Fine, perhaps that isn’t too controversial a position. But the 16-year gap between hosting appearances seems fairly nuts when watching how easily he slips into the ensemble of the show. Whereas his season premiere appearance as Brett Kavanaugh felt like an outsized cameo, this week’s performance displayed a comedic skillset that blended into whatever sketch the show threw at him. It’s incorrect to call the performance revelatory, given the depth and breadth of Damon’s career. But Damon still spearheaded the best top-to-bottom episode of the 44th season, giving everyone watching an early Christmas present.
In an episode with few true misses, here are the segments people will be discussing until the show returns in 2019.
Matt Damon Monologue
There’s been a subtle but pervasive theme throughout the fall run of the show that involves taking stock of what matters in a post-facts world. Two of the best segments deal with this theme, the first of which was this monologue. There are many weeks in which this long-standing portion of this show feels like either an afterthought or a place to overtly hide the fact that the host is objectively terrified of being alone onstage on live television. But when the segment turns biographical, fairly amazing things can occur.
Like many monologues this season, Damon’s was extremely short. But at three and a half minutes, he packs in a lovely, timely tale about the importance of laughter as a bonding agent. Yes, cynics could point out that using Saturday Night Live itself as a connective tissue between familial generations is as self-congratulatory as it gets. But as someone personally born the year this show started, SNL is literally the show of my lifetime. I remember staying up late to watch the Phil Hartman/Jan Hooks era of the show, and I’ve also shared plenty of current sketches with my young nephews.
That’s why so many people audibly gasped at the personal aspects of Damon’s story: Most recognized some aspect of what he was describing. Ending this emotional trip down memory lane with two well-delivered, self-depreciating jokes about his own fame was the icing on the cake of perhaps the best monologue since 2015, another that involved a biographical bent. In that case, it was Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan clearly living out a childhood dream with host Michael Keaton. Given how malleable the monologue is, it would be great to see the show further utilize it to humanize its host and cast outside the constraints of pure sketchwork.
Best Christmas Ever
For most of its runtime, you can look at this one of two ways. In the first, a couple misremembers a particularly tense Christmas day, one that starts before the sun rises and ends with an alcohol-fueled act of self-care. In the second, a couple instantly and honestly forgets how hectic the day was, painting a retroactively glossy Instagram filter over the entire proceedings. But the sketch’s tagline (“Even when it’s the worst, it’s the best”) paints a third, more complicated, but ultimately more endearing slant.
As with the monologue, SNL goes for a universal search for comedic material rather than a satirical point of view. The show might be better known for the latter, but it’s also mined the former into some effective material this fall. Even with this sketch featuring a brief political spat involving a cousin’s MAGA hat, the predominant theme here is people looking out for one another. By the end, it’s clear that both Damon and Cecily Strong’s character recognize how terrible the day was, but both focus on making the other one feel better about how things unfurled rather than rehash the hellishness of the proceedings. In a storm of insanity, this sketch depicts three minutes of calm as two people remind each other what ultimately matters.
If the first two sketches are included because they represent the warm, fuzzy nature of the holiday season, this one is included because it includes the single-best performance of the season this side of Adam Driver’s Abraham H. Parnassus in the season premiere. I mentioned Jan Hooks earlier on purpose, because Cecily Strong invokes the era of the Hooks/Nora Dunn cabaret singers here with a tour de force that has to be seen to be believed. The degree of difficulty here, on a scale of one to 10, is approximately a “Liza Minnelli.” I got exhausted just watching it.
While Strong gets the earned spotlight here, Damon provides a masterclass in support as the corny-and-horny piano player that fills out this two-person act. Whether it’s his timing on the pair’s banter or his accurate piano-playing mimicry, Damon provides the in-sketch veracity that lets us focus entirely on Strong’s tight-wire act. (Pointing out how well he pretends to play the piano might sound dumb, but I’ve seen literally dozens of sketches in which actors have ruined the comedic value of a segment through their inability to pretend to play musical instruments.) Sure, plenty of Broadway productions may re-create this at their holiday dueling-piano parties, but I can also see plenty of people attempting (and failing) to follow along during gatherings of their own between now and Christmas.