“I’m not an actor, I’m a [returning SNL/burgeoning movie] star!”

Longtime SNL fans, like longtime fans of other generations-spanning organizations like the Justice League or the X Men, make all-time all-star teams. (I know I’m not the only one—let the comments show…) My own rules are pretty strict—seven members only, no featured players, members judged only from the time they were on the show—and subject to constant changes of mind, but Bill Hader has been a consistent (Not Ready For Prime Time) player since his second year on the show. Every all-star SNL team needs someone like Hader—go-to impressionist, versatile everyman, just inherently funny. (In an interview this week, no lesser authority on comedy and SNL than Bill Murray called Hader the best cast member ever.)

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But what makes Hader such a lock for the SNL Avengers is an invaluable sketch comedy quality—the ability to imbue each new character with an immediate, specific inner life. SNL’s had any number of hilarious performers over its 40 years, but only a few have been possessed of this quality—Phil Hartman was one, the young Dan Aykroyd another. (Currently Jordan Peele is as good at this as anyone’s ever been on Key & Peele.) And Hader. That’s why he was always so good at the innumerable emcee/game show host roles he got handed over his tenure on SNL—in the compressed, concentrated arena of sketch comedy, his characters spark with life, no matter how seemingly mundane the role. It elevated small parts and made his big swingers (Stefon, Herb Welch, Vincent Price) immune to going stale and rote with repetition. Hader’s growing success on the big screen is most welcome (as is that of recent co-star and monologue partner tonight, Kristen Wiig), but on SNL, the guy’s simply a star.

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

The evidence comes in the form of how damned funny all of his returning characters were tonight. We got Herb Welch, the crazy puppet aficionado, and, yes, Stefon, and, unlike other returning alums’ greatest hits nights, none of them were remotely annoying. (That sounds like faint praise, but I remember gritting my teeth through much of Wiig’s hosting gig last year.) And it’s not that anyone found anything new to do with the characters this time out—it’s just that they never stopped being funny the first time, and Hader made them stay that way.

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I’ve always been a sucker for Welch, the defiantly old-school local news reporter with a penchant for Archie Bunker-esque racist asides, wanton abuse of prettyboy anchormen, and biffing interviewees in the face with his microphone. Tonight was the same old Herb, covering a high school’s abstinence controversy this time, and I was laughing uncontrollably throughout. There’s a cathartic mix of heroic and horrifying about Herb, his decades of experience brooking no slick anchor nonsense (“I don’t take orders from mannequins. I know you’re smooth down there”), and his horrible old man bigotry erupting in hilariously arcane insults (“Don’t scat at me, beatnik”). There’s a commitment to the bit, and to the character, that Hader turns into a guaranteed giggle-fit.

The puppet sketch (one of the few saving graces of the otherwise woeful Seth MacFarlane episode of a few years ago) is the sort of premise that should never be returned to, relying as it did the first time on novelty. But it also had Hader who, as a PTSD-afflicted veteran relaying his horrifying Grenada experiences through his lookalike puppet to the horror of his learning annex classmates, turned the bit into a classic. Tonight, improbably, he did it again—everyone knew what was coming, and it worked anyway. From his one-upping Cecily Strong’s emoji joke (his Grenada emoji— “palm tree, flamethrower, baby, flamethrower, mosquito, mosquito, mosquito…”), to his completion of Bobby Moynihan’s Sesame Street lyric, (“Can you tell me how to get…” “How to get the nightmares to stop”), to the abrupt genius of “Here’s a joke—God!,” Hader performed the miracle of resurrecting a one-joke sketch and making it hilarious.

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And then there was Stefon. Look, I was pretty vocal on Twitter about not wanting Stefon to come back—his final exit on Hader’s last show as cast member was as satisfying a recurring character retirement as any in SNL history and, just this once, I was hoping the show would leave such low-hanging fruit on the tree. But once Michael Che made reference to tourists visiting New York and the crowd went wild at the sight of Stefon, all my reservations were forgotten. Bringing writer (and newly-minted sitcom star) John Mulaney back to crack him up with theretofore-unseen cue card gags, Hader slipped back into the swoopy hair and Ed Hardy shirt with his signature blend of comic command and barely-concealed breaking, and it was delightful. He sold the club names (Whimsy, Jan’s New Backpack), and the random features of each (cravats, congas, asbestos, lupus, a doorman who always high-fives children of divorce, and, in the running gag that got him every time, the ubiquitous Dan Cortese) with customary aplomb, and somehow he and husband Seth Meyers are expecting. Perfect.

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The other returning sketch* was “Hollywood Game Night,” with Kate McKinnon leading a mostly-successful panel of quick-hit impressions through an adequately funny takedown of the successful game show. (Lynch’s repeated asides about the silliness of the games—“Again, real game played by real adults”—helped things along nicely.) It turns out Beck Bennett does a creditable Nick Offerman, Taran Killam’s grinningly odd Christoph Waltz is always fun, and Hader got to bring back his befuddled Pacino to good effect. On the debit side, Jay Pharoah doesn’t have a perfect Morgan Freeman in his pocket, Cecily Strong’s Sofia Vergara’s pretty generic, and, tagging along after her funny bit assisting Hader’s monologue, Wiig’s Kathy Lee is as tiresome as ever. McKinnon’s Lynch speaks for me when she responds to Gifford’s signature self-involved “What am I saying?” with an enraged, Lynch-ian, “You’re saying NOTHING!” Indeed.

