I was a little surprised when I learned that former cast member Maya Rudolph was returning to host Saturday Night Live, because she was never a huge breakout star on the show and hasn't exactly gone on to massive success after leaving. Sure, she played a lead in last summer's Bridesmaids and stars on the NBC sitcom Up All Night, but her post-show career can't really compare with the likes of a Will Ferrell or even a Tina Fey. It's usually the superstars who come back to host the show, and Rudolph -- who wasn't always treated that well when she was in the cast -- never quite fit into that category.
And, yet, her first time hosting the show provided for one of the best episodes of the season, right up there with the Jimmy Fallon episode (which begs the question: should alum host more often? And is it just that they know how to perform sketch comedy better than regular actors and musicians?). Rudolph was always a huge asset to the show and never quite got the respect she so clearly deserved, so it was especially rewarding to watch her shine in every sketch (with the exception of "What Up With That," which gave her nothing to do) without simply trading on nostalgia for the characters she created during her time at SNL. While the episode was heavy on gimmicky cameos (including Amy Poehler, Justin Timberlake, Bill O'Reilly, Sports Illustrated cover girl Kate Upton and, for some inexplicable reason, a wordless appearance from Paul Simon), they weren't what made it so much fun. This was a well written, well acted episode of SNL, made even better by the fact that everyone was clearly having a great time. It was infectious.
- "Cold Open: Linsanity Postgame" - Well, this was pretty easily the best cold open SNL has had all season. Not only did they resist the temptation to avoid their usual political sketch in this slot, but they instead replaced it with a sketch that wasn't just good for a cold open, but which would have been funny anywhere in the show. It was a sketch with ideas, and I don't think it's just my new optimism talking when I say that the show has been better and better about that this season. Not only was this sketch making fun of all the bad puns that sportscaster have been employing lately to talk about New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin (which it did well), but also commenting on the acceptable levels of racism in sports talk. While not particularly "edgy," it was willing to push a few buttons, and that's to be admired -- especially this early in the night. (Watch the "Linsanity Postgame" video)
- "Bronx Beat" - Maya Rudolph's monologue isn't being made available on the SNL official site because of its use of copyrighted music, but that's ok; it was just another monologue in which the host sings (in this case, "I Wanna Funk You"). Much better was the "Bronx Beat" sketch, of which I've never particularly been a fan and the inclusion of which suggested this was going to be another show in which a former cast member hosts and all of the sketches are just a tour of their famous characters and sketches. And even though I've never really loved "Bronx Beat," this one totally won me over. For starters, Amy Poehler came back, and her guest appearances are always a reminder of just how much I miss her on the show (which I never would have guessed back when she was a cast member, because she was so overexposed that I found her a little annoying). Her incredibly fast dialogue with Rudolph was impressive and very funny, as were their efforts to hold it together and not collapse into laughter (which would happen throughout this week's episode). I was slightly less excited to see Justin Timberlake show up, if only because I started to worry this was going to be another Night of 1,000 cameos (which it basically was, but ended up being very funny in spite of the guest stars and not necessarily because of them), but his slack-jawed routine with Andy Samberg ended up being pretty amusing. The faster and crazier the sketch got, the more charming it became, and served as a reminder that great chemistry and performances can sometimes have the ability to overcome writing that's a tad familiar. (Watch the "Bronx Beat" video)
- "Maya Angelou Prank Show" - OMG, I did not expect to laugh at this as hard as I did, but there was something so funny about the stiffness of Rudolph's Maya Angelou impression that by the time she was explaining her "prank" to Jay Pharoah (playing Morgan Freeman), I had totally lost it. Add in the very funny graphic of the animated bird (because I Know Why the Caged Bird Laughs) and this was probably my favorite piece of the night. (Watch the "Maya Angelou Prank Show" video)
