Al Franken was part of “Saturday Night Live” for the first half its history, from the mid-1970s through the mid-’90s, but that didn’t quite absolve him from a “Weekend Update” poke — especially since there was supporting evidence in the form of a picture (an awful one).
“So much to be thankful for this year,” began co-anchor Colin Jost last night. “Unless you’re a human woman.” Cut to a rogue’s gallery picture — which now includes the onetime Stuart Smiley, longtime show writer and now Democratic senator from Minnesota who also stands accused of groping and tonguing. (Is there a better word than “tonguing,” but one that’s equally repulsive? Please let me know.)
Jost then went straight to the setup joke everyone was waiting for, also thereby potentially leading to an answer to this question — would Franken, an OFOL (“Old Friend of Lorne”) escape the wrath of “SNL,” or would he not?
He would not. And yet, he did.
After a brief explainer, that Franken had also been accused of harassment during a 2006 USO tour with radio host Leeann Tweeden, “Update” went to the now-infamous groping shot. “I know this photo looks bad,” said Jost, “but remember, it also is bad. Sure it was taken before he ran for public office, but it was also taken after he was a sophomore in high school. Pretty hard to be like, ‘Oh, c’mon, he didn’t know any better, he was only 55.’ ”
And that was that. Not bad, but hardly comedy nuclear devastation, either. If Franken had anything to worry about Saturday, he has nothing to worry about Sunday. The culture’s great arbiter of that which deserves condemnation had let him off lightly, with barely a slap to the wrist. Franken himself could have come up with something funnier — or more damning — than what he got Saturday night.
An “SNL” cop-out? Well, it depends.
In one sense, absolutely a cop-out. The cold open — which skated on an evergreen topic (the Mueller investigation) with another amusing shooting-fish-in-the-barrel outing by Alex Moffat and Mikey Day playing the Trump brain trust, Eric and Donald Jr. — could’ve easily gone after Franken with another Moffat impersonation.
But obviously the call was made to let Franken off the hook.
A bad call? Well, depends.
Franken was a vital part of the history of this show, and one of the original writers from the very first episode in 1975, along with pal Tom Davis. He left 20 years later when he didn’t get “Weekend Update,” but a lot of history happened in between. Lorne Michaels left after the fifth season, in 1980, along with most of the original cast, and he had nominated Franken (as well as Davis and another legendary writer, Jim Downey) to replace him. NBC ignored the request, putting in Jean Doumanian instead. Franken quit too, or as Downey explained in Tom Shales’ oral history, “Live from New York,” “We all left in 1980. The cast and writers all sort of agreed we would leave and take the show with us ... The only reason the show’s still on the air is because what went on in the first five years ... It was Saturday night (before) when no one was watching TV and they were showing reruns of Johnny Carson.”
Poor Doumanian was literally left with nothing and no one. “SNL” began to fall apart, and — in gesture of support to Michaels and also one of ridicule to hamfisted NBC, then run by Fred Silverman — Franken came back the following year, briefly on a “Weekend Update” sketch that famously ripped the new-bad “SNL.”
Very long story shortened: Michaels, Downey, Franken and some other key producers eventually returned, and the argument could be made that “SNL” was on the air last night because (in part) of Franken’s early contributions here.
So, did he get off lightly last night? Of course, but gratitude counts for something, right?
And what of the rest of the show? Not bad: Chance the Rapper, in his first hosting role, proved my theory that the host with the least to lose, and the lowest star profile, usually does the best job in the cold open. His Thanksgiving musical open was a winner.
Eminem: Excellent, also one of the best musical performances in memory. I’d almost rank this right below Prince’s eight-minute medley in 2014. He and Skylar Grey performed a supersized musical segment, singing “Walk on Water,” “Stan,” and “Love the Way You Lie.” Beyoncé didn’t turn up for the “Walk on Water” duet, but no matter, Grey was perfect. Another “SNL” truism: This show, for all its faults, still knows how to turn up the volume, and excitement, when it comes to music.