There's a reason Tracy Morgan's name was tweaked only ever so slightly to "Tracy Jordan" for his role on 30 Rock. As a sketch comedy performer, and as a personality, Tracy is, indelibly, who he is. Or he was, anyway. After a horrific car accident in June 2014 that claimed the life of his friend, comedian James McNair, there were lingering doubts as to whether he could reconcile his essential self with his newfound gravity, let alone whether he was physically or mentally capable of performing. Last night, however, he proved he still is that guy we love — and even that guy based on the guy we love.
When you go to see a venerable comedian play his or her first show in a while, you'll probably cough up some benefit-of-the-doubt laughs, no matter the quality of material — at least for the first few minutes. That's it, though. Nostalgia is an emotional trigger, not a laugh-generator, and it will only take somebody so far. Luckily for Tracy Morgan and everyone watching him return to his home at SNL, last night there was no need to grade on a nostalgia curve. The distraction of feeling sympathetic for someone whose greatest asset was once his unpredictability simply melted away somewhere mid-monologue, in the best possible way, allowing us to just focus on the funny. Though the episode was slightly marred by a couple of sketches toward the end, the funny was not in short supply.
One of the vanity stills that are created for SNL hosts and flashed after commercial breaks had Tracy Morgan pulling up to a red carpet at NBC studios in a white limo wearing a cape and sunglasses, smiling victoriously. It's an appropriate image for the night, the homecoming king of 30 Rockefeller Center. He brought along with him some familiar faces, both in terms of guests like Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin, and his old repertoire of characters like Brian Fellow and Astronaut Jones. And when he talked about returning to his family at SNL during his monologue, hitting that word several times, it was about a thousand times more meaningful than when Vin Diesel's Dom Toretto says it in the Fast and Furious movie to refer to his hard-charging super-squad. Who says you can never go home again? (That's a dumb saying, by the way. Of course you can. It should probably just be "You can never go back in time." That's what I'm going to start saying. Pass it on.)
Democratic Debates Cold Open
This election cycle finally got its Tina Fey–as–Sarah Palin moment with the dynamite debut of Larry David as Bernie Sanders. Everybody wins with this bit of fan service. Lorne Michaels gets ratings. Twitter gets the prophesy-fulfilled feeling of when Samuel Jackson did his internet-ordained line in Snakes on a Plane. And Larry David gets to crush it in the same SNL studio that once scorned him. In a cameo that's destined to be remembered perhaps even more fondly than Hillary Clinton's a few weeks ago, David played Sanders as a brash, broad, Brooklyn-y caricature who shares not a little DNA with David's own persnickety persona on Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Sanders musing on why banks keep their pens chained to desks was particularly inspired.) Elsewhere, Alec Baldwin played the ornery Jim Webb in a turn that ably mocked Webb's unearned quest for more facetime during the debates last Tuesday, Kate McKinnon continued rounding out her nuanced, unsparing portrayal of Clinton, and Kyle Mooney got a laugh from me as Lincoln Chafee, delightfully aware of how he'll never be seen nor heard from ever again. Sure it relied on ringers, but this was easily the best political cold open in ages.
Tracy Morgan Monologue
After a winking Willy Wonka–style fake-out entrance, Morgan quickly proved that he is neither enfeebled nor dehumorized. Clearly, SNL was going to have to address the elephant in the room—this deeply silly man almost died last year—and it was going to have to be during the monologue. Producing a supposed clip from a 2012 "very special episode" of 30 Rock, in which Tracy Jordan nearly died, was a smart, cameo-packed way to clear the air. The references to Skrillex and Psy were fine as on-the-nose period indicators, but the onscreen promos for Smash and Animal Practice were killer. And while 30 Rock thankfully ended before descending too deep into self-parody, there's no denying how good it felt to see this crew back together again, if just for a few minutes.
Family Feud: Extended Family
It's swell to see a game show sketch in the modern SNL era not entirely dependent on celebrity impersonations. While this one was by no means a knockout, it still had its moments — especially when a rare, off-the-Weekend-Update-desk Michael Che betrayed his jilted mother and siblings to join departed dad Tracy Morgan's family, because "these people seem happy."
