Comedy often thrives in specificity, and a sketch that came late in the most recent episode of Saturday Night Live was the perfect example, mining laugh after laugh from the minutiae of the band Weezer’s discography. Three couples, all neighbors, get together for dinner, and Weezer’s recent cover of Toto’s “Africa” randomly comes on the playlist. Two guests, played by Leslie Jones and the episode’s host, Matt Damon, have very strong opinions about the song, and about Weezer in general. The four others barely care about the disagreement that ensues, but they are suddenly a captive audience to a screaming argument.
Damon, wearing black-framed glasses, gives a spot-on performance as the self-satisfied nerd whose opinions are absolute, whether people like it or not. The equally brilliant Jones initially entertains his defense of the band’s more recent output, before hitting him with: “Real Weezer fans know that they haven’t had a good album since Pinkerton in ’96!” Their purist-versus-completist showdown continues, first in good fun, before descending into charged personal insults. “Oh, I’m sorry! You’re dumb!” Jones yells. “No offense, but burn in hell,” Damon shoots.
If you know Weezer’s back catalog intimately, every silly reference made in the sketch lands, but if you don’t, it’s still effective. Because above all, this is a sketch about the way some people discuss almost anything these days—with feigned politeness immediately escalating to personal cruelty. Though part of the joke was that this Weezer disagreement was playing out at a dinner party, I was immediately reminded of so much online discourse, where part of the point is coming up with the most extreme reaction possible. “No offense … but drink my blood,” Damon tells Cecily Strong, playing another of the guests, when she tries to intervene.
The biggest joke of all? Weezer is, at this point, the epitome of Gen X dad rock, a pleasant-enough group that has been plugging away for 26 years to mostly middling critical returns. Most people, like the four other dinner guests in the sketch, would be hard-pressed to summon anything but the gentlest opinion on the band. But once Damon and Jones’s critical discourse begins, it quickly descends into polarized hot takes and name-calling. “Weezer? I didn’t even know they were still a band,” muses Beck Bennett. “Is this a thing people care about?” asks Heidi Gardner. “No. No, it isn’t,” replies Kenan Thompson.
The sketch tapped into Matt Damon’s skill for exhibiting a particularly privileged, white-bread kind of aggression, which SNL also deployed to start this season by casting Damon as Brett Kavanaugh. Damon returned, briefly, to that role in the show’s political “cold open” sketch, which imagined a world where Donald Trump wasn’t president, à la It’s a Wonderful Life. But some of the best sketches in Damon’s episode tapped into something warmer and more empathetic, a nice balance to the cartoonish fury of the Weezer showdown.
A digital short titled “Best Christmas Ever” mocked the typical chaos of the holiday by juxtaposing scenes of Damon and Strong as a happy couple saluting the day with scenes of the stressful reality that came with hosting their family. “Cop Christmas” took the tradition of hard-drinking fellas busting one another’s chops at the bar to wince-inducing extremes, but the underlying gag was how much the assembled characters wanted to declare their love for one another. Damon’s opening monologue was surprisingly heartfelt and lovely without sacrificing jokes, recollecting his experiences watching the show as a kid with his dad, who passed away a year ago.
If you just looked at the political sketches of Saturday Night Live in 2018, you might get the impression that the show was a step behind the times, struggling to find angles on President Trump beyond simple buffoonery and stunt casting of celebrities such as Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro. The show has also been somewhat overshadowed by the uneasy tabloid drama of Pete Davidson’s personal life and his penchant for tasteless jokes. But its nonpolitical sketch writing has been strong this year, and some of its newer cast members, such as Gardner and Chris Redd, show tremendous promise as potential stars going forward. This Christmas episode thrived when it was tapping into absurd humor and gentler, more humanistic slice-of-life material. Given the daily fury of the real world, it might be a smart direction for the show to lean into in 2019.