- "Jay-Z and Beyonce's Baby" - Here's how you know this was a good episode of Saturday Night Live: even this sketch, which was basically just another installment of "Spot the Impression," managed to be funny despite the fact that it's the kind of thing that the show has been doing every week. Jay Pharoah sounds a lot like Jay-Z, but is never quite able to commit to a character; maybe it's still just nerves, but the physical side of his performances have yet to come together. Luckily, Rudolph managed to be funny just based on the way she stood, and the succession of celebrity cameos was pretty good. I liked Nasim Pedrad as Nikki Minaj, Taran Killam's Brad Pitt (though I do wish he would do away with those weird noises that punctuate everything he says), Kristen Wiig's constantly-amazed Taylor Swift and Justin Timberlake appearing once again as the lead singer of Bon Iver, who accidentally puts himself to sleep. I liked that everyone called him Bon Iver, and I liked White Butler being the only person into the music. What should have been a totally pedestrian sketch ended up being another strong entry in the episode. (Watch the "Jay-Z and Beyonce's Baby" video)
- "Really?!? with Seth and Amy" - Just in case I wasn't already totally missing Amy Poehler, she came back to "Weekend Update" for an installment of "Really?!? and completely killed it, not even being so much funny as being righteously angry in the best way possible. She even stuck around to do the rest of "Update" with Seth Meyers, and it was, not surprisingly, the best that segment has been all season. "Update" used to be the highlight of every episode (mostly during the Tina Fey years), but in recent seasons has become something of a dead space in the middle of each show. I know Meyers is the show's head writer and everything, but it may be time for him to pass along the "Update" torch -- or, at least, for the show to partner him up with someone again. In either case, can I suggest writer/producer John Mulaney for the 10th time? He would turn "Update" into a must-see again. I know it. (Watch the "Really?!? with Seth and Amy" video)
- "What Up With That: Presidents' Day Edition" - Well, the episode couldn't be perfect. The fact that yet another installment of "What Up With That" was buried this deep into the show should serve as proof that there was much better material to work with; last season, this would have led off the night. I was disappointed to see Bill O'Reilly being used, if only because I don't want him poisoning the things I like or to come off looking like a good sport. I was less disappointed to see Kate Upton. There wasn't much funny here except Kenan Thompson singing "I went to the White House, and they took aaaalll of my weed" and Bill Hader's reactions as Lindsay Buckingham. That joke might have finally reached the tipping point where it's totally funny again. (Watch the "What Up With That" video)
- "Super Showcase" - Ok. This wasn't really a funny sketch. It was another game show (SNL is obsessed with doing game shows and talk shows; they did both this week) and depended mostly on Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph doing funny voices. Maybe it's just because I was already having fun or because the episode had built up a lot of good will by this point, but I couldn't stop laughing as three of the four cast members in the sketch continued to break character and laugh. Vanessa Bayer, the least experienced performer of the group, kept it together like a champ, but Rudolph, Wiig and Bill Hader were all pretty useless by the end of the sketch, which by then had devolved into total nonsense. It's a good thing, too, because it was the only thing that made this sketch as enjoyable as it was.
- "Cosby Obama" - There wasn't much to work with here, but the silliness of Fred Armisen doing Barack Obama doing Bill Cosby was enough to make it work. The opening credits were funny (particularly Taran Killam's credit), and it was short and amusing. Probably the best part of the sketch -- a recreation of a famous episode of The Cosby Show (complete with another Amy Poehler cameo as Hilary Clinton) -- isn't available on the Saturday Night Live site because of music rights.
- "How's He Doing?" - Both Jay Pharoah and Kenan Thompson got a lot of airtime this week, maybe because several of the sketches were based around African American characters and they're the only two African Americans in the cast. This was Pharoah's most relaxed performance of the night, and, as a result, his best; in fact, he, Thompson and Maya Rudolph all found different ways to be funny, and while this was essentially the same joke reworded a bunch of different ways, it was still funny. It didn't even feel like the throwaway, as many final sketches so often do. This episode was solid pretty much all the way through. (Watch the "How's He Doing?" video)