The truth is SNL was never consistently great. It’s featured dozens of great performers, some of the best comedy writers of the last 40 years, a handful of legendary casts and beloved eras, and through it all the show was always hit-and-miss. Take last night’s host, Will Ferrell. He’s on the shortlist of the greatest SNL cast member ever. His time overlapped with a number of fantastic comedians and writers, some of whom are almost as big a part of the show’s legacy as Ferrell. And yet at the time, before DVRs and YouTube, trying to sift through the weekly misfires to find the legitimately good stuff was such a chore that nobody I knew even put in the effort. One of the most popular SNL casts of all time couldn’t put on a consistently entertaining hour or so of comedy. That’s been true through all of the show’s heydays, from the original cast, to the late ‘80s, to the peak of the Hader/Wiig/Forte/Samberg era. The concept itself is untenable and out of reach for even the best comic minds.
Last night’s episode was pretty good though!
Ferrell’s love of absurdity and complete commitment to every role carried an SNL that was perfectly watchable throughout. The tone was set by a legitimately good cold open (something that’s been extremely scarce in the Alec Baldwin-as-Trump era) that saw Ferrell exhume his George W. Bush impression to remind us that the 43rd president was actually horrible and shouldn’t be missed just because he seems like a nicer guy than Trump. From there Ferrell subverted the typical SNL monologue, using a fresh head wound to send up stock scenarios , including a first-time host talking about how excited they are, a Q&A session with planted writers in the floor seats (hey there, Sam Jay), and, of course, the ever-present musical number. Massive Head Wound Will even got off a line about how the show does way too many musical monologues. These two made up the strongest start to an SNL episode in months, possibly years.
The first sketch after the monologue felt like something Ferrell and Adam McKay could have written 20 years ago, when they worked on the show, and just not have gotten on air at the time. It riffed on the too-serious “badass” nicknames of fighter pilots a la Top Gun, with Sidewinder, Wild Card and Viper teaming up on air exercises over the South China Sea with Ferrell’s Clown Penis. Ferrell remained resolutely straight-faced throughout, and despite the disbelief of his squad mates, his explanation of the nickname actually made a good bit of sense. For a show that tends to rely on basic stock concepts far too often, this was a pleasantly original idea with striking visuals, a strong central joke with funny twists, and a top-notch performance from Ferrell.
From there Ferrell settled in as a sure-handed member of the ensemble. Yeah, he was the unquestioned star of the group, just like he was when he was a regular, but his experience let him slip easily into every role and sketch, with none of the stilted delivery or obvious cue-card reading that tends to happen with hosts without a live comedy background. There might not have been anything as great as those first three sketches, but it was a much stronger and memorable episode throughout than we’ve typically seen the last two seasons.
Later highlights included a sketch where Ferrell played an airline steward who just got into atheism through podcasts. He keeps ruining the safety demonstration by slipping in that there’s no heaven or afterlife. It was every obnoxious conversation with an Atheism 101 newcomer relocated to a completely inappropriate situation, and it worked better than it should have due to fully committed performances from Ferrell, Aidy Bryant and Chris Redd.
The last sketch of the night was another one that feels destined for SNL’s next volume of Will Ferrell’s Greatest Hits. A parody of Time-Life infomercials hawking box sets of old pop songs, it starred Ferrell as Chucky Lee Byrd, an overly coiffed piano-playing pop star from what appears to be the 1950s. The so-called “Poet of Teen Love,” the ad runs down a list of Byrd’s hits, with every love song being about younger and younger girls. Imagine Gary Puckett’s “Young Girl” but with Ferrell playing a mustachioed Jerry Lee Lewis rip-off.
