One of the biggest challenges for Saturday Night Live on a weekly basis is managing expectations when it comes to the show's hosts. If a Josh Hutcherson or LeBron James episode turns out to be not-half-bad, we're all pleasantly surprised and relieved since the bar wasn't that high. But when a reliable comic dynamo shows up — Justin Timberlake, Alec Baldwin, Melissa McCarthy — hopes get raised to potentially unrealistic proportions, possibly resulting in a perfectly OK episode that ends up feeling disappointing because we expected more.
SNL found itself in that uncomfortable position last night when beloved former cast members Tina Fey and Amy Poehler cohosted the final show before Christmas. Both enormously talented, both incredibly game, both there to promote their better-than-average new comedy Sisters, Fey and Poehler were consistently appealing in exactly the way you sorta assumed they would be. Tina pulled out her Sarah Palin; Amy did a little Hillary Clinton, later reprising Bronx Beat with special guest Maya Rudolph. Every sketch — including the "Bad Blood"-mocking parody video "Dope Squad," about the nannies and gynecologists that help keep Fey and Poehler's lives running smoothly — was concise and clever, but very few of them were outright surprising or wildly uproarious. (Even Amy Schumer's cameo in "Dope Squad" felt oddly expected considering the breakout year she's had.)
If this had been Miley Cyrus hosting, we'd all probably been singing hallelujah. But it's the unfortunate downside to how much pleasure Fey and Poehler have given us over the years that "good" from them isn't necessarily good enough.
Meet Your Second Wife
"Dope Squad" was the episode's most viral-friendly sketch, but when it came to stinging feminist commentary, this game-show bit was sharper. The setup: Fey and Poehler played the hosts of a secret new show, revealing to the three unsuspecting married male contestants (Bobby Moynihan, Taran Killam, Kenan Thompson) that they were about to meet their future second wives. To each man's horror — as well as to their wives' in the audience — the women turn out to be inappropriately young. (Killam is going to marry someone who right now is five. Thompson, pleading to the gods, "Don't be white, don't be white," discovers that his second wife is currently an embryo.)
"Meet Your Second Wife" was a textbook example of how to squeeze everything out of a simple premise by playing the ridiculous conceit straight and without embellishment. The tiny details were what made it perfect: Leslie Jones' silently angry glare at Thompson; Aidy Bryant's shock at discovering that Killam will remarry after she dies in a freak kayak accident (by the way, everyone goes home with a free kayak); and the inexplicable fact that Poehler was playing a fictional host while Fey was playing herself. What was especially funny was the skit's underlying, unspoken point — which was that, as much as men pretend to be horrified by other men's penchant for marrying ridiculously younger women as their second wife, none of the contestants are ultimately that surprised to learn their future.
Weekend Update: Deenie Recaps What's Going On in Her Stories
Speaking of the expectation game, ever since Colin Jost and Michael Che took over as co-anchors of "Weekend Update," the SNL faithful have waited — and waited and waited — for some sort of rapport to develop. Last night didn't exactly find them turning the corner, but at least the jokes were a little funnier than usual, and Che didn't bobble a single line delivery. This is progress! Still, having Fey and Poehler come on at the end of the segment only reminded viewers how much tighter and tarter their anchoring duo was back in the day.
But the "Weekend Update" highlight was Kate McKinnon's bang-up job as Deenie, a middle-aged mom sporting a garish Christmas sweater who did a recap of the year's highlights in her favorite soap operas. In between mouthfuls of baked salmon she ate out of a Tupperware container, Deenie quickly revealed she doesn't actually know the names of any of the characters — whom she refers to as Mustache, Perfect Skin, Sexpot and Big Boobs — or even the name of the soap opera. (She just knows it's on before the one "that has the piano music at the beginning.")
McKinnon's Hillary from earlier in the show was predictably nasty, but Deenie catches you off-guard because it was unexpected and wonderfully dopey. When McKinnon cracked up Jost, he seemed to be responding to her laser-like commitment to this birdbrained character, yet another of her fabulous "Weekend Update" creations.
SNL can't get enough of variety-show parodies, but this one was especially on-point, as former TV hosts Chad and Victoria Douglas (Killam and Vanessa Bayer) hawk a DVD featuring Christmas highlights from their old show. What follows is a hilarious tire fire of boozy and coked-up has-beens plowing their way through yuletide classics. (Rudolph, portraying a drunken torch singer flinging presents at frightened kids while garbling "12 Days of Christmas," reminded everyone why her ballsy, brash comedic spirit still hasn't found its proper outlet since she left SNL.)
Poehler was gold as a bugged-out singer high on cocaine, but "Special Offer" went for the jugular with Fey portraying one-half of an uncomfortable duet of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" — the other half turned out to be none other than Thompson's googly-eyed Bill Cosby. The joke may be a bit played-out in two ways — Cosby-is-a-horrible-rapist bits aren't exactly new, and Funny or Die pointed out the ungodly creepiness of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" just this week in a video co-starring former SNL performer Casey Wilson — but the quick-strike economy of "Special Offer's" final gag made sure the sketch stuck the landing.