There are few things in life that are certain. That a Christmas episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and featuring Bruce Springsteen as the musical guest would be joyous, quirky, and warmly nostalgic—the sketch comedy version of an Ugly Christmas Sweater party with college friends—is one of them.
With Maya Rudolph dropping by for a sketch or two, a resurrection of Fey’s Sarah Palin and Poehler’s Clinton, and an exuberant holiday finale that had Fey, Poehler, Rudolph, Paul McCartney (!), and the SNL cast singing background vocals to Springsteen’s signature “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” watching this year’s Christmas episode of SNL left us all looking a little bit like cast member Vanessa Bayer at the end, whose smile was so giddy and so unbridled during that musical performance it was Christmas spirit personified.
As it is always during an election cycle, the political comedy was sharper than the rest of the episode, which, with the exception of a pretty ho-hum opening monologue, ranks as one of the top-to-bottom strongest outings of the season.
With the Democratic debate ending just minutes before things went “Live from New York,” it was the recent Republican debate and its clown car of presidential contenders that got the skewering in the cold open.
Darrell Hammond returned for his spot-on Donald Trump personation, perfectly doing the pompous pigheaded thing that Hammond does so well when ribbing Beck Bennett’s hilarious take on a meek Jeb—excuse me, “Jebra”—Bush.
Fey and Poehler’s opening monologue made light of why we always associate the comedy partners with each other, to the point that they’ve spent so much time together now they can “finish each other’s…centipedes.” The rest of the monologue had “eh…” jokes that ranked with that one, and a song that spotlighted their differences in personality that was funnier in concept than execution.
But Fey and Poehler singing a song together on SNL again? Sheer bliss anyway.
Proof that we’ve all been more nice than naughty this year came in our comedy Christmas gift: an appearance by Poehler as Hillary Clinton and Fey as Sarah Palin. And both alongside breakout star Kate McKinnon’s own take on Clinton, to boot. Santa’s been good to us this year.
The conceit of the sketch was that McKinnon’s Clinton, prepping for bed in her pantsuit pajamas for a night of productive dreaming, is visited by the ghost of Hillary Past, in this case the version played on SNL by Poehler in 2007.
Poehler’s Clinton is wary of McKinnon’s Clinton's cockiness in the race. She warns McKinnon’s Clinton that she, too, was confident back on Christmas Eve 2007, until “someone named Barack Obama stumbled out of a soup kitchen with a basketball and a cigarette and ruined my life.”
But when McKinnon’s Clinton tells Poehler’s the Republican frontrunner is Donald Trump, she collapses in glee: “Oh my god we’re going to be president!”
Just when things were looking too happy, the ghost of Sarah Palin Past, played by Fey, accidentally appears in the room. “Oh geez it looks like I went through time and space,” she says, seeing the two Clintons. “What the heck! I landed in the bedroom of a lesbian couple!”
It's unlikely that Poehler or Fey will ever shed the ghosts of their iconic takes on Palin and Clinton. If comedy TV could change the course of politics and, in turn, history, their work in 2007 on SNL in these characters did just that.
What’s refreshing, then, is to see them be so game to return to the performances on an occasion like this, and, even better, return with material that was more clever and smarter than it really had to be; we’d have geeked out just at the sight of them.
Plus, having McKinnon share the stage, too, was a classy touch. It shows how gracious Poehler is in handing over the impression to the newbie, and, more significantly, does even more work minting McKinnon as the Next Big Comedy Star to come out of SNL. Confident and even at ease, she was an equal onstage with Fey and Poehler.
Most of the coverage of the episode come Sunday morning will undoubtedly focus on the Palin-Clinton sketch. But that shouldn’t gloss over some standout moments from the episode that made the whole night a pleasurable viewing experience (which can’t always be said about SNL).
A super weird, lightly feminist kind of sketch that could only come out of the comedy minds of Amy Poehler and Tina Fey—a spoof of a game show called “Meet Your Second Wife”—had the in-studio audience laughing just as hard as they did at the Palin-Clinton bit.
It was the best kind of SNL idea: superficially superficial evolving into deranged. Three male contestants are surprised by hosts played by Fey and Poehler who can see the future, and are using their powers to introduce the men to the women who will become their second wives. The kicker: They’re not women. They’re girls. Little girls. Each one younger than the one before it.
It’s a one-joke premise that somehow got deeper with each gag when it should have gotten more groan-worthy. “I thought this was a home makeover show,” one contestant said. “In a way it is!” Fey replied.
A hit-or-miss sketch later in the night that had hosts of a long-defunct variety show introducing the greatest hits from the series in a new “Best of…” DVD featured the first gut-busting cameo from Maya Rudolph, who played a completely bombed lounge singer who couldn’t get out the lyrics to “The 12 Days of Christmas” because she was too drunk.
Later, Kenan Thompson as Bill Cosby was a special guest on the variety show’s version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” the best Christmas carol about date rape there is. Having Cosby do the male part is so, so brilliant.
More light feminism came when Fey and Poehler spoofed the “#squad” that it's assumed that all celebrities with famous friends hang out with. Playing off Taylor Swift’s model- and star-packed “Bad Blood” music video, Fey and Poehler introduced their squad: their nannies, the woman at the diner who knows their soup order, their gynecologist. (Oh, and also Gayle King and Amy Schumer doing a slow-motion post-apocalyptic walk.)
Then Rudolph returned again for the night's last sketch, a revival of her talk show with Poehler, Bronx Beat. Fey guested as a cousin from Philadelphia. The crux of the sketch was the three women doing funny accents for four minutes. It was heaven
It's always a strange thing when former SNL stars return to Studio 8H again as hosts, richer, more famous, and with better hair and makeup. We imagine that it’s both inspiring and a bit of a taunt to the performers who are still slaving away to produce 90 minutes of live topical sketch comedy in a week. We also imagine it presents two scenarios: a license for laziness, to just resort to old gags, sketches, and characters with little imagination, or occasion to raise the game.
For the most part, it seemed like the cast and writers took the latter route this week, which they tend to do for the reliably standout Christmas episode. And Bruce Springsteen for added measure? It’s the brandy in the eggnog: the extra kick to convince you you’re having a good time. It’s not needed in this case, but, hey, it’s the holidays. We’ll gladly imbibe.