Welcome to the 36th season of “Saturday Night Live,” ladies and gentlemen. Time for another round of “SNL hasn’t been funny since [whatever timeframe feels applicable]” comments to proliferate through the interwebs. This season premiere finds one old cast member hosting, two former castmates gone, and four new players emerging. Look for a cavalcade of classic Amy Poehler characters to return onscreen. In addition, given the show’s penchant for guest stars and old cast members popping by during the first episode of the season, look for more surprises as well. As if THAT wasn’t enough, fresh off ElmoGate will be musical guest Katy Perry

As is the standing tradition here at HitFix, I’ll be judging each part of the show individually, assigning grades that will be subjective (one person’s Gilly is another person’s Laser Cats, after all) and meant to provoke discussion, not outright anger, in the comments below. Try to keep things civil, or I’ll be forced to ask “What’s Up With That?” in my big boy voice. 

We good? Good. Onto the premiere after the break…

Cold Open: All summer to come up with a funny opening sketch, and…it’s full of masturbation jokes! Tea Party darling Christine O’Donnell got pretty much the same treatment from the show as she’s gotten from The Huffington Post, with jabs at her comments about witchcraft, human/mice genetic splicing, and of course, the pleasures one can enjoy while alone. The only funny part? Claiming her old dog-fighting business was “much better than Michael Vick’s.” By the end of the sketch, O’Donnell soared away on a broom, while my heart sank. [Grade: C-]

Monologue: When it doubt, DREAM SEQUENCE! After slightly botching her “Parks and Recreation” plug (proving that show simply cannot get a break), she briefly introduces the show’s Fresh Meat, then cuts to a “stress dream” that mainly serves as an excuse to serve up Justin Timberlake, Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, and Jimmy Fallon. Only Dratch (“Avenge me!” while being abducted by a polar bear) managed to actually provide some non-obvious laughs. Hoping that Poehler picks up in the sketches, where she’ll be more in her element. [Grade: B-]

Onto Bronx Beat! Nice. Can check that off my personal “Must Have Returning Sketch List.” As per usual, this sketch for the first half is less about the jokes than the chemistry/camaraderie between Poehler and Maya Rudolph, who riff off each other and make the sketch feel as lived-in as ever. Things go up a notch when Katy Perry comes on, allowing the show to address ElmoGate via one hell of a low-cut shirt on Jodi’s former babysitter. These hills have eyes, y’all. “Today’s show brought to you by the numbers 38 and the letters DD!” Yes, indeed, Betty. Very educational, this sketch. Very. Also? At this point, we’re on a pace to have every ex-cast member still alive make an appearance before show’s end. [Grade: A-]

Time for a little faux commercial, this time for Bosley’s Hair Transplants. The gag? Pubic hair as the source! Right about now I’m glad I ate dinner hours ago. Still, short enough to not overstay its welcome, and the visual gags were pretty fun. Too bad I’ll see “Pluck-N-Tuck”s in my dreams tonight. [Grade: B]

Oh goodie, “Maternity Matters,” one of the five least funny recurring sketches in the show’s current rotation. Then again, maybe I’m in the minority, because the audience seems to be eating up Fred Armisen insulting pregnant women while in a fat suit. It’s like the Reese’s Peanut Butter of crappy sketches: it’s essentially one joke told over and over again with women not only being insulted but also too dumb to stop asking him questions. Delish! [Grade: D]

Another faux commercial: Gay weddings at the Mosque at Ground Zero! Brilliant. I think somewhere in America, Newt Gingrich just had to sit down, much like Obi-Wan Kenobi did after Alderaan exploded. (Oops. Spoiler alert.) A much better way to handle an explosive political topic than during the cold open, especially with the sucker punch of the disclaimer (which pegged its source as both the RNC and a good chunk of the DNC), giving everything a darker context. Added bonus: Bill Hader KILLED it as the pitchman. [Grade: A]

Am I the only one disappointed that Katy Perry isn’t performing in the Elmo top? I can’t be. Anyways, it’s “California Gurls.” Your mileage will vary on this song. As far as the performance: well, Perry’s got personality to spare, but little of it exists on the cramped 30 Rock stage. On the plus side, the back-up singers hairdos appear to have come from Bosley’s Hair Transplants. So, there’s that. [Grade: B-]

