Ramy Youssef Helps SNL Tackle Both Religion and Politics, With Mixed Results

If you’re doing comedy on Easter eve, there are two ways you can go: the chocolate bunny-and-painted eggs thing, or the religion thing.

If you’re Saturday Night Live and you’ve got a presidential candidate grifting Bibles in the news the same week you have a host who celebrates Ramadan, that pretty much decides it for you.

Credit the show for diving into some usually dicey territory, everything from a cold open that included a representation of the resurrection to a plea on behalf of Palestinians in the conflict in Israel, to a Weekend Update joke about God resigning to protest Donald Trump’s bible stunt.

As reluctant as the show may be to put Trump out front too often in the cold open, the video this week of him hawking his Public Domain King James Bibles for 60 bucks, with lyrics to “God Bless the USA” and the Pledge of Allegiance appended, proved that some bits just can’t be denied. (Once Trump declared “I have many” bibles, who did not think the real thing looked startlingly like an SNL sketch already?)

James Austin Johnson has Trump down so cold, it’s beginning to get eerie. (They have even worked on the deeply clefted neck wattle.) It’s hard to imagine many of Trump’s evangelical fans risking their souls on taking in an episode of SNL, but if any did this week, they may have been looking for new words to describe “sacrilege” when Johnson/Trump declared:

“We love religion and we love God. He’s probably the best part of the Holy Trinity. He’s like the Beyonce! Cowboy Carter! God’s the Beyonce. Jesus is the Kelly Rowland. And Holy Ghost would probably be the black Michelle Williams, who’s very important to a great number of people, almost as important as the white Michelle Williams is to white people.”

That little joke run surely qualified with some viewers as a: “Whoa.” Though not outside a legitimate satire of Trump-ish thinking.

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Host Ramy Youssef, whose background includes stand-up (thus meriting a longer, polished monologue), embraced his own religious traditions in his opening, talking about his devotion to prayer and citing Ramadan as his holiday this time of year. (Later he appeared in a pre-taped sketch based on fasting during Ramadan being made easier by relying on the weight-loss drug Ozempic.)

More than that, Youssef, who was well received by the studio audience, went boldly into plight of the “people of Gaza,” saying he asked God to “please free the people of Palestine.”

Yes, it was part of a joke—he said he was also praying for a friend to get “Mr. Bojangles” (his dog) back in a breakup–but the reference to the “suffering” and “violence” in Gaza drew strong applause from the audience, for a much more direct, non-satirical, political message on a raging hot topic than is usual for SNL.

Youssef did also cite praying for “all the hostages” to be freed. But he wore his political message on his oversized jacket sleeve. Declaring he was not happy with “either option” for president, he took some pointed shots at President Biden, though they were largely knee-jerk age jokes.

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Biden also got hammered in Update, where Michael Che joked about the roster of big celebrities, including two ex-Presidents attending the fundraiser in New York last week which also included some “lesser-known celebrities, like President Joe Biden.”

Che also reported that Biden will visit the site of the bridge collapse in Baltimore because “like that bridge, Biden is no longer connecting with black communities.”

All of that did not exactly even out the battering Trump took, which on this night was biblical. Beside the intense evisceration in the cold open, his appropriation of the good book was cited in Colin Jost’s first joke, which covered the additions Trump was making to the bible text—the Constitution, the song lyrics, the Pledge—“and, I assume, God’s letter of resignation.”

Jost’s second joke was even better. “This bible is mostly the same, but Trump’s version ends with Jesus and his disciples storming Jerusalem to overturn the results of the Crucifixion.”

Youssef had a mostly untroubled spin though the hosting role. He has enough comedy chops to play at close to equal terms with the SNL regulars, though the sketches mostly remained below “memorably funny” levels.

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That assessment does not include Weekend Update, which pumped out a solid lineup of jokes that landed, scored or outright killed. Beyond the opening salvo directed at Trump and the accompanying shelling of Biden, the segment shined with a string of “oooh”-reaction jokes from Michael Che. Such as:

He was very disappointed that Ronna McDaniel was ousted by NBC “only because I thought Ronna McDaniel was a drag version of Ronald McDonald.”

He mentioned the news of baseball star Shohei Ohtani being forced to fire his interpreter “over gambling and theft allegations. Reached for comment Ohtani said something in Japanese.”

He cited the warning issued by “pet experts” that people shouldn’t bring their pets to watch next month’s solar eclipse, saying it could be too stressful for them. “Pet experts also want you to know they’re looking for real work.”

And he revealed that “the Oscar-winning movie Oppenheimer finally premiered yesterday in Japan—without warning.”

In comedy, a well-crafted joke approaches Holy Scripture.

Next week: SNL royalty returns. Kristen Wiig will host, with British pop star Raye as musical guest.

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