Last night, NBC's Saturday Night Live returned early to get a head start on the presidential election season. And not only did it spend considerable time on the topic, it introduced us to three new cast members and shiny new opening credits! Our host for the 38th season premiere was Seth MacFarlane, creator of Family Guy and director of Ted, with musical guest Frank Ocean. Here is how I'm approaching this recap, ladies and gents: I like this show, and I laughed a lot at stuff that was on it last night. And now, I'm going to tell you about what made me laugh the most, and which sketches I could have replaced with five minutes of brushing my teeth. But here is my recap in a nutshell: this was a good one! And it started with a former Barack Obama impersonator passing the baton to a new one.
Cold Open: Introducing Jay Pharoah's Obama
Let's address the elephant in the room: Pharoah's impression was a lot stronger than Fred Armisen's, but it will definitely benefit from time. For one thing, he pretty much sounds exactly like Obama, maybe a little heavy on the "hesitation ums." Which, to be sure, exist when Obama talks, but they could be put to better use. Both candidates — and their running mates — provided the show's writers with plenty of material all summer, like Paul Ryan (played well by Taran Killam), who likes to throw around numbers. Especially if they're about his fitness achievements. Especially if they are inaccurate. This Obama is pretty sure of himself when contrasted with the fumbling Romney (welcome back, Jason Sudeikis!), but is still wistful for those days when he was coasting on hope and change and a landslide election. Remember that time he sang Al Green, you guys? He does… He does. tl;dr: Thumbs up!
Seth MacFarlane's Monologue
While MacFarlane has taken a few potshots at SNL on Family Guy, he was definitely game to host the show and seemed very ready for a good time. But when you have a guy who does a variety of cartoon voices for a variety of shows as the host of another show, he had better do those fucking voices. At the same time, he had better not do those fucking voices. While Stewie Griffin is Seth MacFarlane's "Free Bird," this is not his show, he's just crashing for the night. But this was the perfect opportunity to lay the greatest hits on us without wearing out his welcome. (Quagmire did come up again later, but at MacFarlane's expense, and it worked.) tl;dr: Giggity!
Political Ad Approved, Reluctantly, by Obama
This was a fake ad from the fake Obama campaign that pointed out that opponent Mitt Romney isn't just the wrong choice to run America, he's kind of a dick on a personal level. Like going out of his way to sneeze on a heart surgery patient in the hospital. Or using his business dealings at Bain Capital to buy every company that one guy (played by Kenan Thompson) worked for, just to fire him. A good parody of today's political ads, which now operate on the same level as middle-school bullies. tl;dr: For serious, Bain may have actually also broken Batman's back.
Rodger Brush, Substitute Talk Show Host
I've always been pretty indifferent about this recurring sketch, in which Armisen plays a middle-aged TV producer (inexplicably) sitting in for a woman who hosts a show about sex and relationship. It's not Brush who elicits the biggest responses most of the time, but the poor audience members (one of whom was MacFarlane) asking embarrassing questions that the guy is not physically able to hear. Unless he's going out of his way to screw with them and make them talk about their insecurities in a louder voice. Which, considering Armisen, could secretly be the case. But this was the first time we see a new cast member (Tim Robinson) say some lines for us; Cecily Strong appeared as the absent host in graphics. tl;dr: One minute of this sketch is usually enough.
Eastwood and Chair
We all knew this was coming, because we knew Bill Hader had done Eastwood before. And also, Clint Eastwood recently talked to a chair on national television. And this was exactly what it had to be: an ad for a touring stage show called "Eastwood and Chair," but now the chair isn't just Obama! He's Michael Bloomberg! ("Just let people eat soda!") He's Chris Christie! ("I think we're gonna need a bigger chair!") But it's the opening grumble that reminds us of something sobering: Clint Eastwood has gotten old on us. tl;dr: This sketch arrived on time and did its job above a satisfactory level.
I actually avoid internet sensations like Psy's "Gangnam Style" because of (Lewis) Black's Law, which states that even if I don't seek things like this out, they will find me and follow me 24 hours a day no matter what. (Which is also why I have never heard or seen "Call Me Maybe.") But this sketch was fun because it featured Bobby Moynihan dancing, and sometimes, I just like to watch silly dancing. Mostly, though, this sketch was a party, and parties are always cool. Except in one month, when it won't be cool anymore. tl;dr: "Gangnam Style," you guys. Enjoy it while it lasts!
Introduction to Puppetry
This was probably one of the best sketches of the night because of the constant demented turns taken by a grizzled veteran played by Hader (and his identically grizzled puppet) and the eternal optimism of MacFarlane's puppetry teacher and his students (Thompson and Vanessa Bayer). Fluffy, colorful puppets doing troubled human things never fails, really. See: Meet the Feebles, though in this sketch, it's the puppeteer who was more twisted… I'm going to be honest. I'm really scared of puppets. Not the Muppet-looking ones used by the cast, but the creepy marionettes that were hanging from the walls in the background. I'm not saying that you guys have to find them creepy, but I do. I do. And I hate them. tl;dr: I basically only listened to this sketch, but it sounded hilarious.
I won't comment too much on this week's musical guest because I'm not good at music, except to say that I would like to join any effort that makes Frank Ocean more celebrated than Chris Brown.
I'm going to skip right to the clear winner of this segment, which was not Seth Meyers, who had some good jokes in this first Update of the season, but Seth MacFarlane's Ryan Lochte. You can keep your Honey Boo Boo Child (forever), I will take Dumb Ryan Lochte — who was "America in Olympics" — in commercials, in sketches, everything. Because if you hold your ear up to his ear, you can hear the ocean. tl;dr: Juice.
Stuttering Drill Sergeant
A one-joke sketch that will probably end up offending some people. But the bigger problem with it is that it was about twice as long as it had to be. tl;dr: Should have left to brush my teeth.
Steve Harvey Show
Not a strong one, but I will point this out: When Seth MacFarlane is sporting a bald wig and mustache, he looks like David Cross, who I didn't realize looked like an Iranian DJ. tl;dr: Should have left to chase tooth-brushing with mouthwash.
Another one-joke sketch that was cute ("I was like [this]," "I was all [that]"), but could have ended earlier. Thompson's waiter character put it best when less than a minute into the sketch, all the "I was like" had to stop. At least our third new cast member, Aidy Bryant, got a line on camera. I was more fascinated with how not one but two characters — MacFarlane's and Armisen's — were made up to look like Tommy Wiseau from The Room. tl;dr: I was like, "Oh, hi, Mark."
Frank Ocean, second set
Again, I like Frank Ocean. But I would like to note that John Mayer has vastly improved his guitar face! Though it still looks like he'd like to be left alone with his, uh, "string instrument" for a few minutes.
Amish Web Address
The last sketch of the night, where the best weird sketches reside, clocked in at less than a minute, because it had exactly one joke: two Amish men, unfamiliar with the internet, selling their wares on the internet and spelling out the URL — in Amish translations of letters. "Double valley (W), double valley (W), double valley (W)… Fat snake with a sex penis (R)…" Sketches like this are like eating a miniature cannoli at the exact moment you want a miniature cannoli.
In summary: I was really happy with this show, even if a few of the sketches were on the weak side. Pharoah's Obama is going to get even better, and I'm glad Sudeikis' Romney is sticking around. And I think it's pretty fun that Sudeikis can play both Romney and Joe Biden for a few more months. But what I was happiest about was Seth MacFarlane — I love that he was ready to play a variety of characters, and he was clearly having a great time. Was he also clearly reading the cue cards? Yes. I don't really care. He was funny and he was game, and for that, I am a very happy TV viewer.