Any time “Saturday Night Live” airs for three consecutive weeks, you can often see a downturn in the overall quality of the show. It’s a fairly insane schedule to maintain even for one week, never mind two. But when “SNL” goes back-to-back-to-back, well, it’s time to hold onto your seats. Then again, perhaps Ben Stiller, returning to the show for hosting duties for the first time since 1988, will use his manic energy to keep things on an even keel this week. He’s here to promote “Tower Heist,” or as I’ve been calling it, “Another 48 Towering Fockers.” Along for the ride are Foster the People, a band so ubiquitous on the radio right now that it’s only a matter of time before they become a punch line for a terrible joke over on “2 Broke Girls.”

Deep breaths, everyone. We can get through this together. Onto the recap!

 

Mitt Romney Press Conference: Poor Mitt can’t catch a break these days…except every break possible to lead him to a default Republican nomination for President. This cold open reflects the disappointment for many Republicans that New Jersey governor Chris Christie will forgo the next election, leaving “Buttered Bread” Romney as the most likely candidate to oppose President Obama. Eventually Christie himself comes in, played by Bobby Moynihan, and wins over the adoring masses instantly. Moynihan’s a perfect choice for Christie: it’s a self-selecting decision in some ways, casting-wise, but one that also plays to his skill set. This is fairly specific topic for the cold open: I figured either Palin or Jobs might have been at the center of this one. Still, a solid start all the same. [Grade: B]

Monologue: Stiller’s still woozy from Yom Kippur, leaving him famished for the monologue. “Jewish Willa Wonka” comes on and brings him into a magical world full of Jewish food. What could be a one-note joke is saved by EXTREMELY clever lyrics set to “Pure Imagination” coupled with Wonka charging Stiller $43 for a deli sandwich. Short, sweet, and probably as close to erotica as possible for my Jewish friends that just finished fasting. [Grade: A-]

“Lincoln Financial”: I…uh….what the…so, um, that happened. Let’s never discuss this again. Agreed? Agreed. [Grade: WTF]

“Fox and Friends”: Really, this is three sketches for the price of one. The first segment focuses on the hypocrisy of praising The Tea Party yet condemning those currently occupying Wall St. The second parodies the recent dust-up when Hank Williams Jr. decided it was a good idea to compare Obama to Hitler. The third segment lasts about four seconds, but it was probably my favorite: a laundry list of things “Fox and Friends” got wrong during their show. Highlights included “Mary Magdalene was not eaten by a dinosaur” and  “Whole Foods does not provide free abortions.” No strong through line here, but the individual parts still worked well. [Grade: B+]

“Lincoln Financial”: OH NO IT’S BACK. This is like a horrible cosmic joke. I’m being Punk’d by “SNL” at this point. But at least only 10% of this iteration featured someone trying to get it on with an earlier version of himself. So, yay? [Grade: OMG]

“The Best of Both Worlds”: I loved this sketch when it first premiered, and this one takes things up a few notches. Stiller’s Mandy Patinkin doesn’t really register, but Bill Hader’s Clint Eastwood impression is dead-on, and Hugh Jackman himself comes on at the end as Daniel Radcliffe. Things get even better when Andy Samberg’s version of Jackman confesses to all sorts of unnatural enhancements to earn his physique. (“Interesting fact about me: I was born a woman!”) This is a perfect example of how to take a premise and escalate it with each new added element. Great stuff. Everything non-Lincoln Financial has been solid so far tonight. And by saying that I’ve probably just cursed the show. [Grade: A-]

 

“V-Neck Battle”: I wondered if the show would insert a “Zoolander” homage at some point, and lo, here it is. Having a “V Off” between Samberg and Stiller was a lot of fun, although there weren’t really enough versions to really make it as explosively funny as possible. It ended in the logical spot (with Stiller arrested for lewd exposure), but given the creativity behind the scenes at this show, surely there were 5-6 additional shirts that could have been thrown into the mix as well. Fine, but slight. [Grade: B-]

