A few weeks ago, I would have been eagerly anticipating the return of Maya Rudolph”s impression of Whitney Houston as part of her hosting duties. Now? Yeah, not so much. There”s just no way to bust that out this soon, right? Not that Rudolph”s a one-trick pony by any stretch. She”s one of the show”s most versatile performers, and part of an era in which the women straight up ruled “Saturday Night Live.” I”ll be interested to see tonight if her presence allows the strong, if often underutilized, female members of the current cast to shine. It”s of course possible that Rudolph”s presence pushes them even further to the periphery, but I hope that”s not the case.
Along for the ride is musical act Sleigh Bells who, from the three minutes of research I just did on them after learning they would be on the show tonight, seem very nice. I bet they call their mothers every Sunday.
Onto the recap!
New York Sports Now: Right off the bat, it”s all Jeremy Lin, all the time! And why not? He”s only the hottest NYC-related sports story right now, if not the hottest sports story period. The sketch concerns the racial tones surrounding Lin”s coverage, and it”s fairly edgy as far as recent “SNL” sketches go. Is this Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor hurling epithets at each other? No, but it”s welcome all the same, and represents one of the strongest cold opens all season. “SNL” feels dangerous so infrequently that anytime it comes within triple-jumping distance of that line, I tend to applaud. [Grade: A-]
Monologue: Rudolph seems genuinely thrilled to be in the hosting position for the first time. She sings a song about all the sex she had during her time as a repertory player, called “Do You Wanna Funk?” Um, sure? Is this a trick question? She then moves into the crowd to flirt with current cast members, NBC pages, lighting directors, and Paul Simon (who is hanging backstage with Stefon…naturally). I am not sure why it”s funny to portray Rudolph as a total ho. But hey, I”m overthinking this, I understand. But of all the ways to use Rudolph, this is the first thing that came to mind? [Grade: B-]
Bronx Beat: Speaking of “SNL” when Women Ruled All, here”s Exhibit A. There”s always a great energy to this sketch, which relies more on character-based humor than set-up/punch line than almost anything else currently in the show”s repertoire. Nothing actually ever has to happen, other than these two chatting for five minutes, and it would still be an awesome time. Just witness how Amy Poehler and Rudolph play off each other when the latter chokes on her gum: a quick improv bit, then back into the flow of the written sketch. They make it look so easy that one can forget how damn difficult this really is. And lo and behold, look who is making a surprise appearance: Justin Timberlake, as the boom operator who, alongside Andy Samberg”s cameraman, turns the verbal tables on the two hosts. (“Four by four?” “What does that even MEAN?”) By the time Poehler”s character described repeatedly calling herself while discussing the boys at Panera bread, I was pausing the DVR to catch my breath. A Top Five Sketch of the Season in my books. [Grade: A]
Maya Angelou”s I Know Why The Caged Bird Laughs: It”s Betty White”s “Off Their Rockers,” but instead featuring the Pulitzer Prize-winning author pranking people like Morgan Freeman, Cornel West, and Stephen King. Rudolph”s impression is incredible, with the slow, loquacious pace of Angelou”s dialogue standing in contrast to the low-brow pranks she tries to accomplish. Can we just kidnap Maya Rudolph and make sure she never, ever returns to “Up All Night”? [Grade: B+]
Beyonce and Jay Z: Jay Pharoah is the happiest man in the world tonight, I”ll wager. I think he”s been in every sketch so far tonight, which might be a record. He and Rudolph welcome guests such as Prince and LL Cool J to meet Blue Ivy Carter for the first time. Nasim Pedrad busts out her best Nicki Minaj, followed by Bradgelina (Taran Killam, Abby Elliot), trying to steal Blue Ivy to add to their collection. Kristen Wiig then comes on bearing my least favorite face: The “Taylor Swift Pretends To Be Shocked By Another Award” Face. Finally, Timberlake returns as Bon Iver, who sings about as clearly as the real Bon Iver. But hey, White Butler is really into it, so it”s all good. This was just another “trot out a ton of impressions” sketch, but full of versions we rarely see or have never seen. The last time I was having this much fun with “SNL,” I cursed the proceedings by announcing my joy. So I won”t say I”m enjoying this more than any episode thus far this season. Nope. Not gonna do it. [Grade: A-]
Sleigh Bells appear onstage to perform “Comeback Kid,” a title I could only surmise thanks to help from Twitter. This group is as difficult to decipher, lyrically speaking, as Bon Iver. But while the latter using his falsetto to obscure his meaning, Sleigh Bells just drenches their noise pop in tons of guitar-laced feedback while burying lead singer Alexis Krauss” voice low in the overall mix. Upon my first listen, they sound like a super amped up version of The Ting Tings. I like The Ting Tings, so this isn”t a problem. But not being able to understand a single lyric makes it a bit difficult to grade the song overall. Yes, I”m old. Yes, I want you off my lawn. [Grade: B]
