Tina Fey, Kenan Thompson, Amy Poehler (NBC)

“We’re not actors, we’re [movie/TV/autobiography/former SNL] stars!”

Amy and Tina. Tina and Amy. Poehler and Fey. Fey and… you get it—it’s good to have Amy Poehler and Tina Fey back on SNL. Sure, they’re there partly to pump up the middling-looking Sisters, but there’s been a palpable sense that they’re back in town to right the ship. And while they didn’t stride 8H like twin colossi of comedy, they still injected the show with some much-needed energy—even if, at time, their energy seemed a bit lacking.

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Starting off their monologue speaking their lines in synch (“We finish each other’s sent—” “—ipedes. Human Centipedes”), they showed off an old snapshot of them at Second City before launching into a Christmas carol bit, and I know what you’re thinking—two of the most important, vital people in SNL history and they’re doing yet another musical monologue? And you’d be right—odd choice, even though they both sold the premise (Amy’s singing the breezy half, while Tina lugubriously delivers a musical Bible lesson) with aplomb. Still, the opening marked the tone for the evening where—with one notable, explosively bold and hilarious exception—Poehler and Fey’s mere presence was expected to carry good but not great material. Thankfully, most of the time it did.

Weekend Update update

While not their strongest material tonight, Colin Jost and Michael Che’s resurgence continued. The guys are looser and better this season (time to retire that #CancelJost hashtag, commenters), and Update is fun to watch and even capable of scoring some well-constructed points on a consistent basis. Really, the biggest complaint tonight—which has nothing to do with Jost and Che—is that the expected Update invasion from former (and, yes, superior) anchors Fey and Poehler didn’t really materialize. Coming in to deliver “the last two jokes of 2015,” they emerged to thunderous applause and delivered—two pretty good jokes, and that was it. (The jokes were squarely in their voices, but felt like more forgettable jokes from a really good Fey/Poehler Update.) Otherwise, the best Update joke was Jost’s about the shared ancestor of Bill Maher and Bill O’Reilly being a screaming potato, which is just mean and clever enough to get a huge, cathartic laugh. (Plus—good work art department on the screaming potato.)

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On the correspondent front, Kate McKinnon introduced Deenie (“somebody’s mom”) who got bigger laughs than you’d expect just from eating what was purported to be fish from a Tupperware container and not knowing the name of a single character from a soap opera she’s watched “every day for the last 40 years.” The names she gives (Mustache, Perfect Skin, Dark Hair. The one who owns the fish cannery with his kids, Priss Pants who he had with Big Boobs) were only funnier as McKinnon, committing like mad as always, kept shoveling food into her mouth. I don’t think we need Deenie to come back too often, but McKinnon really thrives on these short-form Update characters—Jost couldn’t hold it together, and neither could McKinnon at times. It was infectious.

Best/worst sketch of the night

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The best sketch of the night, if not the season, was “Meet Your Second Wife,” the perfect marriage (if you will) of comedy, commentary, and outrageousness that had the audience gasping alternately in shock and laughter. The opening joke that, of co-hosts Poehler and Fey, Fey was playing herself was just a warmup, as the concept that the three guy contestants (Taran Killam, Bobby Moynihan, and Kenan Thompson) were unknowingly on the show to meet their future second wives (all of whom are currently, uncomfortably young) is the sort of brilliant concept that makes me wish sketches had individual writing credits. The joke itself just got deeper and funnier as each successive wife (an eighth grader, a five-year-old, and finally an ultrasound) were brought on, with all five performers (and mortified current wives Vanessa Bayer, Aidy Bryant, and Leslie Jones in the audience) keeping their reactions realistically low key enough to let the premise unfold. Especially funny is Kenan’s rollercoaster reactions— “please don’t let her be white” led to dismay when college student Cecily Strong came out, led to relief that she was at least of age, led to absolute horror once the hosts revealed that it was the baby she was carrying that was to be his future bride. Just a great, well-constructed sketch all around.

The Christmas special commercial sketch could have been a candidate for worst sketch but for Maya Rudolph’s appearance as a boozed up 1970s singer, hilariously mangling “The 12 Days Of Christmas” and nearly taking one kid extra’s head off with a carelessly hurled prop present. In the other bits, Poehler was listless as a coked-up diva (she didn’t even hurl herself through that prop wall with her usual commitment), and while the Cosby date rape bit elicited some welcome gasps, Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer, as the hosts, had some decent, dark lines (“Now, my wife.” “Aw… wife.” “Not a compliment honey, it’s just what you are”) but both were too low-energy even for their washed-up characters.

