There’s always excitement in the air whenever a former SNL castmember returns to host an episode. For the show’s staff, it means a relatively comfortable week — they get to work with an old friend of the show, someone who already understands nuts and bolts of live TV sketch comedy, and if they’re lucky, someone who might have a few beloved characters to dust off for another go. For those of us watching at home, the experience is akin to watching an NBA star play pickup with the kids now inhabiting his old neighborhood court… and to his surprise finding it hard to keep up.
After 36 years, the event also feels like a ceremonial victory lap. Nothing proves your TV show’s cultural stock value quite like parading one of the many performers you nurtured into an entertainment icon through your studio, occupying the spotlight once reserved for only the most famous of household names. It’s a ritual that reminds us of the gifts Lorne has given us over the years. After the goodbyes we drift off to sleep, finding our dream-selves in an Upper East Side penthouse, tangled in sweat-soaked sheets gasping for air, while that white haired Canadian pours himself a scotch at the wet bar in the corner, tilts his glass at our thoroughly spent bodies, and mutters: “You’re welcome.”
Unfortunately, as in the imaginary scenario when Brian Wilson shows up unannounced to a Beach Boys recording session, it’s unlikely all the tracks will be gold. It’ll start off great with a rousing “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” reprise and everyone will dance wildly into the night to “Good Vibrations.” But then, once McCartney and Dylan have left, he’ll be wearing a Beethoven wig and introducing everyone to his 30-person orchestra before ice skating off in Belushi’s bee costume.
Let’s be clear: In his first time as official host (surprising, right?), Jimmy Fallon did a fantastic job. Fallon, whose Late Night gig has matured him as a performer without sucking away any of the boyish glee that made him such a delight to watch as an SNL player, didn’t miss a beat, delivering great performances in sketches and, with the help of fellow alums Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Horatio Sanz, Chris Kattan, and Tracy Morgan, reminded us of what made his era of SNL so great. Despite all the fun, I can’t point to any moment during the night that broke new comedy ground or made me giddy with laughter. But I suppose not every week needs to be a game changer… sometimes, we just want to remember the magic before the holidays.
Sully and Denise Cold Open. The episode kicked off with the return the Boston Teens, aka Southie trash couple Sully and Zazu, here trying to crash their high school’s winter formal. It was a clever choice to mirror our nostalgia for the characters by having the two try to reignite their insult-make-out romance at their old stomping grounds. The details were wonderfully rich, with daughters named Weezer, Chubsy, Squeezebox, and Hags.
Monologue. In one of the most fun moments of the night, Fallon whipped out his guitar and put his holiday cheer to song, singing with castmembers back stage and joining the whole ensemble in a big dance party on stage. He also made time for some nice, self-targeted jokes: “So many memories… Barry Gibb Talk Show, Debbie Downer, Cowbell… I laughed and ruined all those sketches.”
Today Show. I admit I was never a huge fan of these sketches, but in this case I was won over by the never-ending Hoda Kotb puns, Fallon’s surprisingly strong Regis impression (I’m sure it was one of many that never got to see the light of day while Darrell Hammond was still on the show), and the never explained disappearance of a make-over guest.
Buble Duets. All the night’s celebrity cameos thankfully made time for only one celebrity impersonation slideshow, here with singers butchering holiday duets with Michael Buble. Fallon pulled triple duty as Sting, Justin Bieber, and Russell Brand, all of which may have been overshadowed by the Gaga Tree.
1920s Holiday Party. Fallon and Kristen Wiig played a hammy, center-of-attention couple at a 20s-era soirée, hijacking the festivities with unwanted singing and dancing while pleading, “Don’t make me sing!” and “Don’t make me dance!” Slow pacing, wandering focus and a few missed cues turned me off early in the sketch, but Fallon and Wiig’s heightened emotions and a bizarre raccoon twist won me over by the end.
One Man Show. Fred Armisen may be the king of the “Why Is This Guy a Performer?” character, which has now taken the form of Tommy Palmese, a half-Jewish, half-Italian actor doing a one-man show. Anyone who has been dragged to a self-obsessed one-man show in some crummy, 20-seat blackbox will enjoy this sketch, whether or not the bulk of your experience was the actor trying to set up a video or pretending to be a janitor as you entered the theater.
