In its troubled thirty-ninth season, Saturday Night Live goes out the way it started: by bringing back one of its favorite alumni and a cavalcade of his friends. This season’s premiere with Tina Fey wasn’t as strong as might’ve been expected, so I was understandably wary of Andy Samberg’s first hosting gig. Yet by mixing a ton of cameos with the up-and-coming stars of the current cast, “Andy Samberg/St. Vincent” became a strong combination of the last generation of SNL stars and the current cast.
For perhaps the only time this season, the topical cold open was actually pretty funny. As hinted at in the news, SNL decided to take on the Solange & Jay Z elevator fight, but without the real Solange (as speculated). Jay Pharoah and Sasheer Zamata as Jay Z and Solange are fine, but what really makes this skit work is the elevator footage with the audio on, which reveals that Solange was just trying to get a spider off Jay. Also, the appearance of Maya Rudolph, one of twelve cameos for the night, as Beyoncé was a welcome hilarity and sort of set up the blending of casts that would highlight the evening. It’s also crazy to think that this skit couldn’t have been done earlier this year—so good job SNL for adding some diversity to your cast. Keep it up.
Samberg’s first monologue doesn’t rely on singing or the audience interrupting, so right away that’s a plus. Apparently in his seven seasons on SNL, Samberg completed only 23 fewer impressions than Bill Hader, which is surprising since (as Samberg points out) he did 100 digital shorts and about 6 live sketches. With a little help from Seth Meyers, Samberg tries to beat Hader’s record by running through a list of impressions of everyone from ALF to Seth Meyers mocking Samberg. Of course as soon as Hader is name-dropped, you know he’s going to come out and reclaim his title, but completely unexpected is Martin Short running out to help Hader celebrate.
“Camp Wicawabe” seems like an attempt to do a younger version of “Girlfriends Talk Show,” but is far more adorable. Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon are two ten-year-olds who are the troublemakers at their summer camp. Pushing the boundaries of adorableness is Kyle Mooney as their six-year-old “musical director,” who plays the xylophone and has a slight speech impediment. It’s much more fun than it probably sounds on paper, and I’d be surprised if we don’t see more of these characters next season.
Oh man, I forgot how much I love seeing those sweet words “An SNL Digital Short.” It was a given that Samberg would come back with a digital short, but we were surprised with two of them. The first featured Samberg playing DJ Davvincii, who leaves his adoring crowd wondering when the bass will drop. Practically the entire cast is in the crowd and when the bass does finally drop and Lil Jon appears on a computer saying it’s time for everyone to “Get Turned Up To Death,” everyone dies from exploding heads and Davvincii’s laser eyes. The build to this crazy conclusion is almost as exciting for us as waiting for the beat to drop is for the crowd.
The second short—which surprisingly happens later in the night—brings back The Lonely Island as Samberg and Jorma sing about how they like to hug girls and then leave them hanging. Tatiana Maslany makes a quick cameo and Pharrell’s appearance makes this about the 500th song he’s appeared on in the last year. Of the two shorts, this one is probably more likely to go viral, but it doesn’t have the payoff that Davvincii has.
Last week’s Charlize Theron episode brought the weird in a big way, but Samberg brings his own brand of weirdness as evidenced in the skits that center around him. First he plays Quasimoto as a Confident Hunchback—the idea of that alone is pretty great. Watching Quasimoto hit on various girls at a bar in 1482 while wisecracking about his hunch is so strange that it works.
Similarly, we get to see Legolas from The Hobbit trying to order at Taco Bell. This is classic Samberg, as he takes a well-known character or person and throws him in a situation that is immediately hilarious. (See also “Mark Wahlberg Talks To Animals.”) This is also the sort of skit where—if you don’t laugh solely at the title—this probably won’t be the thing for you.
The final skit that centers on Samberg is the welcome return of “The Blizzard Man,” a Vanilla Ice-looking rapper who is brought in to fix songs that aren’t working. As 2 Chainz puts it, he’s got the swag of A$AP Rocky, the street cred of Katherine Heigl, and the looks of a white Taye Diggs. The Blizzard Man’s raps are complete nonsense that only get stranger the further he gets, talking about his Eggo waffle nips and mentioning country hams more than once. This is one Samberg character I wished would’ve gotten more chances before he left, so it’s great to see his return.
OK, let’s take a moment to talk about St. Vincent. I understand her performance was quite weird and, to the uninitiated, it was a little hard to get past. But that’s sort of St. Vincent’s thing. Now I’ve been a fan of Annie Clark for years, so I loved it, but for those who aren’t already fans, I can totally understand not liking her performances of “Digital Witness” and ‘Birth In Reverse,” but I would name St. Vincent as one of the best musical guests this year. If she returns though, I would love to see her involved in some skits, since she can also be pretty funny too.
Weekend Update ended this year on a high note, with Mooney returning as stand-up comedian Bruce Chandling. His jokes are terrible and—even more than we saw in his last appearance—we see the dark depression lying underneath his awful humor. The darker he gets, the harder it is not to laugh at him. We got a lot of Mooney this year and he’s definitely the star of the new crew, so fingers crossed that we get even more of him next season.
Samberg also brings back “Get In the Cage,” where he plays Nicolas Cage interviewing another actor, this time Paul Rudd. What’s so great about the little-known Samberg characters is that we never really got too much of any one of them to the point where they got old before he left. Cage might be one of Samberg’s more recognizable characters and I hope we eventually see more of him one day, once he’s done tea-bagging the Magna Carta, of course.
With Rudd making an appearance, it’s no surprise when the Vogalchek family makes their return. It almost becomes like a typical sitcom this time, with every new cameo bringing around a new burst of applause. Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, Hader, Rudd and Rudolph all show up, with Kate McKinnon appearing as the great grandmother Vogalchek. The family thinks the Michael Sands clip of him and his boyfriend seems like too much for TV, as Hader motorboats Wiig and Rudd makes out with Armisen’s neck. But as always, this skit is about watching the cracks in the cast and watching them lose character, as Armisen does plenty of times.
Maybe the biggest flaw in this episode is the return of “Waking Up With KimYe,” which features Kim and Kanye discussing their upcoming wedding with Samberg as their wedding planner. It’s expectedly the same as usual: Kim is dumb and Kanye is proud and boastful. It’s not that it’s a terrible skit, it’s just hard to match the high-quality after the Vogalcheks.
To end the season, we return to the two former porn stars, who are now trying to sell Bvlgari watches and obviously mispronouncing the name. This skit never ceases to push the boundaries of the 12:50 spot— the more disgusting the jokes, the bigger the laughs. But the real stars this time are Samberg and Wiig as formerly conjoined twin porn stars Tweedle-Dee (the twin who got the penis), and Tweedle-Dong (who looks like The Lorax). For once, most of the laughs come from the guests and not from the porn stars, and watching Wiig almost break concludes the night with some pretty good laughs.
This season has been a season of change, with a ton of cast members leaving last year and a whole new batch of mostly indistinguishable new faces arriving. A few former cast members shone in this change, such as Bobby Moynihan, Nasim Pedrad and definitely Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant. Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney stood out as well. This season has been a transition from the old to the new, but SNL has done a pretty good job of figuring itself out once again (even if the season has maybe been shakier than usual). With Samberg’s first hosting gig, we see how well the old and the new guard can do together and the 39th season ends on what was probably the best episode of the season.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.