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Saturday Night Live Recap: Lady Gaga Earns Our Applause

Lady Gaga was not handed the Saturday Night Live keys on a silver platter. Much like a young Mafioso on the come-up, she had to first make her bones serving as musical guest twice and appearing in a smidgen of sketches before pulling double-duty. Fellow pop stars Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry sashayed past such rites of passage, as did Gaga's spiritual forebear, Madonna. (All three not only hosted their first times out, they had separate musical guests.) Perhaps aware of this disparity, the self-styled Mother Monster stormed studio 8H last night like she had something to prove.

Musicians hosting Saturday Night Live had better have either a natural knack for comedy, or a strongly defined enough public persona to build material around. Lady Gaga may not possess the same chops as Justin Timberlake — come at me, haters — but she's more cut out for this sideline than Justin Bieber, who only excels at playing himself. In terms of material, the months of lead-up to Gaga's newly released ARTPOP album gave the writers on the show an abundance of riches to work with, which largely went unused. (Although perhaps publicly aligning oneself with Marina Abramović in a video fraught with carefully arranged nudity renders parody pointless.)

The resulting episode split the difference between relying on viewers' familiarity with Gaga, and leaning on the virgin host to deliver the goods. The musician was game and goofy, sometimes to the point of distraction. Watching her constant evolution as a pop star can get exhausting, and she brought the same enthusiasm she has for impractical fashion to her hosting duties. Clearly Gaga was relishing the opportunity, though, which helped make for a better-than-average episode.

Can't-Miss News Item of the Week
Rob Ford's slow-motion train wreck this week was an early Christmas gift to SNL, and all involved clearly recognized it as such. While some political-tinged cold opens can be dry or repetitive, Ford's ongoing scandal-fiesta gave Bobby Moynihan a license to go buck wild. With a face "as red as a Boxing Day ham," and stubble even on his forehead, Moynihan captured the essence of the wildly unphotogenic mayor, giving press conferences to apologize for behavior at previous press conferences. His committed performance turned what could have been mere fish in a barrel into an inspired bit of lunacy.

Unnecessary Song of the Week
It's kind of funny sometimes when a host like Jeremy Renner unexpectedly ends up singing a song during his monologue. (Although it should be noted that it was not funny in the instance of Jeremy Renner.) We already know that Lady Gaga brings musical ability to the table, though, so having her do so as an introduction seems kind of redundant. After strutting out in a disco ball swimsuit with abdominal fringe, Gaga launched into a version of her recent hit, "Applause" that mocked her and other hosts' tendency to pander for such. The song largely fell flat, but there was a clever jab at those old "tuck job" rumors in there that made it almost worth it.

Fair and Balanced Moment of the Week
After the 2008 election, comedians quietly worried President Obama would not be an endless fountain of chuckles as his predecessor. They were right to worry, which is why SNL writers tend to go HAM when our commander in chief has a bad day. The recent bungled launch of healthcare.gov gave the liberal-skewing show a chance to take Obama to task. Jay Pharoah got to mope around in an ad for "2nd Term Strength Paxil," which managed to make fun of many of the president's recent missteps all at once.

Kardashian Komedy of the Week
Losing so many long-time cast members at once has left SNL with a dearth of recurring sketches. Last night, a new potential franchise emerged in the form of "Waking Up With Kimye." Jay Pharoah and Nasim Pedrad have played the ubiquitous couple before, and parlaying these impressions into a talk show format seems like a smart move. The sketch got a lot of mileage out of Kanye's desperation to prove that Kim Kardashian is a person of substance, ultimately comparing her supposed genius to that of an Apple Genius Bar employee. Since the titular pair is so over the top, though — both in real life and in satire — there was no real need for Gaga to play her straight-man Apple worker role as eccentric as she did.

Wink to the Audience of the Week
"Worst Cover Songs" starts out as one of those impression-hurricane sketches that allow cast members to bust out their deep-cut imitations. (See the recent '50 Shades of Grey screen tests' for another example.) Highlights include Kenan Thompson as Rick Ross performing Anna Kendrick's "Cup Song," and Bobby Moynihan's Nathan Lane inexplicably crooning Shaggy's "It Wasn't Me." Eventually, though, it emerges that the whole sketch was just a vehicle for Lady Gaga to own up to ripping off Madonna's "Express Yourself" on her song "Born This Way" — a joke that's a quarter-decade late.

Ad Lib of the Week
Proving once again that he is the Will Ferrell-type utility player of the current cast, Taran Killam steals the show on Weekend Update with his Jebediah Atkinson character. Atkinson is supposedly a reviewer of presidential speeches, here to take the Gettysburg Address down a peg or two. With his tiny glasses and dandy duds, Killam delivers zingers that sound like New York Post critic slams (e.g. "The real Gettysburg Address is 115 Boring Street.") It was already a funny bit, but then Killam messed up his final punchline, and saved it with a clutch ad lib about kamikazes that Seth Meyers helped spin into gold.

Crazy Kate McKinnon of the Week
One of the trials of finding housing in New York is passing muster with a co-op board. It is an insane trial by fire that demands to be skewed, but deserves better than this sketch. Once the first couple, played by Aidy Bryant and Beck Bennett, force the applicants to listen to their preferred volume of sex noises, there's really no room left for heightening. While Lady Gaga's Marisa-Tomei-in-My-Cousin-Vinny registers just enough, Kate McKinnon's latest unhinged character gets some laughs with her smudged makeup and broccoli baby.

On-Point Overacting of the Week
Well past the mid-point of the show, Lady Gaga finally came into her own in an infomercial for "Spotlightz: Acting Camp for Serious Kids." Of course, Vanessa Bayer is going to be able to knock an overacting-kid role out of the park, and in retrospect, it makes sense that our host would too. It's not hard to imagine a pint-sized Stefani Germanotta attending such a camp for exceptional youngsters once upon a time. Her portrayal of little Lizzie Jacobson acting the crap out of Denzel Washington's Training Day role was the highlight of a sketch already teeming with fun moments.

Digital Derring-Do of the Week
Since renting videos from Blockbuster was as much a part of my pop-culture youth as staying up late to catch Saturday Night Live, I welcomed this tribute to the now-defunct chain with open arms. Ultimately, the sketch wasn't particularly funny, but there were some terrific details, the best of which being that after the terminated teen employees turn in their nametags, they also take out the spacers in their ears.

New Guy VIP of the Week
Lady Gaga's physicality was in full display in a brief that had her and John Milhiser as helicopter parents at a talent show. Their well-rehearsed vamping provided a nice showcase for Milhiser during an episode in which the new guys didn't get much of a chance to distinguish themselves.

:( of the Week
In an ode to Sunset Boulevard, Lady Gaga played a burned-out shell of her former self, in the year 2063. As Kenan Thompson's delivery dude fails to recognize the magnificent pop star that once was, Gaga whips out ever-more sad little versions of her most famous hits. It's a well-acted scene on Gaga's part, and Kenan gets in some funny lines, but mostly this one was just a reminder of the inexorable march of time.

Actual Programming Idea of the Week
There's not much to say about RoséZone, a version of the all-sports-highlights channel RedZone that caters to fans of reality TV, except that it was very funny and it's ridiculous that it doesn't actually exist yet.