Weekend Update. While it would be tough to top last week’s news segment, we were treated with a visit from Nicolas Cage (Andy Samberg), joined by Jude Law. I always enjoy Samberg’s hauntingly sensual descriptions of Cage’s features, along with his plans to do the nasty with national treasures. Seth Meyers’ jokes remained strong, though he had to defend them when former Update hosts Fallon, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler appeared for a Weekend Update Joke Off. If the rapid-fire toys-for-lap-dance jokes don’t tickle you, the DIY buzzer sound effects will.
War Horse. The writers took another dig at live theater in this sketch about the stage-version of the new film, in which Fallon replaced puppeteers by doing all the horse’s blocking, sound effects, popping and locking, and yes, dialogue, himself. The physical absurdity was key here, but I loved the prospect that neither we the audience nor the actors in this play needed to understand anything about War Horse to enjoy this sketch.
Tebow. As someone from Tim Tebow’s hometown and who attended Florida the same four years he played there, to see SNL finally do a sketch about the guy warms my heart in more ways than one, even if it was the last sketch of the night. Jason Sudeikis was perfect as a down-to-earth Jesus, who was just as creeped out by Tebow’s outspoken faith as the rest of us are. With former ESPY host Seth Meyers at the helm, it’s no wonder sports humor has found its way into the lineup.
Jimmy Mirror. When we saw this “impression mirror” bit in the past, it was always when the celebrity had a distinct “character” about them, like when Fallon mirrored Mick Jagger years ago. This instance failed largely because Jimmy Fallon isn’t particularly impersonate-able, especially by Andy Samberg, who, while very much the Jimmy Fallon of the current SNL generation, isn’t known for his impersonation skills outside of Nicolas Cage. Fallon was forced to talk and act more like Samberg in order for the mirror effect to work, when it should have been the other way around.
Christmas Treat. SNL somehow discovered how I had been celebrating the holiday season (watching the original “I Wish It Was Christmas Today” song every morning) and decided to ruin it for everyone, forever. I’m just plain upset over this. When they performed this song in 2000, it was like capturing lightning in a bottle. The music is cheesy, the lyrics make absolutely no sense, the four guys are huge dorks, and Tracy Morgan is just dancing off to the side for no fucking reason. But this time, the guys (Tracy excluded) seemed to be aware of all this. Do yourself a Christmas favor and watch the original instead.
Beethoven. I actually enjoy this concept, in which Beethoven (Fallon) introduces his symphony orchestra as if he was Springsteen introducing the E-Street Band. And while I suppose five minutes is the normal length for a live sketch, the incessant reminders that we were going to be introduced to every single member of the orchestra just made the sketch feel ten times too long.
It was a great episode to last us through the holiday season, even though the highs may not have been as high as in recent episodes. Yet while no sketch completely floored me, a few of them have surprisingly high replay value, specifically One Man Show. We may always remember Jimmy Fallon as the guy who couldn’t keep a straight face, but last weekend he reminded us all of the talent that made him a star. And America responded, giving the episode the highest ratings it has seen this season.
Perhaps because of all the appearances he’s made on the show in the past few seasons, and with his new job on the same network, in the same building, it feels like Jimmy Fallon never really left SNL. Still, his and the other alumni’s return to 8H makes me dream for an entire season of former castmember hosts — Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Bill Murray, Amy Poehler, Billy Crystal, Joe Piscopo… Piscopo, guys! Eventually they’d have to reach out to a Jim Breuer or a Colin Quinn, but they can afford to hold off on inviting back Victoria Jackson or Chevy Chase, else expose the staff to a week of right-wing rants or misogynistic/homophobic slurs, respectively.
What did you think? Did Jimmy Fallon’s performance as host warm your heart enough to forgive his giggle fits, or do you still side with those who believe he belongs in a hell where he is forced to watch Taxi over and over? Did I cross a line with my steamy Lorne Michaels fan fiction? Should SNL further flaunt its greatness with a season of only former castmember hosts? Do you look forward to the day when the only celebrities are SNL alumni, turning the entire entertainment industry into an incestuous cycle filled with “horrible freaks with pink skin, no overbites, and five fingers on each hand”?
Have a wonderful holiday, Splitsider readers! I’ll see you on Jan. 7, 2012, when Charles Barkley will host for some reason, with musical guest Kelly Clarkson.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs with his improv team Natural 20 at the iO West Theater.