Back in 2006, your recapper was a fledgling improv student who regularly went to ASSSCAT, the UCB’s Sunday night all-star showcase of longform improvisation. Lucky me, because that happened to coincide with the era in which Amy Poehler — a UCB co-founder — was a cast member on SNL. Other cast members of the era regularly made appearances in the show (Seth, Horatio, etc), which meant you got to see some of comedy’s golden children being sweetly off-the-cuff, enjoying time with their pals on their day off.
When Amy and Tina started doing Weekend Update together, Amy would come out at the top of an ASSSCAT show and, more than once, some a-hole in the crowd would yell “Where’s Tina?” Ever patient, Amy would reply, “She’s probably home with her baby” or “She’s not here, my friend.” It must have been annoying for a singular comedian like Amy, who also happened to have started one of the best and most important comedy theaters in the country, to be always put together with Tina. But Amy never showed it.
Flash forward to last night’s SNL, and these two separate but equally wonderful comedians are on the Sisters promotional tour, with this stop at their old stomping grounds. And while this was a night full of some gentle fun, it also signaled, perhaps more than ever before, that the Tina and Amy era of SNL is firmly, definitively done. Pour one out on Amy’s Hillary wig.
Republican Debate Cold Open
At first I was a little taken aback that we were in this territory again — didn’t that Republican debate happen, like ,three weeks ago? But no, there have been stacks on stacks of debates, and the latest was just five days prior to this episode. This one took on a few ideas, namely that Jeb is a wuss, Trump is funny and a blowhard, and there are a lot of people no one cares about. Sound familiar? That seems to be the only avenue the show is taking on the Republican party these days, and while I’d like to believe it’s a slightly subversive decision (“Let’s show America how boring and stupid these guys are, writers”) it’s more likely just grasping. SNL, I ask you: Do we have to go political in the cold open? It seems to be a rule these days, but I’d rather see a different perspective. Anyway, Darrell Hammond returns as Trump, to applause (for him or Trump? Hopefully him). John Rudnitsky’s Wolf Blitzer introduces a smattering of candidates before asking the others to “just wave so your parents know you’re here.” The rest is a smattering of clever one-liners and aimless back and forth — pretty akin to the actual debate — ending on Trump’s assertion that no one there was going to be president. I’m still enamored with Jay Pharoah’s weird Ben Carson-isms (and so is the audience), but the rest of the impressions (save Hammond, of course) are not making much of an impression on me. I like Beck’s “desperate swings at Trump” as Jeb “Jebra” Bush, but there needs to be more there, there. Wahh-wahhh.
Tina and Amy Monologue
Our ladies of the hour-and-a-half enter to warm applause, and proceed to monologue in sync, because, as Amy says “We are like sisters, which made it easy to play sisters in our new movie, Star Wars.” They’re also finishing each other’s sent...epedes. Human centipedes.
Here, and throughout, there is a little bit of what I’ll call the Fey touch. Fey’s brilliance as head writer was in her ability to spike her comedy eggnog with heady smartness and a subtly feminist outlook. Both of those notions pop in throughout the episode, which isn’t to say she was in the room (or maybe she was), but that her authorial presence is felt — including here, in a dueling Christmas song where Amy plays it fun and modern while Tina, who is “dangerously religious” retells the Christ story using ancient Hebrew terms and names.
And like Tina’s best work as head writer, this bit gets rescued by timing. Just when we’re about to get tired of the premise, they switch roles and singing styles, then combine them for a harmonious finish. It’s a metaphor for their chemistry. As Tina says, “She’s the peanut butter and I’m the salami” which sounds gross, but is a great combo in Tina’s mouth. It’s a fun, smart, very Tina and Amy beginning — nothing incredible, but enough to remind us why we like hanging out with these people so much. Actually, it made me miss them on SNL less and 30 Rock and Parks and Rec more. Go figure.
A Hilmas Carol
As soon as we see the title card, “Clinton residence, Christmas Eve,” we know we’re going double Hil on this one. In a loose parody of A Christmas Carol, present-day Hillary (Kate McKinnon) goes to sleep only to be awoken by “strong feminine laughter.” It’s the ghost of Christmas past ... or. rather, 2008 Hillary (Poehler), who warns 2015 Hillary not to get cocky about her chances in 2016, lest she forget that “Someone named Barack Obama stumbled out of a soup kitchen with a basketball and a cigarette and stole my life.” Thankfully, says 2015 Hil, the only real competition this time around is “human Birkenstock” Bernie Sanders. There’s a nice bit of playfulness around 2008 Hillary’s affection for Sanders, which modern Hil quashes. And, like that rich, detail-filled line about Obama above, McKinnon’s assertions about the difficulty of being a female candidate smack of that classic Tina touch — Hillary has to be “cool but tough, soft but strong ... a sweet old lady, but a sweet old lady that says ‘yasss queen.’”