*This, as has been brought to my intention, was not a returning sketch. In my defense, the “let everyone do their celebrity impressions in a game show format” is not new SNL territory. Apologies. I’m certain ”Hollywood Game Night” will fit into this category soon enough.

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Weekend Update update

With Stefon taking up most of the time tonight, the Jost/Che work-in-progress only got in a few middling jokes (Malala, Kim Jong-un, ebola, Geno Smith) and handed things over to Stefon and correspondent Pete Davidson, again on hand to deliver some of his standup in the form of an Update bit. Davidson was fine—he’s got presence, but his decidedly low-key material “from the trunk” is already wearing thin as an Update piece. It’s clear he’s being showcased, but he needs to develop a character rather than just being adorable.

As for Jost and Che, there was some marginal improvement in their abbreviated screen time here—their deliveries were smoothed out, but the jokes remain innocuous (Kim Jong-un photoshopped as Pooh Bear!), and they’re not developing much chemistry.

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Best/Worst sketch of the night

In the Herb Welch/Stefon battle, I’ll take Herb by a (mic in the) nose.

In a stealth position, the charity commercial parody again let Hader’s ability to create a character through tiny, observed gesture liven a premise, with his do-gooder spokesman being taken to task by the natives of the village he’s supposedly there to help. With every African-American member of the cast getting in on the act of calling out the charity’s oddly specific requests and patronizing approach, it benefitted from everyone’s light touch with the dialogue.

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I suppose it was inevitable that SNL would play the sweet and achingly lovely film “Love Is A Dream” (directed by original SNL mainstay Tom Schiller) with Jan Hooks and Phil Hartman as tribute to Hooks on her shocking death. But since the 10PM “classic SNL” gave us perhaps her best performance ever in the diner sketch with Alec Baldwin, I can’t complain about the sentiment. Hooks was outstanding on SNL, but was always more of a great character actress doing sketches. Even if she misses my cut for the all-time SNL cast, Hooks was a brilliant, fearless performer who shone in one of the strongest and most influential eras of the show. As seen in her later appearances opposite Baldwin on 30 Rock, Hooks brought everything she had to a character—my wife and I still quote her line “And then I drove my jet ski into that great big bunch of moss!” randomly to each other. Hooks once speculated that she wasn’t initially hired on SNL because of her “weird mouth.” Well, she had a weird, expressive mouth all right—and it’s part of what made her so beloved and valuable on the show.

The “Cat In The Hat” sketch was the only real weak link in the episode (even the kids’ rhymes didn’t scan), but Hader, again, made the most of it, his understated, offhand delivery at discovering ex Cecily Strong has remarried (to Thing 2) dragging the sketch to the finish line.

I am hip to the musics of today.

Hozier is a strapping Irish guy singing earnest, bluesy singer-songwriter stuff. He cites Tom Waits as a hero/influence, but I didn’t hear it. However, after the pre-packaged industry rock of the first two epodes, even pedestrian sincerity is a treat. Hozier’s first song tonight was the defiantly lovely “Take Me To Church,” whose disturbing video is pretty powerful:

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

Hader, as host, is out of the running, so the top spot goes to Moynihan, largely on the strength of underplaying and physical comedy. There wasn’t much point to the cold open except to reiterate that Kim Jong-un is vainglorious and insane, but Moynihan’s timing was spot-on (and those were some sweet dance moves). And in a small role in the puppet sketch, his underplaying (an underrated Moynihan trait) was a nice counterpoint to Hader (and Hader’s brilliantly designed puppet pal Tony).

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Runner-up goes to Davidson, who is clearly being groomed for full cast status. The handsomely-produced Hunger Games/Divergent/The Giver/The Maze Runner/Snowpiercer young adult movie parody went on too long, but he was a solid anchor, he got his Update spot, and he had small but prominent roles in the “Inside SoCal” and “Cat In The Hat” sketches.

With Hader so heavy, the rest of the cast went largely begging, with Aidy Bryant having the least to do. She’ll be fine.

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

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Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett’s métier is minutely observed, inarticulate weirdoes with access to video equipment, and I repeat that SNL is better for giving them five minutes a week to do their thing. “Inside SoCal” continued their dissection of young people without anything to say having every outlet to express themselves, with their news show from some guy’s basement reveling in zoned-out teens ill-advisedly turning their descriptive powers to art, love, and death. There’s enough residual understanding for the characterizations to leaven the satire somewhat, even when the best they can come up with is that art can, indeed, be pretty baller.

The actual ten-to-one sketch was the Dr. Seuss one mentioned above, which was as close as the episode got to using this slot as the dumping ground for half-realized premises its reputation suggests. Ten-To-Oneland is Mooney and Benett’s domain now—just give it to them, Lorne.

Stray observations:

  • “I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, like an idiot in some book.”
  • “No it’s a Pantene boat. I only wash my hair on it.”
  • “Don’t believe the hype, Central Park remains unsafe for women after dark…”
  • The classes in the Maze Runner mash-up include: Emotionals, Foodies, Hasidics, and Gryffindor.
  • “Hey, how much was that coffee?” “It doesn’t matter.”
  • “I’m a virgin, pregnant with your baby!” “Well, that sucks.”
  • “Welcome to Celebrity Game Night and hello to all of you flying Delta.”
  • For all his performing chops in the puppet sketch, Hader’s exemplary puppet work sold it just as much. Throughout, Tony was always attentive and alive to what was going on around him. Layers.

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