Demi Lovato, Tracy Morgan, Kenan Thompson

“I’m not an actor, I’m a [standup, sitcom, movie, & former SNL] star!”

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Tracy Morgan came out for his monologue doing a half-assed Willy Wonka, pretending his speech and movement were seriously impaired, before breaking in to a huge grin and reassuring us, “No, I’m just playin’.” Apart from the fact that anyone who’s been following Morgan’s recovery from that horrific limo crash knows he’s doing pretty well considering, Morgan’s attempt at a fake out doesn’t engender much anxiety, since, as the former SNL star feelingly tells—and then quickly shows—he’s home. On SNL, Morgan was a singular performer, whose looseness and unpredictability were always alive on the screen (and on the 8H stage)—Tracy might have fluffed a line here and there, but he brought a cocksure yet amiable energy to what he did that was impossible to ignore. Tonight, surrounded by familiar characters and supportive costars (past and present), he was the old Tracy again—and it was both a relief and a joy to see. To call his performance tonight a relief might seem to be damning him by hedging bets, but there’s no curve to grading what Morgan did as he ran through old favorites like Woodrow, Astronaut Jones, Brian Fellow, and, yes, Tracy Jordan—Tracy Morgan on SNL is just a good, damned time.

Weekend Update update

The Colin Jost-Michael Che tandem continues its long-awaited comic awakening tonight, as the Update anchors settle, finally, into a comic formula that works. Sure, they aren’t making anyone forget Tina and Amy, or Tina and Jimmy, (or Seth and Amy, or fill in several other blanks) but Tina Fey’s appearance as herself—delivering a typically biting takedown of the Playboy empire on the eve of its exit from the nude picture biz—suggests that the new(-ish) guys are finding their feet (or butts—they’re sitting behind the desk). Again, they insert a structured back-and-forth segment (this time about the woefully under-qualified Republican candidate field, including a certain upcoming SNL host) that allows them to hone their “playful rivalry” dynamic, a signpost of their continued confidence in delivering their jokes. Jost continues to be a bit self-deprecating, which both looks good on him and gives Che a straighter partner to riff on. They both look looser, and the jokes continue to trend upward (Che’s “This would have never happened if the grandmother had a gun,” in response to a story about a toddler with a handgun story is as pointed as the gun control material in last week’s episode—and even more succinct). Update is fun to watch again.

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Especially with Fey, whose short editorial about Playboy gave her the opportunity to do what she did best on Update—attack targets she has something to say about without sacrificing the laughs to say it. A turn of phrase like “a fake five-way with a hundred-year-old sex monster” as she sums up the fate of wannabe centerfolds emerges from the rolling momentum of her monologue and lands hard even as she launches herself onto the desk to exhibit her would-be Playboy poses, and then hops the desk and runs straight offstage into the audience, arms raised in triumph (and possibly freedom from her erstwhile desk job). Like Tracy, seeing Tina back on SNL is irresistibly infectious. (Even if it does create a longing for the old days at the same time.)

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I’ve always had affection for Kenan Thompson’s ebullient-without-cause Willie, tonight delivering horrifying childhood stories about working for Jeffrey Dahmer, his dad’s pumpkin lust, and his dog’s improbable autoerotic asphyxiation fetish (“That’s learned behavior, Willie!”) with an unblinking optimism that keeps us rooting for the guy. And the idea of pairing him with Morgan’s returning sewer-dwelling homeless life coach Woodrow is just perfect, as Woodrow, too, refuses to let reality crush his spirit. Like most returning characters (and all of Morgan’s characters tonight), it’s never as good as the first time (the initial Woodrow sketch, alongside host Kate Hudson, remains one of the most perfect little tragicomedies in SNL history), but Willie And Woodrow make an improbably moving duo. Whenever someone hits that final harmony with Woodrow, it’s a guaranteed tearjerker—followed by a fine poop joke.

Best/worst sketch of the night

In an episode that sailed along on familiar good vibes, the debate cold open was the only sketch that was its own animal tonight, and, since these political cold opens are frequently both bland and obvious, this one gets the top spot for scoring a few points while actually being energetic and funny throughout.

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“What do you call that act?” “The Californians!”—Recurring sketch report.

It was the Tracy Morgan greatest hits night, and, while none of the sketches topped the best of their forebears, Morgan (and memories of Morgans past) made them all most welcome. Look, there are some people who don’t like or don’t get Tracy Morgan’s appeal. Fair enough. But if you do, then the returns of Woodrow, Brian Fellow, Astronaut Jones, and Tracy Jordan were unexpected (yet pretty much completely expected) delights.