Cue Fey’s Sarah Palin, still such a doppelgänger situation that, while her back is turned, you briefly wonder if the real Palin stopped in. As always, she’s there mainly for comic relief, to drop some dumb bon mots and to provoke 2008 Hillary, who creates a GIFable moment when she lunges at Palin only to be restrained by ... her 2015 self. And Kate’s desperate grab-and-smash of Hillary’s phone when she asserts she has to “get back to 2008 and send a bunch of emails” is pure, wide-eyed McKinnon awesomeness. The baton? Passed. Now, let’s all dance to Outkast.
Meet Your Second Wife
Save for some glitchiness in the live tech — I’m guessing the control room popped the holiday champagne early — this game show–style sketch is the highlight of the night for this recapper. It checks all the boxes for me: funny, cutting, insightful, smart, feminist. It’s also a classically structured sketch, with a simple premise — three happily married men are there to meet their future, second wife — that heightens simply and beautifully until it’s clear that Kenan as Toby from Boston will eventually marry the fetus inside Cecily (Kenan saying, “Please don’t be white ... please don’t be white” under his breath? Perfection).
While this sketch is the strongest, it also reminds you that two hosts are not necessarily ideal. Amy and Tina co-host the game show (as Helen Walsh and Tina Fey, respectively), and here, as in the rest of the show, the strong, current female cast takes a backseat to them. Still, it’s nice to be reminded that now, as then, the strongest performers on this show are women. It gives one hope. As much hope as Taran has that his future second wife, his daughter’s friend from college, will stay friends with his daughter. “Yeah,” says Tina drippingly. “She’ll love it.”
This commercial parody is so brilliantly simple, I can’t believe someone hasn’t done it yet. Pete and Kyle are teens who love their hoverboards, especially now that they explode when plugged in, when moving, and even when they’re “just sitting there.” (True story: those things are very flammable.) This is a fast and funny one, and I have no complaints, so I’ll just leave you with two great lines:
How does this thing catch on fire, you ask? “Simple — we take a battery from a 90s cellphone, and make it power a motor for a small car.” That way, you can “give the gift that says I hate walking but I love fires.” You know you want it! It’s from the makers of “Plane Lasers: try to blind a pilot! It’s a goooof!”
SNL avoided the pitfalls of the halfway point last week — a common issue on the show — but it can’t seem to get over them here. This one starts out strong, but loses steam when its premise — that a film director used to work on The Jeffersons and wants everyone to act bigger and more blustery, 1970s TV–style, even though they’re making a 1940s period film. Tina and Amy are both game, and Kenan is at his Kenan-making-weird-sounds best, but the writing just doesn’t hold the thing together. Maybe they should have let Tina take a pass, pump up the details, hammer in more laugh lines like the surprising “I heard you were a bitch ... I like that,” that Kenan lobs at Amy early on. Instead, it’s a flaccid little distraction, drained of its power with every repetition of the scene-within-the-scene. And poor Sasheer is relegated to playing PA, which is itself a metaphor for the show. Sorry, Sasheer.
All I wanted for Christmas was for Amy and Tina to take over Weekend Update. Wouldn’t that have been great? No explanation, they just did the whole thing, for old times’ sake. But lately, and as I mentioned above, SNL keeps eschewing the good old days, which is a good, healthy choice (live in the present, 41-year-old TV show!) but one that takes some adjusting, especially when old cast members are around.
As always, Update is best when interrupted by a good guest; in this case it’s Kate McKinnon playing Deenie, somebody’s mom. She’s just happy to be there, and her sunniness casts its rays on the whole proceedings. McKinnon’s the perfect pinch hitter for Update, coming in when the segment is flagging and demonstrating skill and commitment to character. Deenie loves her soaps, even if she can’t remember any characters because she “half-watch[es] ‘em while I’m coloring in my adult coloring book.” She’s also excited to share that what’s in store for the new year is that she’s “gonna sit on [her] ass for about a month, then I’ll take my tree down.” (Bonus points for Kate eating whatever was in that tupperware ... possibly actual salmon.)
