After a summer of change at Saturday Night Live – stalwart castmembers Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg left the show, along with Abby Elliott – Lorne Michaels might have been expected to go the safe route for his Season 38 opener, relying on the easy name-recognition of stars like Robert Pattinson or Carly Rae Jepsen. But to put all eyes on Family Guy creator and voice actor Seth MacFarlane, and the introspective Odd Future singer Frank Ocean? Gutsy. And hell if it didn’t work just right. Point, Lorne.
Michaels must have been pleased with Ocean, whose chart-topping album Channel Orange was praised as not only the most beautiful of the summer, but perhaps the year. And it was indeed beautiful live, with Ocean hitting his stride and the highest of notes during “Thinkin Bout You,” something he wasn’t able to do at this year’s VMAs. Later, during “Pyramids,” Ocean deferred to John Mayer’s guitar solo, and in a moment true to himself, he walked away to play with the video arcade games that sat on the side of the set.
MacFarlane was equally impressive, considering that most of the viewing audience knew him just as the voice of Family Guy‘s Stewie or the director of this summer’s surprise smash teddy-bear comedy, Ted. Much like SNL-favorite Justin Timberlake, MacFarlane was pitch-perfect as a sketch actor, clearly willing to commit to any and every character, whether in a deadpan role or an impression. He reached beyond the crutches of his signature voices and his sometimes-sophomoric humor.
For a writing staff that in the past has struggled to bring hosts like Olympic hero Michael Phelps to life, it must have been refreshing to watch MacFarlane effortlessly turn into Phelp’s real-life rival, playing swimmer Ryan Lochte as a smug and barely literate guest at the Weekend Update desk.
It’s understood that SNL is not always like this; similar to a baseball season, there are going to be ups and downs, and fans shouldn’t overreact one way or another to any single result. (See: Psy, the Korean rapper who’s taken the internet by storm with “Gangnam Style.” His brief appearance to dance in a sketch last night may have gone viral, but let’s check in again in fifteen minutes.)
Sometimes there are nights like this, though, where the whole lineup is hitting. And the biggest hit came from an “Introduction to Puppetry” sketch. While MacFarlane played the instructor, SNL tent pole Bill Hader channeled his old friend Will Forte’s gravely-voiced inappropriate-guest character, as a student in the class. Hader’s version, an intense, soft-spoken, long haired, aviator lens-wearing Vietnam vet, uses a puppet that is a spitting image of his character, down to the same dark memories of war in Vietnam.
Hader was also terrific in reprising his role as Clint Eastwood, this time in the traveling revue, “Eastwood and Chair,” where Clint and his co-star from the Republican National Convention do political routines about “Invisible and Irritated Barack Obama,” and attempt duets like “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”
In another winning bit, the always-hilarious Keenan Thompson portrayed talk show host Steve Harvey, who graciously provided a viewer with a complete makeover. The lucky man was revealed as Seth MacFarlane, grinning in bald cap, caterpillar mustache and enormous bright blue pinstriped suit.
Doubts be gone: MacFarlane’s White Steve Harvey and Frank Ocean playing video games beat tabloid cover stars and YouTube sensations any day of the week – and especially on Saturday night.