Brian Fellow's Safari Planet: A Beaver and a Camel
Let's face it, Tracy Morgan's signature character is "Tracy Morgan," the quirky-go-lucky man-child we got reacquainted with during the monologue. His other signature character, though, is probably Brian Fellow, the unintelligible, unqualified zoologist. This resurrection hit all the marks: too much lip gloss, dream bubbles full of callbacks, attributing human personality traits like "snottiness" to animals, and catchphrases "That's crazy!" and "I'm Brian Fellow." More importantly, though, this sketch also proved Tracy's improv instincts are still intact. When the live camel (!) onstage walked into Tracy's shot at the end, Tracy yelled, "I can't see, Camel!" and all was right in the world.
Mitchell's Fake Cocaine
The idea for this digital short was probably conceived in the bathroom at a party. It's an ad for fake cocaine that you can use to explain why you were in the bathroom for so long. What propels the idea is the actual marketplace need for some product like this. Having to go #2 at a party is an absolute nightmare. Hell, even going to the bathroom to check your hair after someone else has gone #2 is a nightmare because when you leave, anyone waiting will now hold you responsible for what went on before you got there. Anyway, this sketch speaks to the bodily function–based paranoia in all of us, introducing a fake poo smell canister for fake cocaine users who get called out on why it smells like poo when they were just going to the bathroom to do some cocaine. That's way more recursive logic than usually goes into your average poo joke.
How fantastic is it to have Tina Fey on Weekend Update discussing the end of nude photos in Playboy Magazine? So fantastic we don't even have to talk about it. Watch it again for the first time right now! Elsewhere, Che and Colin Jost's rapport continued its improvement, the pair managed to squeeze in another solid gun control joke carrying over the message from last week, and Che's impossibly positive neighbor, Willy, introduced us to his life coach, Woodrow the homeless man. Never has doodoo pie tasted so refreshing.
Good Morning Song
Going into this sketch, SNL was batting 1.000. Afterward, it was not. The premise is perfectly suited to Tracy Morgan — one guy speaks his weird truth all the time, among those who do not — in fact, it's not all that far removed from his reality, aside from the fairy tale musical setting. Unfortunately, after a promising start, the punchline to the sketch's joke deflates it entirely. After Tracy's Bernard the clockmaker encourages Taran Killam's pastor to be himself as well, it leads to an admission that he's having consensual sex with an 18-year old boy. Ugh. That's the best joke they could come up with, out of the infinite possibilities of any strange trait they could have designated to any one of these characters? It would have almost been better — almost! — if Killam's character had been boning someone much younger, because at least then it would have been suitably inappropriate. As is, it's kind of just a gay-panic joke — and considering the ugly part of Tracy Morgan's past, we did not need any gay-panic jokes tonight.
Speaking of gay-panic jokes, the best inversion of them probably ever is Mr. Show's classic "I'll Marry Your Stupid Ass" sketch. This digital short, in which a near bar-fight turns into a plea for a tango-partner, has an unignorably similar defusing in mind, but can't escape from beneath the shadow of the superior sketch. Or maybe that's me reading too much into it. Look upon what ye hath wrought, recap culture!
Yo! Where Jackie Chan At Right Now?
After two so-so sketches, the show wins me back with this deftly executed bit of absurdity. Kenan and Tracy Morgan play just a couple guys with different types of tiny dreadlocks who are intensely interested in locating Jackie Chan. It's already a funny sketch with its own energy as the pair take calls aggressively and spout odd lies about this show having won a Peabody, but then they start checking in with some of Chan's past associates—and also Osama bin Laden who has a skateboard for some reason, and we're in Will Forte–level weird territory. Which is a great place to be on this show.
Ends with Astronaut Jones
How wonderfully fitting to end the episode with an Astronaut Jones tribute to The Martian. In that movie Matt Damon just wanted to come home; in this episode, Tracy Morgan did. Everybody welcome Tracy back to his home.