The Year’s Best ‘Saturday Night Live’ Joke Was Actually in ‘Nope’
One of the first images in Jordan Peele’s third film is so disturbing it haunts the rest of the movie, which is fitting because it also haunts the character whose POV we see it from. Nope is primarily about a menacing UFO tormenting a brother (Daniel Kaluuya) and sister (Keke Palmer) living outside Los Angeles in the Santa Clarita Valley. But there’s another trauma going on as well, one that stretches back to a 1990s sitcom, Gordy’s Home, in which the titular chimp went berserk on set, killing several people before it was put down. The sitcom’s child star, Jupe, survived, but he’s never forgotten staring directly at the bloodthirsty monkey, who glared right back, pure rage in its eyes and blood smeared across its face. Jupe could have died, but he didn’t. Not that he was ever the same again.
None of that sounds remotely hilarious. But part of the brilliance of Peele’s film, like Get Out and Us before it, is its ability to switch tones, moving from horror to comedy, from pop-culture riffs to sharp political commentary. That a movie as unnerving as Nope also managed to contain the best Saturday Night Live joke of 2022 is really saying something.
The convergence of Nope’s two storylines occurs early on, when Kaluuya’s OJ and Palmer’s Em go to visit the adult Jupe, played by Steven Yeun, who runs a hokey Western theme park. Jupe buys horses from OJ, who raises and trains the animals for Hollywood productions, and while hanging out in Jupe’s office, Em realizes he’s the same guy who was on Gordy’s Home all those years ago. Secretly scarred by his past but also benefiting from the notoriety, Jupe shows them a private room filled with memorabilia from the ill-fated sitcom. But rather than explaining how that tragic encounter with the rampaging chimp affected him, he instead proudly tells the siblings about an SNL sketch that came out soon after based on the incident.
“I mean, that pretty much nailed it better than I could,” Jupe says, grinning, as if he’s recounting a cherished childhood memory. Like any self-respecting comedy nerd, he then does a rhapsodizing roll call of the cast members who were part of the sketch — Darrell Hammond, Ana Gasteyer, Cheri Oteri — before adding, “but, of course, the star of the sketch is Chris Goddamn Kattan as Gordy. And he is… undeniable.”
We never see the sketch, which sounds pretty inane — the sitcom’s cast and crew are trying to celebrate Gordy’s birthday, but whenever someone mentions the jungle, the chimp freaks out — but the way Jupe describes it, you’d think he was talking about some high masterpiece. Trying to articulate the bit’s genius, he finally just says, “It’s Kattan: He’s just crushing it. He is a force of nature. He is killing on that stage.” At that very moment, Peele cuts back to the young Jupe back on that sitcom stage, scared out of his wits. Just as quickly, we return to modern day, Jupe trying to bury the memory and focus on the SNL sketch. “It’s legendary,” he says, with hushed awe. “Legendary shit.”
It’s really the way Yeun says “Chris Goddamn Kattan” in such a reverential manner that’s the cherry on top. The mention of Kattan, who was on the show from 1996 to 2003, hits such a perfect nostalgic sweet spot for aging SNL fans who remember him and his litany of impressions. It is absolutely believable that, if SNL had done a sketch about the Gordy’s Home massacre, it would have starred Kattan, Hammond, Gasteyer and Oteri — as well as Scott Wolf, who was the host that night, riding high thanks to Party of Five. (That timing actually works out: Wolf did, in fact, host SNL in 1998, which is when Jupe says the sketch aired — and speaking of things that are very 1990s, Natalie Imbruglia was that night’s musical guest.)
As many have noted, on SNL Kattan really did play a monkey/human hybrid, the very divisive Mr. Peppers, who made lots of rude noises and crudely ate anything in sight, spitting it out in all directions. Some people thought Kattan was an inspired physical comedian and mimic, but I felt he could get weighed down by schtick, and part of me wonders if Peele did, too.
Peele, who of course has his own history in sketch comedy with Key & Peele, hasn’t said anything about the Kattan reference, but Kattan has. Discovering the shout-out after Nope came out, he was a fan of Peele’s earlier work and decided to see the film, not concerned that he was being mocked. “I figured that someone would have told me that it was negative,” he said in August. His reaction? “Obviously, it was very flattering — I couldn’t be more honored.” Not that he thinks the SNL writers would have done a sketch about something so tragic. As Kattan put it, “I would probably ask that myself: As a writer, do you think that’s a good idea? I don’t know if it is a good idea.”
Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but the specificity of Jupe’s adoration for the sketch — the way he praises Kattan for how much he “crushed” the role of Gordy — feels like a dig on Peele’s part. Jupe has been established as someone whose grip on reality is a little wobbly, so his enthusiasm for Kattan feels akin to his general inability to gauge things accurately. There were a lot of big names on SNL at that time, but Kattan didn’t have the kind of stardom that his Night at the Roxbury co-star Will Ferrell later enjoyed, largely fading from public view. Arguably, it’s the datedness of the reference that makes it so funny. But to be fair to Kattan, he’s gone on to have a busy, successful career, although in his recent memoir he revealed that he battled an opioid addiction after breaking his neck on SNL, which understandably slowed down his professional momentum. Who knows what heights he might have reached if that hadn’t happened?
Even if the Nope joke isn’t a takedown of Kattan specifically, it definitely feels like a pointed commentary on how real life gets cheapened by becoming the grist for disposable entertainment, whether it’s a Law & Order “ripped from the headlines” episode or SNL’s strained cold opens that riff on whatever’s in the news. But there’s also something deeply sad about how Jupe has chosen to filter this terrible chapter from his child-star past through a presumably-dopey SNL sketch, which gives him a weird immortality that his acting career never did. It’s a joke that gets stuck in your throat — and the more you think about it, the darker the whole thing becomes. How many real SNL sketches can you say that about?