This has been a lackluster season so far for SNL hosts. A stellar season premiere with Seth MacFarlane was followed by an overall downward slope of a season hosted by action movie stars who were, for the most part, a little awkward in sketches: Daniel Craig, Jeremy Renner, Jamie Foxx, and though many disagreed, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Experienced sketch comediennes Anne Hathaway and Christina Applegate gave above average performances, and Louis CK and Bruno Mars proved surprisingly confident, but since MacFarlane we have yet to be blown away by a host's appearance on the show.
That all changed last weekend, when Martin Short returned to the SNL stage to host a triumphant holiday episode. Of course, it helped that Short was once a cast member himself in the 1980s and has appeared on the show a number of times since. The SCTV veteran is perhaps the greatest living sketch comedy actor — he possesses the frenetic joy of a first time performer as well as the cool, smug charm of fellow SNL veterans Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin. He hit his marks with perfect timing, at times reigning in his explosive energy, at others unleashing it to hilarious effect. Short was just the cheery Christmas elf we needed to bookend the first half of season 38 and launch us into 2013 on a happy note.
I will exclude this episode's Silent Night Cold Open from my "hits" and "misses" breakdown. Reminiscent of the famous cold open in the wake of 9/11, the show spent its opening segment with the children of the New York City's Children's Chorus singing "Silent Night," in a tribute to the victims of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary last Friday. I can't really fault SNL for taking this route. It was by far the biggest news story of the week, and any attempt to make light of it in their cold open would probably be deemed in poor taste. (Though I certainly wouldn't have been offended by your Second Amendment historical flashback concept, Josh Kurp.)
Monologue. Like fellow SNL-alum Jimmy Fallon, Martin Short kicked off his gig hosting the Christmas episode with a delightful musical number featuring some great backstage bits and a ton of celebrity cameos. Short hooked us from the beginning with his flamboyant mugging and banter with Paul Schaffer: "How does a man sit on a piano, I wonder?" He then danced around the studio singing a song about holiday horniness while cozying up with the likes of Kristen Wiig, Samuel L. Jackson, Tina Fey, and Lorne Michaels, while almost getting trampled by Lincoln and his llama. And can someone make an animated GIF of Jimmy Fallon and Tom Hanks hugging and jumping up and down together? I could watch that for hours.
Bennett Brothers Christmas. I was surprised the episode's centerpiece sketch would feature the host playing second fiddle to Alec Baldwin's always-great Tony Bennett, but despite a few dull moments the performances and the hilariously worded zingers ("It looked like a curious eel peeking out of two rocks!") carried this sketch. Jay Pharoah made his only appearance of the night as Kanye West, and I enjoyed his impression, even if his autotune-inspired voice undercut some of his jokes. For some reason, NBC and Hulu decided not to post this sketch online… tough luck, people living in this century.
Royal Family Doctor. I suppose enough time has passed since the tragedy surrounding Kate Middleton's hospital staff to do this sketch about a royal family rep (Short) briefing Kate's OBGYN (Bill Hader) on the proper protocol when dealing with her, er-hem, lady parts. The great premise was executed with a strong script (acceptable ways to address the royal genitalia include "Her Downton Abbey" and "Dame Judi Dench") and strong deliveries by Short and Hader, the latter of whom struggled to keep it together in some moments. Fred Armisen's late appearance as his crass Queen Elizabeth II was a bit unnecessary here, but enjoyable nonetheless.
You're a Rat Bastard, Charlie Brown. Another holiday gift came in the form of some favorite stock impersonations from the cast in this promo for a profanity-laced production featuring intense actors as Peanuts characters. Hader (Al Pacino/Charlie Brown) and Short (Larry David/Linus) did the heavy lifting, but I also enjoyed Kate McKinnon's Edie Falco and Jason Sudeikis' Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Weekend Update. Seth Meyers had some fun with jokes about deer popes and baby strippers, but the real highlights of Weekend Update came from the women of the cast. Vanessa Bayer had a hilarious bit as a Jewish teenage boy named Jacob, who awkwardly avoided normal conversation in favor of corny, scripted jokes from his Bar Mitzvah speech: "Don't tell my parents I said that!" Cecily Strong made her third and best appearance this season as the Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started A Conversation With At A Party, lecturing Seth about the "tragesty" of "homeless people who can't pay their mortgages" and showing off some origami, which as we all know is "Spanish for goose."
What Up With That? I don't care what you say. I'll never tire of Kenan Thompson's talk show subverted by crazy musical numbers, especially when we get to learn the name of Jason Sudeikis' dancing tracksuit guy (Vance) and get to hear Samuel L. Jackson drop the F-bomb on live television. Kenan's ad-libbed response was equally awesome: “Come on, Sam! That costs money!” (Jackson tweeted that he only said "fuh" and that Kenan was supposed to cut him off earlier. As if Jackson ever needed to explain his swearing.)
Pageant Auditions. Maybe it's just Paul McCartney, but I might be coming around when it comes to my distaste for musical guests appearing in sketches. Here, McCartney played the quiet, bullied partner of Martin Short's hammy singer in an audition for a holiday pageant. Watching Short scream at and insult McCartney's talents was a fun image, and the music star nailed his few lines: "I was chasing a bird." I always enjoy when SNL breaks out of its sketches with interesting transitions, and say what you want about McCartney's "Wonderful Christmas Time," but there was no better way to end this episode.
Old Friends. Martin Short played a more naturalistic scene alongside Fred Armisen as two old friends who ran into each other in a store. I enjoyed the setup and many of the bizarre details that came out as the two caught up — one works as a James Cameron impersonator, the other pretends to be reluctant patients for EMT training — but with no consistent pattern in the absurdity, the sketch wandered, energy-wise.
Also worth checking out is this video cut after dress rehearsal starring Martin Short with longtime writer Jim Downey and a cameo by Patricia Clarkson as aged stars of a dated TV teen drama Malibu High. While Short's facial expressions and the long, dramatic pauses get a few laughs, it was probably a good idea to cut this one.
As predicted, Paul McCartney was given an extra musical segment, which resulted in fewer sketches. That, combined with so many of the roles in sketches being played by celebrity guests, resulted in an episode that didn't feature too much of its cast. Not that I'm complaining — this was one of the better episodes this season. But I'm hoping the new year will give Tim Robinson some bigger roles than a casual Santa in What Up With That. Martin Short was as hilarious as he ever was and fueled my dream of an entire season of episodes hosted by SNL alums. After a first half of the season plagued by nervous hosts, it was nice to see a professional return to the SNL stage to show them how it's done.
What did you think? Did Martin Short's performance make you miss that legendary 1984-1985 season you possibly weren't yet alive for? Did you miss the rest of the cast this episode? Do you think SNL was playing it too safe with its cold open, or was the children's choir tribute the only appropriate option? Did this episode make up for the weaker episodes from this season? And what do you think we have in store for the second half of Season 38?
Have a great holiday, everybody! I’ll see you in the new year, on January 19, when Jennifer Lawrence will host with musical guest The Lumineers.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs improv on the Harold team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.
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