They’re back! Beloved former “Saturday Night Live” stars Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hit the Studio 8H stage last night for a special two-for-one-hosting special (both have hosted the show solo since departing the sketch comedy series), one engineered for maximum holiday cheer and to end the first half of the season with plenty of comedic fireworks.
Shockingly (read: not shockingly at all, come on, this is Tina and Amy), it worked. The pair may have been on hand to promote their new film “Sisters,” which had the inauspicious release date of, well, Friday, also known as “The Day that ‘Star Wars’ Came Out,” but the show really functioned as a reminder of how great these two are and how fantastic the show is when they’re on it. A handful of appearances by other beloved former star Maya Rudolph (who also appears in “Sisters,” alongside “SNL” alums and current stars like Rachel Dratch and Bobby Moynihan) only sealed the deal. “SNL” may boast a bumper crop of current female stars — Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant chief among them — but it sure doesn’t hurt to look back for a bit.
That’s not to say that things kicked off with a bang, however, as the show opened with a somehow already-dated spin on the Republican Debate that scanned like a limp attempt to trot out a bunch of impersonations just for grins (though, yes, baby-faced Pete Davidson taking on baby-faced Marco Rubio did work) before getting to the real meat of the episode, a flat sketch that was followed by an undercooked monologue that threatened to set the tone for the rest of the show. But it didn’t! It’s a holiday miracle!
The Two Best Sketches: “Meet Your Second Wife” and “Special Offer”
That seem pointed darkness also showed up in the show’s other best sketch of the night. Although the central gag of “Special Offer” is a common enough one — drunk people singing, in the past! — it was bolstered by excellent performances (has anyone ever drunkenly crooned as well as Maya Rudolph?), snappy timing and, oh look, a late reveal almost too dark to be funny! “Special Offer” is already lots of good, giddy last-segment amusing, but an unexpected appearance by Thompson as vintage Bill Cosby (in a vintage sweater, naturally) pushed the entire thing over the top and into a new realm of daring.
The Worst Sketch: “Tina Fey & Amy Poehler Christmas Mash-Up Monologue”
As we’ve discussed in the past, this current lineup of “SNL” regulars loves the old song and dance, a taste that’s often showcased in monologues that need a little spice, glossy digital shorts that function as music videos and the odd one-off sketch that somehow requires someone to sing and/or dance (remember that one about the weird village that also involved singing and dancing and hints of pedophile? eesh). Because this cast is so into hitting those high notes and tapping their heels, it’s more readily apparent when a musical bit bombs, and boy, did this monologue bomb.
That hurts to write. It’s Tina and Amy — Tina and Amy! — singing together and making holiday joy and their complementary (and very Destiny’s Child Lite) outfits are so very cute, but this one just didn’t coalesce. Part of the problem is that it hinges on a seemingly throwaway line, with Fey saying early on that she’s “dangerously religious,” a key point that didn’t stick until later in the bit, when she is actually singing about the holidays with a, well, dangerously religious bent. Even worse? The rest of the musical quality of the show was so high that, in order to make a musical number pop, it needed to be something exceptional. This wasn’t it.
(Important musical note: Yes, the rest of the musical quality of the show was so high, thanks to musical guests Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, and no, people on social media, no one was booing Bruce. First of all, it would take some pretty big brass tree ornaments to boo Bruce, especially in an audience as small as the one in Studio 8H, on the holiday show, which is notoriously an audience filled with “SNL” friends and family members. Second of all, they were yelling “Brrrruuuuuuuce!,” a traditional Springsteen fan cry of happiness and approval that, yes, doesn’t always translate to live broadcast. End rant.)
Best Male Performer: Kenan Thompson
“Is this a sketch about ‘Carol’?” I screamed late last night. It is, and it isn’t, instead it’s a sketch about “Carol” that then veers into an excuse for Kenan Thompson to trot out his notoriously bad director character (he’s a bad director, the character isn’t bad, well, per se, that’s worth debating) and ham it up six different ways to Sunday. This sketch may not stand out, but Thompson does, and he’s continued to use this season as proof positive of how integral he is to this cast. Thompson puts his full energy into everything — from the facial expressions in an ensemble piece like “Meet Your Second Wife” to a starring role in a bit that he clearly loves — and that craftsmanship and professionalism is something to behold. Is Kenan Thompson the star of “SNL”? The argument gets stronger every week.
Honorable Mention: Taran Killam
Best Female Performer: Kate McKinnon
But if it’s not Thompson, it just may be Kate McKinnon, who manages to excel at both unique impersonations and character roles in ensemble pieces. Seeing her Hillary Clinton matched up with Amy Poehler’s own take on the politician and presidential candidate was a bit of a no-brainer, but gosh if the results aren’t just kind of magical. And McKinnon continues to be able to hold her own in every situation and every sketch, a reliable performer who is also often the most talented one on the stage.
Honorable Mention: Maya Rudolph
Sketch Most Likely to Go Viral: “Tina & Amy’s Dope Squad”
This sketch didn’t even need Amy Schumer to show up — but, hey, nice to see you, Schums, looking forward to your next hosting gig on the show and your own inevitable march to the Five-Timers Club! — to scan as instant Internet catnip. You’ve got the Taylor Swift connection, the crazy outfits, the music video checkmarks, all wrapped up in a canny statement on what it really takes to be a successful modern woman who “has it all.” (And also Aidy Bryant as a dim-bulb web reporter that is so spot-on, it makes us worry about what kind of interviews Bryant has been subjected to in the past.) Throw in Schumer and Fey and Poehler’s actual gynecologist, and you’ve hit web gold.
Best Impression: Tina Fey as Sarah Palin
Come on, this is the gold standard and probably will be forever.
Character Most Likely to Become a Franchise: Kate McKinnon as Deenie
Kate McKinnon is literally eating baked salmon out of a Tupperware and talking about soap operas, and Deenie is still the most fully formed character of the night. How does she do that?
Colin Jost Tie-Watch: Still Wearing It
Important: It’s not just the tie. It’s the entire outfit. More on this to come.
“Saturday Night Live” will return on January 16, 2016 with host Adam Driver and a TBA musical guest.