Off of Kate, things pick up: a good joke about slave ships, plus the assertion that distant cousins Bill O’Reilly and Bill Maher were both descended from a screaming potato. I’m still not fully on board with these extended riffs that Jost/Che set up — this one on embattled pharma jerk Martin Shkreli — mostly because they are not funny enough to justify their length. (Side note: Michael Che needs to stop reacting negatively to audience reactions.) In my opinion, if you’re going to go long, the jokes better be more than just lateral joke building in the “that’s like if…” vein. Update is built for some longer riffs — ”Really!? with Seth and Amy” is a good example, as were many of Tina’s monologues (like the classic “Bitch is the New Black,” which I was hoping for a reprise of here, to no avail), but if you do, make sure it counts. Rant over, let’s see Tina and Amy tell two jokes that are great, and let’s all feel nostalgic and hungry for more, shall we?
Chad and Mrs. Douglas Show
This is a weird one. Chad and Victoria Douglas (Taran and Vanessa) are a married couple who used to have a ’70s variety show, and this is the infomercial for their Christmas special DVD. Cue the performances: Maya Rudolph, always welcome, plays a drunk Ms. Lola Fabre slurring her way through “The 12 Days of Christmas” and hucking gifts at the actual kids around her; Amy is Gloria Wallace, a coke-fueled pixie who smashes through the wall (and later dies in a car accident — kids, remember to close your car door while driving!); and Tina sings “Baby it’s Cold Outside” with Kenan’s Bill Cosby, a moment that’s more brilliant than the bruised audience reaction suggests, especially when he riffs on the drink being spiked with “a vitamin to help you with your career” which prompts Tina to bolt (“Something’s up with that”). If you listen carefully, you can hear Kenan say, “I wanna show you my penis.” It’s a Christmas miracle, unlike this sketch, which is just okay.
Tina and Amy’s Dope Squad
Another highlight, this short pivots off Tina and Amy in a mock-junket interview for Sisters, wherein the interviewer (Aidy) wonders how these two can “have it all.” Amy offers that it’s because of their “squad full of people.” A dope squad, that is. While parodying Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” video might be slightly out of date, the premise is strong enough to withstand that inherent weakness (particularly at the top, where we meet Fey and Poehler’s actual nannies, their shared gynecologist (!!), and even a woman who knows Amy’s lunch order by memory, properly nicknamed "2 Soupz"). This one’s loaded with goodness, much like the “Bad Blood” video itself, and reveals more fun in second and third viewings. Bonus Amy Schumer appearance (Tina asserts she owes her a favor from appearing in Schumer’s show … “Last Fuckable Day” shoutout!). This sketch is best when it plainly highlights the literal army of women that help Tina and Amy out — “it takes a village, y’all” — and that they’re happily middle-aged and therefore friends with Gayle King. Even if everyone gets sued by Schumer for that explosion, the whole thing was worth it. Is there any more Tina Fey-y a line — both boldly funny and suitably humble — than “We’ve been told that we roll deep”? Methinks not.
Of course, if we already know that Maya’s hanging out, there has to be a Bronx Beat. I can never hate on Betty and Jodi, every woman’s id spun into comedic gold (does that mean the Bronx is the seat of the female id? Discuss). One can’t help but agree that world events are bumming us all out, what with ISIS coming down the chimney instead of Santa. Plus, Star Wars is everywhere. As Betty asserts, “May the Force give me a break, already!” Amen, sister. We, too, agree that “the only space [we] want is counter space,” as our dumb husbands also take it all up with their Nutribullets, making dumb shakes.
Enter Karen (Fey), from Philly, with her insane, wonderful accent. If only Betty and Jodi had accents too, as they lament, “It’s like Downtown Abbey.” While the rest of the sketch is so very fun, with Karen’s bad ornaments, and Betty becoming Columbo to suss out that Jodi’s pregnant, it also feels like a major chapter is closing. It says much about how close we hold these characters that when I found out “Jodi” is pregnant with her fifth kid, I went searching to see if Rudolph’s pregnant again too (she also has four, with director Paul Thomas Anderson). It’s Betty who says “I’m so happy for you, but if I was pregnant I’d kill myself,” but this could as easily be uttered by Amy to Maya during a power lunch. When will these three be back together on the beat again? In nine years, at the 50th? If then.
All in all, this is a just-okay episode. The last time Tina was on, you felt her presence heavily in the sketches, but this time the touch is light, distant. That’s not a bad thing — it reeks of the polite classiness for which Ms. Fey is known. Amy, ever game, was just as game here as always, her intelligence just as potent as Tina’s but manifested mostly in deed rather than word. Still, this is not their show anymore — and that’s not a bad thing. It’s just, when they’re there, an obvious one.
With SNL moving forward into its fourth decade — just as this week’s hosts are — it will be interesting to see how it continues to evolve. This episode felt like a classic send-off; while Amy and Tina sang “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” with Bruce and Paul McCartney, you could almost see imaginary jerseys reading Poehler and Fey rising into the rafters. We’ll miss you both. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight ... and a pleasant tomorrow.