Weekend Update: “Really?!? With Seth and Amy” deals with the recent issue of birth control in Congress, a discussion that was held without any female involvement. (“I Love Transvaginal! It”s my favorite airline!”) Poehler sticks around to swap jokes with Seth Meyers, and while I love me some Meyers, having a two-person “Update” wouldn”t be the worst thing in the world next season. Also? I can”t remember an “Update” with only one staged bit. We only got a wordless Stefon in the monologue, but no appearance here? Is he currently exploring 50 ways to seduce a Simon? [Grade: B+]
What”s Up With That?: Oh, so good to have you back in my life, sketch. It”s been a while. I was worried that you had left me for another recapper. On the dais: Bill O”Reilly, SI swimsuit model Kate Upton, and of course, Lindsey Buckingham, who is there for his 100th appearance. (He learned all the presidents in order the night before, and will definitely get the chance to recite them all before the end of the sketch.) Jason Sudeikis dancing in that track suit? Never not funny. I am apparently easy to please. The only part of the sketch that didn”t connect? Rudolph”s “Brazilian answer to LeAnn Rimes,” which looked great but had more noises than actual lyrics to her part of the song. In some weeks, this might have slayed me. But the rest of tonight”s material has been so strong, this suffered slightly in the context of the episode as a whole. Fun? Sure. But it never really hit the heights of previous versions. [Grade: B]
Super Showcase: It took until now to put “Bridesmaids” stars Wiig and Rudolph into their own sketch for a prolonged period of time. And know what? Given the results of this first meeting, I could have waited a bit longer. The pair seems to be having a blast, and cause each other and Bill Hader to break constantly. Somehow, Bayer keeps her calm amidst the madness on hand. Good on you, Vanessa. That wasn”t really a sketch per se, but rather just a way to kill some time by people having more fun onstage than others were having off of it. I imagine a lot of people enjoyed this. But it was the first time I checked my watch all night. [Grade: C]
A Message from First Lady Michelle Obama: The First Lady announces a new media campaign to help her campaign against childhood obesity. It”s a parody of “The Cosby Show,” starring The Obamas and Joe Jamal-Biden. Ever wanted to see Fred Armisen doing Bill Cobsy through President Obama? Well, Merry Freakin” Christmas to you. After unleashing that, the sketch didn”t really go anywhere until Poehler”s Hilary Clinton joined in on the performance of “Night and Day”. (For those of you too young to remember, here is what the end of that sketch referenced.) [Grade: B-]
Sleigh Bells return to perform “End of the Line,” which has a slower vibe than “Comeback Kid”, and as such sounds like a B-side from a Yeah Yeah Yeahs album. It”s…fine? But boy oh boy it”s way too serious a song for three people rocking that much denim in front of that many Marshall stacks. They seem more intent on playing to each other than the crowd, which gives the performance a fairly insular vibe. But hey, don”t listen to me: I”m waiting for .38 Special to return to “SNL” and rock the house. [Grade: B-]
How”s He Doing?: This is a pretty traditional sketch for the 12:55 am slot, no? Rather than being a genre-busting experiment with sketch comedy, this was simply a talk show about black voters dealing with President Obama”s re-election validity. This seemed like the show felt it had a strong enough line-up of sketches tonight to simply run out the clock with what normally would have been pre-“Update” sketches. Know what? They were totally right! We”ve had a drop-off in the last half hour, but nothing truly tragic. And in this day and age, that”s pretty much a miracle. I”d prefer this over Rudolph extolling the virtues of sparkling apple juice. [Grade: B-]
After the sketch ends, we see Rudolph photoshopped into a picture with the original cast, sans Chase. Not sure if he was removed or if this was a Season 2 photo. But it”s AWESOME. I”d love more of these in the future, if the person inserted is worthy of inclusion with the show”s earlier casts. And Rudolph most certainly is.
Best Sketch: Bronx Beat
Worst Case: Showcase Showdown
Best Surprise: The episode”s overall consistency.
Worst Surprise: That my fear of Rudolph”s presence overshadowing the other female cast members actually came true. There was almost no material for Elliot, Bayer, or Pedrad tonight. I”m all for Rudolph and Poehler back on the “SNL” stage, but they could have done more to give a boost to the current crop of female talent.
What did you think of tonight”s episode? A season highlight, or have I massively overrated it? Did the lack of the show”s current female performers bother you? Should “Update” return to a two-host format? Sound off below!