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In a year where the filmed pieces have admirably upped their game to fill the still-lingering absence of the Digital Shorts, the hoverboard bit was a big slice of nothing. The inaccurately named toys are bursting into flames, so the commercial shows them—bursting into flames a lot. Then one takes off very fast and Pete Davidson wets himself for a punchline. Disappointing.

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

The show wasted no time in giving the people what they wanted, with Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton having a bedroom visitation from both Poehler’s 2008 Hillary and Fey’s Sarah Palin. The sketch itself hit some predictable notes (Hillary smashing 2008 Hillary’s phone to prevent emailing, Palin advising, “If it’s too hard, just quit—who cares?”), but it was fun, if hardly groundbreaking political satire. The whole episode was like that, really, delivering what was expected, but not much more. It was fun seeing Fey slipping into the red ensemble and Palin accent again, but, apart from revisiting Palin’s renowned cluelessness (“What the heck, I landed in the bedroom of a lesbian couple!”), no new notes got added. The same goes for Poehler and McKinnon’s dueling Clintons—seeing those two share a stage was an exercise in comic energy appreciation, but neither of their Clintons has ever reached the indelibility of, say, Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush (who dropped by last week), and so the comic frisson of two competing HRCs stayed at a low boil. Still, Poehler’s delighted pratfall upon hearing that she’d be running against Donald Trump was a winner, and anything that gets powerhouses Poehler and McKinnon in the same sketch is all right with me.

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It took me a little Googling to recall that Kenan Thompson’s Jeffersons-obsessed movie director is a recurring character, even though he last appeared just a season ago. Not a great sign, although, on paper, this sketch should be a silly winner. Going big isn’t a bad thing on SNL from time to time, and Thompson—a world class mugger if the show’s ever had one—clearly has fun coaching Fey and Poehler (playing lesbian lovers in a sensitive period drama) to up their reactions to George and Weezie levels. But neither Fey nor Poehler seems completely into the bit, making their goofy faces seem tired and vaguely embarrassed (rather than delightfully embarrassing). There are times when SNL’s audience is unfairly critical on the show’s sometimes-dated references, but here, I just came away thinking, that’ll show those darn Jeffersons!

I recall reading that ”Bronx Beat” was always one of Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph’s favorite sketches to do together, so once Sisters co-star and Poehler and Fey pal Rudolph showed up earlier on the show (stealing the Christmas special sketch—let’s get Maya back to host soon, okay, Lorne?), it was a gimme that this rambling, reliably silly character piece would return, here closing out the show. Always a parade of accents, this installment saw chatty, perpetually disapproving Bronx housewives Poehler and Rudolph welcome Fey as Poehler’s visiting cousin from the deepest-accented heart of Philly. As with all “Bronx Beat”s, there aren’t a lot of hard laughs, but considerable enjoyment from watching two (this time three) fully inhabited characters find a flow, their narrow, mom-like incredulity about the world today pouring out in a torrent of simpatico kvetching. (Fed up with the Star Wars hype, their dismissive talk of “bleep-blorps” and “talking dog men who fly a plane” was, in Poehler and Rudolph’s delivery, very funny.)

