The schedule at “Saturday Night Live” is a little bit like the schedule at a really cool, probably progressive elementary school that values brain rest over brain burnout. Seasons start in the fall (normal enough), skip over the autumn months seemingly at random, before breaking for an extended holiday vacation and finally kicking back up, oh, sometime in January. That will see them through until May, when everyone takes the summer off and slowly remembers what it’s like not to live at the office and churn out comedy at a legitimately terrifying and mostly unsustainable speed.
Which is all a long way of saying that, sometimes, it takes awhile for everyone at “SNL” (and there are a lot of people at “SNL”) to get into a groove, and then it can be even harder to keep that newfound flow going once it’s initially tapped. Hosting “SNL” post-holiday break comes with plenty of pros (a rested cast, a lot of material to mine) and just as many cons (a possibly out of shape cast, old material that should be covered that probably never will be because it’s already dated). It’s not an easy gig! But, last night, newbie host Adam Driver made it look easy, and that’s after both a break and a preemption (in some time zones) by a football game that made everyone I know on Twitter post things like “!!!!” and “OH MY GOD” and “SPORTS!!!”
Despite co-starring in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (you know, the current biggest film in the world), Driver is an unknown quantity to mass amounts of comedy-loving viewers. Sure, he’s been on “Girls” since its inception and he’s popped up in “While We’re Young” and “Inside Llewyn Davis,” but those are still (unfortunately) niche offerings that hardly guarantee widespread notoriety. His turn on “SNL” will change that. Driver was funny and flinty and game but, more than anything, he seemed relaxed. At ease even, something that’s hard enough for “SNL” cast members to always convey on the small screen. Driver did it without skipping a beat.
The Two Best Sketches: “Undercover Boss: Starkiller Base” and “Golden Globes”
Strangely enough, both the night’s other best sketch and the worst one (more on that in just a moment) played around with roughly the same idea: A telecasting twitch that we all seem to take for granted, running gags from opposite ends of the spectrum that should probably be retired, well, right now (once “SNL” has shattered your trope, best to move on). As a pair of married award-winning writers, Driver and Vanessa Bayer giddily accept their Globe while joking to their kids to “Go to bed!” Cut to a particularly forlorn Kyle Mooney and Kate McKinnon who do just that, while their overjoyed (and overserved) parents party it up in increasingly ill-advised ways. A blend of two very distinct styles and tones — with one hell of a payoff to join them together — it’s a frisky, fun imagining of something we’ve seen (and heard) far too often.
The Worst Sketch: “NFL Playoff Game”
It’s not a direct correlation, but it’s close enough. As cliche as it is for award-winning parents to make jokes about their kids going to bed (what about, like, the teen offspring of people who live in Los Angeles? Those shows start at 5:30!), it’s similarly played out for sports broadcasts that insist on showing everything (even the really gross, bone-cracking stuff) from every possible angle. Although the sketch shows off Driver’s preternatural relaxation (it was the first one to air after his monologue) and Beck Bennett turns in a mean Al Michaels, the joke is never taken any further than its initial “Oh, look, we’re going to keep showing this clip of this seventh-string quarterback getting his legs broken in a highly comical but also revolting fashion.” Although the sketch does get a bit of new blood by the time Kenan Thompson and Pete Davidson show up, it’s too late to save a joke that was played out within its first 30 seconds.
Best Male Performer: Adam Driver
Was there anything that Adam Driver said no to last night? In 90 minutes, the host took on singing, special effects, cats, home video shows, social media bullying, sports, awards shows, drugs, terribly bad wigs, Liev Schreiber and the role that made him a star, and he somehow looked equally confident and excited about each character and sketch as the night went on. Gameness is always a good quality in a host, but gameness matched with genuine enthusiasm and real dedication is a magic combination not seen nearly enough, especially in first-time hosts.
Honorable mention: Beck Bennett
Best Female Performer: Cecily Strong
Driver’s frequent scene partner over the course of the evening, Strong turned in a series of reliable, solid performances (though nothing matches the work she did after that “fat bird” flew into her mouth during their “Aladdin” sketch) that allowed her host to shine while she showed off her own ability to flip between situations and types of humor with ease. When Strong is given a, well, sorry, strong partner, she’s able to make magic. Who knew Driver would end up being that guy for her?
Honorable mention: Kate McKinnon
Sketch Most Likely to Go Viral: “America’s Funniest Cats”
Adam Driver plus cats? That’s basically the current recipe for Tumblr.
Best Impression: Jay Pharoah as Ben Carson
The consensus on Pharoah’s Ben Carson, which gets markedly weirder week by week (much like the Republican presidential candidate who has inspired him), is that it might almost be worth it to keep Carson in the race just so that Pharoah can keep doing whatever the hell it is he’s doing here. With the election stretching on for the next ten months, we’re certainly due for innumerable political impressions, and while both Darrell Hammond’s Donald Trump and Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton are evolving into their own unique pleasures, it’s Pharoah’s work as Carson that has already become the cycle’s most well-honed impression.
Character Most Likely to Become a Franchise: Those French Ladies?
Colin Jost Tie-Watch: Yup, Still Wearing It
Although it does look like it got some freshening over the break. Did you take it to the dry cleaners, Colin? We know you know we know.
Special Extra Bonus Nice Thing That Happened: Fred Armisen Remembers David Bowie
This was pretty wonderful.
“Saturday Night Live” returns on January 23, 2016 with Ronda Rousey and musical guest Selena Gomez.