I admit to an involuntary hand-clap when I saw the crew setting up the unmistakable “Brian Fellow’s Safari Planet” set during the commercials, and the return of everyone’s favorite, bafflingly hostile animal enthusiast delivered all the traditional beats. Pete Davidson and Aidy Bryant brought out animals, Brian went on tangents only comprehensible to Brian (“What’s up with that beaver? He seems snotty“), and things escalated until, this time out, Brian ended the show by walking a live camel off the stage. Morgan, as ever, makes Brian’s lip-glossed, hairtrigger suspicion of the furry friends he claims to love a thing of unique lunacy.

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Astronaut Jones has never worked as well as it did its first time out—Morgan’s distracted lip service to his sexy alien discovery’s earnest pleas for help were so perfect there that they made the intentionally stupid, one-joke premise into something deeply memorable. Like Brian Fellow, Astronaut Jones partakes of Morgan’s singular ability to infuse his characters with a deeply specific sort of insanity. Here, he and musical guest Demi Lovato don’t have the right rhythm together, so the laughs come more from familiarity than delivery—but they still come, especially once the sketch’s The Martian opening draws out just long enough to let us know that Jones is coming. (The sight of the young, fresh-faced Morgan singing the enduringly silly theme song is pretty jarring, though.)

As for the 30 Rock bit in the monologue, while they’re not recurring SNL characters, the sight of Fey, Baldwin, Jane Krakowski, and Jack McBrayer not only back in character as Liz Lemon, Jack Donaghy, Jenna Maroney, and Kenneth The Page but clearly teaming up to celebrate the return of their friend was thoroughly satisfying, if not outright heartwarming. (Just hearing Tracy Jordan refer to Baldwin as “Jacky D“ was enough to make my old “no more 30 Rock, ever” wound start to throb again.) Add in the NBC insurance policy against narwhals eating Tracy’s penis, Tracy being replaced by Cedric The Entertainer, and some sweet, 2012 Animal Practice and Smash burns, and the bit, while short, was certainly most welcome.

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On the non-Tracy character front, SNL can never get enough of Family Feud, but it worked better than usual this time, with Kenan Thompson’s Steve Harvey delighting in the trainwreck happening under his nose once he realizes that the two opposing teams are headed by a divorced couple (Tracy and Leslie Jones). (Unrelated to the sketch’s above-average quality for this sort of thing, I am relatively certain that I’ve never seen an SNL sketch led by six black actors in major roles—sure, that shouldn’t be worth mentioning, but, considering SNL’s history, it really is.) The sketch—freed from the usual quick march of celebrity impressions—benefits from the narrative engine of Morgan and Jones’ characters’ fraught relationship. Morgan, Jones, Che, Sasheer Zamata, and Jay Pharoah all create relatable, funny characters in just a few lines, with Kenan’s Harvey keeping things moving. I’ll take it over another round of one-line actor impersonations any time.

“It was my understanding there would be no math”—Political comedy report

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The Democratic debate took the political cold open spot tonight, and brought along a couple of ringers to shore up what was already a decent if predictable sketch. The debate format has been a fickle mistress for SNL—it allows nearly everyone in the cast to trot out serviceable impressions of political figures few of them will be called on to do for very long, but its quick-hit structure encourages the writers to boil down the candidates to their broadest and bluntest characteristics for the laugh. Sometimes that works—Bill Hader’s take on Rick Perry’s infamous debate gaffe saw Andy Samberg’s Rick Santorum memorably wailing, “I wanted to be president, but not like this!” Tonight, the jokes at the expense of also-rans Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee were mostly about their irrelevance (“Now that we’ve met those people, let’s bring out the real candidates,” says Jon Rudnitsky’s arch Anderson Cooper.) But Kyle Mooney’s Chafee was endearingly just glad to be there (“Goodnight America, bye forever!”), and Baldwin’s Baghdad Bob-overconfident Webb backed down immediately every time his past right-leaning statements were brought up. The real attractions (as in the real debate) were Larry David’s Bernie Sanders and Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton, and while the jokes about the fact that Sanders sounds a lot like the Curb Your Enthusiasm version of David and that Clinton is a calculating politician calculating ways to not sound calculating. (“I think you’re really gonna like the Hillary Clinton my team and I have created for this debate”), the actors made the most of them. The jokes about Bernie being a crotchety old Borscht Belt comic doing shtick and proposing impractical economic policy is oversimplified, but David was on fire, staring down the audience until they delivered the laugh he wanted at one point, and obviously delighted to be killing it on an SNL stage that famously had little use for him as a writer. McKinnon, too, is relishing her time as Clinton, molding the candidate here into the cocky straight-talker her poll numbers should allow her to be. And the pair’s closing statements hit their satirical targets, with the actors’ deliveries slamming home the conventional wisdom that neither candidate will come right out and say. (Hillary: “If you get into bed with Bernie Sanders, you’re gonna wake up tomorrow with President Trump.” Bernie: “Come next November, I will be Hillary Clinton’s Vice President!”)

