Boy, did SNL need a win. The months following September's successful season premiere with Tina Fey saw a mixed bag of lackluster hosts, unmemorable sketches, and distracting media scrutiny. Even Kerry Washington's enjoyable November episode was overshadowed by the show's diversity controversy — Washington's hilarious performance only seemed to underscore SNL's lack of a black woman in the cast (an issue that will apparently be resolved in January). Furthermore, when beloved comedy stars Paul Rudd and John Goodman produced surprisingly disappointing episodes over the past few weeks, and with the coming departure of head writer Seth Meyers, SNL's future was looking grim.
Then came along Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake. To be fair, we can't give the two men all the credit — the regular actors and writers stepped up with delightful performances and clever scripts, which was a true sight for sore eyes for beleaguered fans looking for something to look forward to in 2014. However, the success of this episode was less about the fundamentals than it was the intangibles, namely, the jolt of energy provided by Fallon and Timberlake, whose on-stage chemistry on SNL and Late Night has been a bottomless well of comedy for viewers for years now. With NBC's late night lineup undergoing major upheavals, from the Tonight Show to Late Night to SNL, Jimmy Fallon (with his second half) is one of the network's few sure bets.
While Fallon's return to SNL fell slightly short of his Christmas episode two years ago, it was nonetheless a resounding win in a season that has seen alarmingly few of them.
Cold Open: Wrappinville V. With Justin Timberlake in the building, it came as no surprise when his most popular recurring bit made a comeback, so why not get it out of the way at the top? Here, Timberlake paired up with Jimmy Fallon as musical street peddlers dressed up in wrapping paper costumes, singing pun-lined renditions of "Rollout," "It's Tricky," and "Somebody That I Used To Know," with Aidy Bryant filling in neatly in the Parnell/Forte sad-sack role: "I've been divorced for seven years, so I haven't sacked a deck in a long time!" With the studio audience going so wild (a little too wild… looking at you, random crazy woman), it's admittedly difficult to give this sketch a fair review from a comedy standpoint. Indeed, its later reprisals have seemed a little pander-y. But it cannot be denied that the performance kickstarted the night with a wave of energy that Fallon and co. rode for the whole 90 minutes.
Monologue. Jimmy Fallon essentially recreated his SNL audition by singing carols as his excellent vocal impressions of David Bowie, Bob Dylan, and Paul McCartney — the actual version of whom strolled out on stage and joined Fallon in a duet of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Fallon's impression skills made the bit one of the more enjoyable monologues from the season thus far.
Family Feud. Jimmy Fallon led the cast in this impression-packed celebrity edition of Family Feud (led by Kenan Thompson's Steve Harvey, who is actually much funnier in small doses), featuring the stars of CBS — Jim Parsons (Fallon), Ashton Kutcher (Taran Killam), Jon Cryer (John Milhiser), and Alyson Hannigan (Noel Wells) — versus the stars of NBC — Jimmy Fallon (Justin Timberlake), Jane Lynch (Kate McKinnon), Ice-T (Jay Pharoah), and Brooks Wheelan (himself). Other than a throwaway joke about the NBC team playing for the charity of their own network, the CBS-NBC rivalry element just seemed like a convenient excuse for whatever impressions the cast members had in their bags of tricks. That said, the impressions were actually quite entertaining, and the sketch was worth it to see Timberlake roast Fallon to his face via mimicry… and to see Fallon break.
Twin Bed. The finest sketch of the night was this music video featuring the ladies of the cast addressing the challenge of trying to hook up over the holidays in their childhood bedrooms: "Let's get wild in a bed for a child!" It's rare that an SNL blows out a game so effectively as they did here, with abundant detail — the cat watching, the uncle nearby on the trundle bed, the wall posters of Mario Lopez, Leonardo DiCaprio, and JTT. And to top it off, each female cast member included an awkward picture of younger self — kudos to Aidy Bryant for having the balls to put that fabulous jean overalls glamour shot on national television. Sketch of the Night.
Barry Gibb Talk Show VI. Despite its popularity, I was surprised to see the Barry Gibb Talk Show make a return given the real-life Robin Gibb's death in May 2012. Thankfully, SNL decided to immortalize the bit here (thanks, presumably, to the blessing of the real-life Barry Gibb, who made a cameo at the end of the sketch). There is always a lot of funny things going on in these sketches (written by Steve Higgins), from the silly notion of the Gibb brothers talking in the staccato falsetto of their singing voices, to the more interesting prospect of Barry Gibb taking politics, and his talk show, way too seriously. And Fallon delivered as usual, screaming at the guests — including a line-flubbing Madonna who nearly derailed the whole sketch — and launching into bizarre sung threats: "A selfie with your skeleton! Skeleton selfie!"
