer.'" Whatever bond Michaels noticed during auditions shines through during those moments of banter.
Not so much, though, during the heart of "Update," which is the same set-up, joke, set-up, joke model the segment has embraced for 40 years. And that isn't to call it an easy model: If anything, Che and Jost's struggles show what an incredible pro Meyers was in making it look so easy for so many years, and doing it solo for most of them. Whatever you thought of his smarm, "Update" was always the safe center of his tenure as the show's head writer, whereas now weekend Twitter feeds are flooded with longtime fans asking what's to be done. Some find Che too laconic—his slow-tempo standup style, plus the typical freshman issues of fumbling the occasional cue-card line (Meyers did it too), often makes him seem disinterested in the jokes. That's not good, since the jokes aren't always particularly original. They need to be sold pretty hard—it doesn't matter if a host's enthusiasm comes off as acrid sarcasm (like Norm MacDonald) or defiant pride (like Amy Poehler).
Jost has a sympathy problem, in that it's tough to have any for him. Foisted on the audience out of nowhere, he's developed no real identity outside of his flirtation with cast member Leslie Jones, who calls him things like a "sexy vanilla muffin" as he smirks uncomfortably. Matters weren't helped last week with his publication of a piece in The New Yorker's Shouts and Murmurs section called "I Will Slap You." As a standalone work, it isn't particularly memorable (you can read it in one minute and get it), but it seemed to act as confirmation for some SNL fans that the man giving them "Update" jokes every week doesn't deserve the gig. "Is the Joke in Colin Jost's Shouts & Murmurs Piece That It Was Printed?" Jia Tolentino asked on Jezebel. "Jost’s thing is to beat a joke into the ground, so tickled by his own cleverness that he doesn’t seem to notice its diminishing returns," Beejoli Shah said at The Frisky.
The biggest problem is that Michaels already hit the reset button, and he went all in on it. He can't really yank his new hires again, especially since there isn't an obvious candidate waiting in the wings to replace them. Cast member Beck Bennett has the kind of fake TV anchor gravitas to pull it off, but he'd be a dismayingly safe choice rather than the kind of extreme curveball that would necessitate any kind of switch. Longer-tenured pros like Taran Killam, Bobby Moynihan, or Vanessa Bayer would lose the bread and butter of their successful "Update" characters. For a few seasons, there were rumblings that former writer John Mulaney would get kicked up to the desk as his standup career exploded, but he moved on from the show before Meyers left.
SNL is always coming under fire on the Internet, of course, and its decline is frequently opined upon right before its inevitable comeback. Jost and Che could very well right the ship by the end of the season, and this could be the "rocky start" that many a cast member endures on the show before finding his or her groove. But the simplest litmus test is comparing the same "Update" sketch with two different anchors. Take Meyers' interaction with Killam's popular character Jebidiah Atkinson, a diva 19th-century critic who curses out everything he's assigned to review. Meyers is cackling throughout Killam's rants, and not in a distracting way—he just seems genuinely engaged. Then there's a disconnected Che with Atkinson discussing the 2015 Grammy nominees. No doubt the bit has lost a little of its luster through repetition, but no one seems to be even remotely having fun. If "Update" is looking for a quick fix, that's where it should start.