Aubrey Plaza’s mischief as an intern began long before she played the sardonic April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation. During college, she briefly served as a page at NBC, where she spent her time sharing fake facts on the tours she led and sneaking off to vomit away her hangovers. Unsurprisingly, Plaza lasted only a few months before being asked to leave, but in her short stint at the network, she got the chance to trail SNL‘s design department. “I was stalking, lurking in the shadows,” she told Jimmy Fallon earlier this week.
When Plaza took the stage last night to host SNL for the first time, she wasn’t lurking anymore. During her opening monologue, she gave a fabricated tour of SNL Studio 8H, then joined three of the set designers she’d interned with all those years ago. “When I was showing up an hour late and barely working, did you ever expect to see me hosting the show?” she asked one of them. “Bow to your queen!” she demanded.
And pay homage SNL did. Allison Jones, the casting director for Parks and Recreation, once purportedly called Plaza “the weirdest girl I ever met,” and Plaza’s delightfully offbeat vibe came to define the episode. The show leaned into it from the jump, delivering several sketches about weird characters prone to weirder behaviors that gave Plaza an opportunity to play with her talents. During a premise about morning announcements at a Catholic school, she played a nun who’d been accidentally electrocuted in the bath, died for two minutes, and discovered heaven might not exist. The experience left her questioning everything. “I’m going to have sex tonight!” she shouted, widening her eyes in shaky resolve.
In a sketch about a game night, Sasha (Plaza) and her partner, Ian (Mikey Day), ended up horrifying their new neighbors by accidentally revealing their dark history while playing Taboo. Racing to get Ian to guess a secret word correctly, Sasha prompted him by reminding him what she was “on” the night they first met. His guesses —on ketamine, on parole—finally led to the right one: on fire. The effect felt like a throwback to SNL‘s halcyon days a little more than a decade ago, when Kristen Wiig and Will Forte often pushed the show’s sketches in absurd and grotesque directions.
Still, although the show tiptoed up to Plaza’s vibe, it stopped short of going too far. SNL has, after all, long aimed to reach and please middle America—something Sarah Sherman has had to navigate since joining the cast last year. Known for body-horror comedy under the name Sarah Squirm, Sherman has found ways to tone down the more extreme side of her humor without forgoing the reasons SNL hired her in the first place. In both Sherman’s and Plaza’s cases, the compromise works, but one has to wonder what might be possible if the show didn’t so fervently pursue middle-of-the-road comedy.
As it nears its 50th anniversary—and as even longtime cast members question its longevity after that milestone—SNL seems to be at an inflection point. Given that so many of the show’s most recognizable cast members have recently departed, newer members have the potential to reinvigorate it. With youth often comes experimentation, and it’s led to big payoffs in the past, namely the viral power of Digital Shorts.
But this season has played it safe more often than not, tapping big-name hosts and guest stars to add pizzazz instead of giving its newer cast ample room to try novel things. Last night mined nostalgia in a few predictable ways, including by having Plaza appear as her famed Parks and Recreation character during a “Weekend Update” bit. She was eventually joined by her boss, Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), for a moment that sweetly connected the two shows. Poehler took the opportunity to sit in her former anchor chair and deliver a joke. It was a delight, of course, but also a reminder of the past rather than a sign of the future.
Each era of SNL has to find its own voice. In a season bursting with change, the show has struggled with relevance and originality; it hasn’t yet found a way to stand out from earlier eras. But as much as Plaza’s turn on the show nodded to the past (her dela time dela as a page, beloved old characters), it also hinted at new possibilities.