Weekend Update: The show wasted no time in getting Poehler up on stage for the old “Really?!?” segment. She gets a nice few digs in at the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, noting that in and of itself, the name itself is pretty damn gay already. After that? Jokes about koalas with Chlamydia, which made me inexplicably sad. Next up, the first appearance of newcomer Jay Pharaoh and his dead-on Will Smith impression. (“Aw, damn, I just punched a hurricane!”) Finally, an extended (but expected) bit involving Armisen’s Governor Paterson and the real deal himself. The actual governor did his best Mark Wahlberg: after publicly denouncing content about him on the show, he then went on and exploited the publicity to his own benefit. If you didn’t see his punchline about New Jersey coming a mile away, well, you’re blind. (Ooops, can we still say that now?) [Grade: B]

Know what? There’s a perfectly good, biting sketch waiting to be written about the propensity of Showtime to base each one of their shows around women of similarly grey moral background. Too bad this sketch wasn’t it, relying on one of Poehler’s least funny recurring characters (one-legged Amber) as the basis for “The Lean Years.” Stanley Tucci as the second lead felt like authentic casting, Abby Elliot’s Laura Linney was dead-on, and “Red Shoe Diary” as an alternative title to “The Lean Years” made me giggle. But overall, a miss. Too bad this was Paul Brittain’s sketch debut. [Grade: C]

Digital Short Time! Usually, these are unequivocal highlights week in and week out. But every once in a while, The Lonely Island guys come up with what I call “They Smoked Too Much Stuff This Week” shorts. I literally don’t know what to make of this sketch, other than at least one studio head probably called a meeting for Monday to actually make “Boogerman” happen for real. Segueing from Amber’s fart jokes to this mucus-based humor is just depressing. [Grade: D]

Newbie Vanessa Bayer finally gets some sketch time. Unfortunately, it’s in a weird sketch I’ll call “Tiny Hats in the City.” Another sketch built around one joke taken to the nth degree, but no iteration of it was actually funny. Was that Hader doing Tim Gunn? Do I care to find out? Not really. [Grade: D-]

Katy Perry’s back, singing “Teenage Dream.” Hey, girls in cheerleader outfits! The male band in football gear! The stage covered in dry ice! Yawn. There’s a serious disconnect between Perry’s personality and her music. It’s not as jarring as if, say, Eminem produced smooth jazz records, but it’s weird all the same. If you went by her interviews, you’d think Perry would produce music that sounded like Garbage or The Donnas, or at straight-up pop with something akin to Lily Allen’s lyrical twists. But no. It’s perfectly fine, just nothing that special. [Grade: B-]

I started typing up my notes to “Actor II Actor,” but the Samberg/Timberlake sketch ended before I could even write anything about it. Felt more like a gag for a show promo than something that would actually be part of the show, but I can’t fault the show for trying something different. Not knowing how long a sketch actually will last could lead people to actually engage each sketch on a more active level. Then again, I fear I’ve already thought about this more than the producers of the show. [Grade: I for Incomplete, but also I for Intrigued]

The 12:55 am sketch usually is reserved for off-the-reservation type scenarios, but this one basically gave the cast a chance to flex their impression muscles. It also gave Kenan Thompson and newcomer Taran Killam their first (and only) sketch appearances of the night. It was another one-note joke stretched out over an entire sketch, but the ratio of jokes to actual sketch length was pretty high, and Brigitte Nielsen jokes are generally good times. Also? No sketch involving Hooch as a punch line can get a C in my books. [Grade: B-]

All in all: not a great showcase for one of the show’s most versatile performers. In her prime, SNL would build large chunks of the show to be placed on her shoulders, but she was only primarily featured in four sketches, plus Update. Not every host need be the center of the show he/she is hosting, but we KNOW Poehler can do it. “Summer long hiatus” plus “talented former cast member” as host should have been a slam dunk. Instead, it was at best mildly amusing, and often downright unwatchable. 

Highlight: The Mosque at Ground Zero for Gay Weddings commercial. Biting and brilliant.

The Lowlight: Boogerman. Ugh. Come back, Howard Stern’s Fart Man. We forgive you.


What did you think of the show’s return? What were your personal highlights and lowlights?