The Byrd sketch did spotlight a recurring annoyance about last night’s episode. SNL is regularly accused of not knowing how to end a sketch. They’ll frequently drag on a little too long, often ending abruptly, or without a final twist or statement. A number of sketches almost seemed written in response to those complaints, but without a clear goal in mind. A few sketches, including the Chucky Lee Byrd one, ended with “surprising” resolutions that didn’t add to the humor and sometimes undermined it. With Byrd, for example, it turned out that his ‘50s songs were actually from the 1980s, and that Beck Bennett (the infomercial host who doesn’t realize how lecherous these songs were until his co-host Kate McKinnon grows increasingly disgusted with them) is the one who made the box set because he’s Byrd’s grandson. This might seem like more of an ending than if it just wrapped up like a typical Time-Life Music ad, but it’s also an unnecessary level of detail that ends a strong sketch on a pointlessly convoluted down note.
Another strong sketch saw a similarly deflating conclusion. Ferrell played a businessman who tries to tell a joke about Southern food but confuses the restaurant Cracker Barrel with the furniture store Crate & Barrel. His coworkers (who we later find out are his employees) lightly mock him about the mistake before moving on to other topics. Ferrell can’t let it go, though, and is increasingly angry that they pointed it out. Ferrell gets to unleash the untapped rage beneath a seemingly reserved middle-aged man, which has been one of his specialties since his SNL tenure, and he does it with as much hilarious gusto as ever. After Ferrell storms out of the business he owns, carrying a water cooler that’s pouring out on the floor as he goes, the sketch ends with one of his employees, Cecily Strong, revealing that she’s his wife. It’s another final stinger that lands flat, and that seems to only exist to give the impression of an ending without actually serving as an ending. I’ve never really had a problem with the lack of endings on SNL—searching for a clear-cut ending often just leads to formulaic comedy writing, which is already the show’s greatest weakness—but such half-hearted attempts to silence those criticisms aren’t the answer.
Ferrell also made an appearance during Weekend Update. He brought back Jacob Silj, his buttoned-down, very serious talking head who drones in a loud, shouted monotone because he suffers from Voice Immodulation Syndrome. It was one of only two “classic” characters Ferrell brought back, and it’s been so long since he’s done this bit that it felt fresh again. And he had new anchors to play off of, and Colin Jost and Michael Che both held their own during the segment. Update itself had a down week, coasting with some obvious political jokes and relying on Ferrell and Heidi Gardner’s strong character work for the heavy lifting. Gardner’s new character Bailey Gismert, the teen host of a popular YouTube movie review channel, was as well-observed as her Every Boxer’s Girlfriend from Every Movie About Boxing Ever from November, but more inherently funny due to a sharper focus and a more relevant subject matter. Gardner can disappear into a role as greatly as Kate McKinnon, but has yet to turn her great character work into great comedy. It shouldn’t take her long if the show continues to give her more opportunities.
#MeToo was the basis of two bits, a fake ad for a deodorant that keeps men sweat-free even as their careers explode in the wake of sexual harassment charges, and a live sketch about the impossibility of discussing these issues in a group setting without offending somebody. They were both fine? These pieces didn’t really say much of anything, other than acknowledging the on-going situation and throwing their hands up in the air about it. The second sketch had some good sight gags, especially when Gardner used witchcraft to teleport herself away from the conversation, but a sketch that talks about an important issue solely to say that it’s hard to talk about that important issue will, by its very nature, struggle to make much of an impression.
Something that did make an impression was the musical guest. And it was a good one! Both the guest and the impression that they made. Chris Stapleton’s band was joined by Sturgill Simpson for a couple of modern-day Southern rock jams. Like Simpson, Stapleton rests on the line between the harder edge of country-rock and the sort of riff-happy guitar calisthenics found in Southern rock bands like Skynyrd, Outlaws and Molly Hatchet. SNL has been a little too heavy on the youth-oriented pop lately, so a throwback rocker was a good change of pace.
And hey: that was that. Ferrell was great. The writing was hit-and-miss but more consistently on the good side than any episode in a long time. The show avoided its most tired tropes—no fake game shows, no talk show parodies—and largely stuck to original ideas that sank or swim on their own merits. It’s not easy to produce a live comedy show like SNL, and as we’ve seen over the last couple of years it’s definitely not easy to produce an episode as consistently entertaining as this one.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.