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

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As the Trump appearance fades further into the past, SNL seems readier to lay into both the (still?) frontrunner and the rest of the bafflingly bananas Republican field, and tonight’s Republican debate cold open was all the funnier for it. Perhaps finally acknowledging that they have the best Trump impersonator in the world hanging out in the announce booth, SNL appears to have tapped Darrell Hammond in for the remainder of the campaign season. (Either that, or they’re waiting for the field to narrow enough so that every male cast member isn’t called on deck for one of these sketches. Taran Killam’s Trump isn’t bad, but, assuming Hammond’s game, there’s no reason to keep him on the bench.) As with most of these debates this time around, SNL writers could practically just transcribe selections from the candidates’ actual remarks if they wanted to (something Seth Meyers essentially did in one memorable Sarah Palin sketch), but this sketch did an admirable job in playing up the most absurd elements to reliably funny effect. Hammond’s Trump got the biggest laughs as expected, mercilessly taunting Beck Bennet’s desperate Jeb Bush, while constantly assuring Jeb that he takes no delight in beating up someone so helpless. Bennet, too, made Jeb’s carefully psyched-up and futile assaults on the apparently unassailable Trump sadly funny, mumbling rehearsed insults to himself before asking Jon Rudnitsky’s adequate Wolf Blitzer, “May I take a desperate swing at Donald Trump now?” Jay Pharoah continues to make his Ben Carson a more and more grotesquely funny creature, curling his arms into strange configurations and, at one point, donning “wide awake” sunglasses to maintain the illusion of consciousness. Pete Davidson was endearingly way too young to play Marco Rubio, playing up the candidates supposed comparative attractiveness (“I’m a hard seven, baby!”), and, of the “kids table” fading candidates, Bobby Moynihan’s exuberantly boorish Chris Christie began his time with, “I would like to answer that with a series of fear-mongering statements.” Meanwhile, Kyle Mooney’s electorally irrelevant Rand Paul got cut off with Blitzer’s, “Sir, we are not taking questions from the audience yet.” All in all, a fine showcase for a lot of the cast members who otherwise didn’t have a whole lot to do tonight.

I am hip to the musics of today

Or the musics of many, many yesterdays, as it were, as Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band clomped en masse into 8H and blew some doors off it. And, again, sure—Bruce and the gang are here partly to promote their new tour in support of the massive The River boxed set, but the mostly sexagenarian rockers, well, rocked. The River outtake “Meet Me In The City” and album opener “The Ties That Bind” were the choices for tonight, and they were performed exactly like you’d hope, and the surprise goodnights rendition of “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town” saw everyone (including background singer Paul McCartney, who hopped up on stage unobtrusively) jumping around and seeming to have the time of their lives. (Pete Davidson looked to be thrilled out of his mind, adorably.) There are worse ways for SNL to end 2015.

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

With Tina and Amy (and Maya) taking up so much oxygen tonight, a lot of people were left gasping on the sidelines. Jay Pharoah, Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, Pete Davidson, Leslie Jones—all had blink and you’ll miss them appearances.

Kenan had the most screen time alongside the hosts, so he’ll get the nod for MV(NRFPT)P—apart from the game show sketch and the acting coach (where he was fine even if the sketch was so-so), he wheeled out his Bill Cosby in the Christmas special sketch, singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” to the accompaniment of a wary Tina Fey character and a whole lot of shocked audience sounds. I recall, years ago in 2005, an Update joke alongside Tina where he begged off doing his Cosby in a “Cosby is a rapist” bit because “Kenan Thompson likes to work.” Times have changed.

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

Instead of anything especially weird or challenging, we got a comfortably funny and welcome “Bronx Beat,” a choice that exemplified the episode as a whole.

Stray observations

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  • Seemingly born out of their frustrations at the inane (often sexist) questions during their Sisters press tour, the Fey and Poehler’s Taylor Swift parody “Dope Squad” music video celebrating all the cool women (and Robert Downey Sr. and that one guy who brought Amy’s wallet back intact) was good, not great. Especially surprising, since these all-woman music video shorts have been consistently stellar (and because it co-stars Aidy Bryant, always an all-star in them). Still, it was funny enough seeing Amy and Tina throw around some gratitude for (it’s assumed) their real nannies, their shared gynecologist, their mammogram technician, and Gayle King (with a flamethrower) and Amy Schumer (not very good at nunchucks).
  • Looks like putting his feet up on the desk at the end of Update is Michael Che’s new thing. I like it.
  • Che, on the controversy about naming a new warship after Andrew Jackson: “Sure, he was pro-slavery, but then again, so were ships.”
  • “I thought this was a home makeover show.” “In a way it is!”
  • In that second wives sketch, current wife Aidy Bryant finds out she’s going to die in a kayaking accident and then finds out her husband’s prize is… a kayak. Ice cold topper to a great, great sketch.
  • Fey’s Philly guest, pressed for good news, offers, “Well, one serial killer killed another serial killer in front of the Liberty Bell.”
  • “He farts like a dog but he makes love to me so tenderly.”
  • See you in 2016, kids, where the first host of the new year (on January 16) will be newly-minted geek icon and all-around interesting choice Adam Driver. Have a great New Year’s.

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