I am hip to the musics of today

In her review of Demi Lovato’s new album Confident, Annie Zaleski has some high praise for the former Disney tween star, saying,Confident is an impressive album by a pop star who knows what she wants—and also knows exactly how to get there.” Gotta say—she’s not wrong, as Lovato, in her second song, especially, showed more vocal and emotional range than the uninitiated were, perhaps, expecting. (Plus, bonus points for the clear lack of lip-synching—popping sibilants on the mic are always a welcome sound in an SNL musical number.)

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Most/Least Valuable (Not Ready For Prime Time) Player

A pretty even-handed distribution tonight, as everyone got some air time. Taran Killam and Sasheer Zamata shone alongside Morgan in the filmed piece about a seeming tough guy who just wants someone to dance the tango with him, a lovely, funny bit that only lacked the expected dance number payoff. Beck Bennett made a solid center for the other filmed piece, a commercial for fake cocaine (to hide the fact that you had to poop at a party) and poop spray (to convince people you were doing cocaine and then covering it up by pretending to poop). It’s the sort of funny, escalating scatological joke sold by Bennett snapping at Vanessa Bayer’s confusion, “There are other people at this party you know! You don’t have to just talk to me!” New guy Rudnitsky continues to get time, and the whole cast gets to belt out a song in The Loveliest Kingdom sketch, where Morgan’s straight-talking villager refuses to jabber on politely, and uncovers some unsavory facts about the town schoolteacher. (Zamata’s “I can’t even talk right now” gets her biggest laugh in a while.) Even in an episode so stuffed with well-wishers, really no one felt underserved.

“What the hell is that thing?”—The Ten-To-Oneland Report

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While Astronaut Jones’ (final?) adventure took the actual final spot, the next-to-last sketch “Yo, Where Jackie Chan At Right Now?” had the true Ten-To-Oneland spirit, and Kenan and Tracy hosted their call-in show dedicated to finding the whereabouts of, yes, Jackie Chan. Despite their apparent lack of resources (and basic knowledge about anything related to their martial arts hero), they manage to pull in guests like Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris, Owen Wilson, and Jay Pharoah’s spot-on Chris Tucker to admit that they have no idea where Chan is. (Not to mention Carmen Sandiego* and Leslie Jones as herself, who thinks she saw him once heading downtown in 1997. “Write that down,” they demand, excitedly.) Banning callers for skepticism (“You fat dummy! Jackie Chan is 26!”), and baiting their Jackie trap with nunchaku, Morgan and Thompson’s hosts sell the premise with an unflinching commitment that keeps the bit escalating as the silliness mounts. That’s what the final sketch is for, people.

Stray observations

  • I welcome this question because I rehearsed this one the longest.”
  • “This year I thought I got to be the cool black guy.”
  • “I can find the goose. I found the geese before and I can find them again. They congregate near ponds! It’s not rocket science!”
  • “I carry my stuff around loose in my arms, like a professor!”
  • “Visit berniesanders.com! It’s a mess!”
  • Jost, explaining why Las Vegas was the perfect setting for the Democratic debate: “It’s full of old white people who keep playing no matter how badly they’re losing.”
  • The goodnights—with Morgan surrounded by his friends, the cast, and his completely adorable little daughter—is misty eye material, as Morgan’s palpable joy at being back and gratefulness to Lorne Michaels (“I love you like I love my father”) is the sort of nakedly emotional honesty that makes him such an endearing, often confounding contradiction. Welcome home, Tracy.
  • For the second week in a row, NBC hasn’t posted sketches or pics from tonight’s episode by 4-freaking-a.m. I’ll add them as soon as I’m able.
  • *It has been brought to my attention that Sasheer is playing Lynne Thigpen as Carmen Sandiego’s boss, The Chief. Apologies to your childhood.

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