Even if the Tracy Morgan-hosted Saturday Night Live hadn’t actually been good, it still would have been great. The sheer fact that Morgan even appeared was a victory unto itself, making the quality of the episode itself something beside the point. The power of the show lies in its history, and its history is made up of the countless comedians that have populated the Studio 8H stage. Sometimes, the show indulges its past for the sake of the present, but when balanced correctly, there’s a continuity that connects the show’s four-decade history and demonstrated why it has such lasting power.
Ultimately, this was a strong episode, with a mix of familiar Morgan characters, cast alumni, topical material, and strong sketch comedy. It’s tempting to cede the floor to sketches involving Brian Fellow and Astronaut Jones (both of which were as endearing and endearingly sloppy as their previous incarnations), as well as the predictable but still enjoyable 30 Rock reunion during the monologue. But the true must-see segments were elsewhere.
Democratic Debate Cold Open
You know the Presidential election season is warming up when SNL starts unleashing overly long political cold opens. And who can blame them? As with the Republican debates, the recent Democratic debate provided so much material that it’s hard to blame the show for shoving as many things in this as possible. Luckily, nearly everything landed.
The star of this cold open? Larry David as Bernie Sanders, by a country mile. While David is famous for creating Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, he also has one of the most spectacularly unsuccessful SNL careers in the show’s history. Nothing about his acrimonious time in the writers’ room bled through here, however: This was Sanders as pure Borscht Belt comedian, raising the overall quality of the sketch in the premise. You know you are doing well when you make Alec Baldwin, one of the show’s all-time great hosts, seem like an afterthought. Although David dominated, this was also another great showcase for Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton, who may ultimately create the show’s signature impression for her.
Family Feud: Extended Family
SNL has about four or five default sketch archetypes around which it builds about 75 percent of its sketches. That’s not a condemnation, but rather an admission that it’s hard to come up with brand-new sketch types on a weekly basis. The “game show” is one of these archetypes. While putting a premise into a game show structure can sometimes be a lazy way to build a segment, tweaks to the premise often yield fun results.
The tweak tonight? Rather than make this sketch a parody of the game show, it uses the game show as a way to have a family confront the father that abandoned them. This slight shift brought out the best in the sketches’ primary players: Morgan, Kenan Thompson, and Leslie Jones all tore into their roles here, with Thompson’s Steve Harvey barely containing the joy over the onstage chaos. But there were little moments throughout that gave the sketch depth: Jay Pharaoh’s heartbroken son earned actual sympathy from the audience, and Thompson’s consistently inappropriate interpretations of the contestants’ answers were always funny. Game show sketches are never going away. But if they are always this clever, then they are always welcome.
Yo! Where Jackie Chan At Right Now?
Some sketches work because they are built on a topical basis. Others work for the sheer comedic structure. And yet others work because of the commitment to the sheer lunacy of the premise. This sketch fits comfortably into Category 3, and is a fantastic example of the fine line between train wreck and complete success.
At the outset, this seemed like late-episode filler, with the cheap set and simple staging suggesting an episode that had run out of ideas. But the premise kept expanding, and the internal logic kept getting more twisted, and by the time Kyle Mooney’s Chuck Norris appeared, I was all in. Thinking logically about this sketch reveals about 3,000 logic holes. Why does this show get callers? How does it book so many celebrities? How did it win a Peabody? But ultimately, who cares? This is a sketch about two guys that keep nunchucks under a cardboard box in hopes of capturing their hero. I could argue there were “better” sketches than this omitted from this week’s list, but nothing made me laugh more. And that’s ultimately the only thing that matters.