Weekend Update. A sufficiently warmed up crowd made for a strong news segment, with an especially hilarious run of jokes in the middle. Kate McKinnon stopped by as tennis champion Billie Jean King, who hilariously reveled in being asked by President Obama to represent American tolerance at the Winter Olympics in homophobic Russia: "I'm gonna drive my Subaru Outback into Red Square and do donuts while blasting Melissa Etheridge!" Jimmy Fallon and outgoing NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg closed out the segment to discuss their thoughts on passing the torch, and it was Bloomberg who stole the scene when it came to one-liners: "I'll be fulfilling a lifelong dream of sipping a small soda on a non-smoking beach."
Waking Up with Kimye II. Right as the night was going so well, the episode strangely settled into typical-SNL routine after Update, featuring this return of this Kanye West / Kim Kardashian talk show sketch, with Jimmy Fallon oddly nowhere to be found. I still enjoy the concept of West trying to convince us that Kardashian is an artist of any kind, evidenced in the amusing exchange about her gingerbread nightclub: "Ya'll looking at the Armenian Frank Gehry!" "I wanna eat the roof!" But this version focused too much on Pharoah's impression of West, and the "Bound 2" parody felt pretty dated after a month (and a pretty immediate parody by James Franco and Seth Rogen).
Now That's What I Call Christmas. In a night already heavy on impressions (and actual stars), we didn't need another game-less excuse for Jimmy Fallon to show off his impersonation skills (he did four here: Michael Buble, Alan Rickman, Harry Styles, and Pitbull). Bobby Moynihan's Andrea Bocelli was a highlight, however.
Scrooge. I appreciated this twist-on-classic-tale setup — Ebenezer Scrooge (Taran Killam) looks back on his younger self (Jimmy Fallon), interpreting his refusal of women as a fixation on money, while remaining oblivious to the real reason: he's gay. But despite the clever concept, the execution could have been a little more careful about avoiding gay stereotypes — namely, Fallon's prancing around, throwing glitter and proclaiming "We're creating magic!" The sketch seemed to go over fine, and few have complained about its tone, but SNL seems a little too OK with making the kind of jokes (see also, Ben Affleck's summer camp sketch from last season) that probably won't be OK in a few years.
Baby, It's Cold Outside. The episode ended in a perfect nightcap featuring Jimmy Fallon and Cecily Strong in a duet of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" — a song whose rapey undertones have now been widely acknowledged across the Internet — just to turn the song on its head, with Fallon trying to give the boot to a post-sex clingy Strong: "I have an early thing tomorrow…" "Got a toothbrush I could borrow?" The lyrics were cleverly worded and the performances by Fallon and Strong were hilarious. Exactly the funny/sweet note to send viewers out on for a holiday episode.
- Best: Twin Bed, Baby, It's Cold Outside; Worst: Now That's What I Call Christmas; Worth It For the Jokes: Barry Gibb Talk Show, Weekend Update.
- Cecily Strong topped the screen time leader board this week, with her big roles coinciding with the night's brighter moments: Twin Bed, Weekend Update, and Baby It's Cold Outside. Meanwhile, Mike O'Brien came in last, with his only appearance being an uncomfortable boyfriend in Twin Bed.
- This episode gave SNL its highest ratings since January 2012, when Charles Barkley hosted an episode that got a boost from a late-running NFL playoff game. Those numbers excluded, this was the most-watched episode since May 2011, in a night hosted by… that's right, Justin Timberlake (and musical guest Lady Gaga).
- Kate McKinnon had a fun throwaway joke as Jane Lynch during Family Feud, as a way to be sexier: "Put on a smart overcoat." While we're at it, Kenan Thompson had some solid lines as Steve Harvey, mentioning that he was paid "two fedoras a day," and bragging: "I've almost reached my goal of being mute on every TV in America!"
- Some of Fallon's better lines got lost in his furious rants as Barry Gibb: "My baby ate a dingo!"
- Chris Rock appeared on stage during the goodbyes (and was thanked by Jimmy Fallon), despite not appearing in any sketch this week. Not sure if he was planning to appear in a sketch that got cut last minute, or if he was just hanging out backstage. Any readers out there happen to see the dress rehearsal show?
- I seem to be a bit out of step with my fellow online critics this week, many of whom were largely unimpressed with this episode. Perhaps they couldn't help but compare it to Jimmy Fallon's 2011 episode — which, if I remember correctly, wasn't that much better than this one was — and I can understand their annoyance at the number of pointless cameos and self-serving reprisals (Wrappinville, Barry Gibb, etc.). But to give this episode the second-lowest grade of the season (as AV Club did) just seems crazy to me. I can't be alone here.
I'll see you on January 18, 2014, when Drake will be host and musical guest.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs on the house team Wheelhouse at the iO West Theater.