It’s Foster the People time. In some ways, they look and sound like the musical equivalent of the show “Entourage”, but lord in heaven, “Pumped Up Kicks” is a catchy damn song. It’s odd to hear the vocal so far up in the mix, since its muddled production is half of what makes the song so addictive. (I’ve listened to it 100+ times and never got as many lyrics as I have during this performance.) The lead singer’s dancing is so dorky that it’s almost cool. Almost. A year from now, we may look back and wonder how the hell this song got on every station on the dial. But for now? I still dig it. [Grade: A-]

Weekend Update: Seth Meyers’ first guest is event planner Nan Washington, played by Kristen Wiig in her first appearance since the cold open. Apparently, she planned on grinding the entire show to a halt with a filibuster about pancake parties. (See what I did there?) But that was just a warm-up for your favorite and mine, Stefon! I am so happy, I just want to stop recapping and go to New York’s hottest haunted synagogue. And remember my mention of “Zoolander” before? Scratch that: here’s the real deal, and he has a new look to unveil: “Cold Coffee.” It’s certainly fun to see Zoolander again, but it’s also pretty amazing to see how much further Hader has taken the premise and run with it into the weirdest places possible. This wasn’t chocolate and peanut butter so much as oil and oddly wrinkly water. [Grade: B]

Shanna Halloween Party: Sigh. We’ve somehow hit a time in history in which Wiig’s recurring characters are more often annoying me instead of delighting me. I got the point of Shanna about halfway through the first time she appeared, and that was what feels like forty versions ago. And it’s not just me that seemingly feels this way: you could hear crickets throughout most of this sketch. And since I have nothing else really to say about this sketch, is now the time where I mention that Ben Stiller has contributed almost nothing to this show outside of the digital short? He’s a talented performer, but unlike last week’s show, this week’s sketches are not built around the guest host. He’s mostly played second fiddle to the repertory players. For a weak host, that might be fine. But Stiller’s far from that, so it’s been a curious trend to say the least. [Grade: D+]

 

Lincoln Financial: ACK! MY EYES! IT’S EVIL! MAKE IT STOP! [Grade: SOS]

Columbus Day Assblast: I have a soft spot for these segments, which are just an excuse to unload a pile of disparate ideas into a two-minute promo for a horrible music festival. That said, I’d be anxious to scour the internet for MP3s by The Lesbian Forest and Crucifying Kudrow. We also got our single sighting of Jar Pharaoh so far as “MC George Castanza”, helping to raise money for the festival’s charity “Dirt for Native Americans.” If you laugh at half of these jokes, then it’s a net win. Me? I was well over that target, but I’m also an easy target for this premise. [Grade: B]

“Bruce Springsteen: Just The Stories”: This feels like a sketch that never aired on “The Ben Stiller Show” more than anything else. But I LOVED “The Ben Stiller Show,” so there’s plenty of nostalgia going on in my living room right now. It’s not an original premise by any means, but at least Stiller seems like he’s having fun for perhaps the first time all night. Much like the digital short, a few more examples of the premise could have propelled this from “good” to “great.” But what we got was still solid. [Grade: B]

Foster the People bless us with their presence again, this time with “Houdini.” Interesting choice, since “Helena Beat” is their new single and “Don’t Stop” is in plenty of commercials right now. “Houdini” isn’t a bad song, but the addition of horns and backup singers makes it feel like the group wants people to know they are MUSICIANS and not just studio-savvy hipsters. But when all hope of an exciting performance seems lost, we get triple percussion action PLUS Kenny G! And now I’m pretty sure I did a buncha drugs during the commercial break. What is going on? I think I like it, but I don’t trust myself at this point. [Grade: B]

“Tinyballs”: Taran Killam’s Brad Pitt impression is SPOT ON. Wow. Too bad the rest of this parody of “Moneyball” doesn’t match that impression. Having a steroids-fueled version of the current Hollywood hit would be fine, if it didn’t emphasize a theme running through most of this show: this has been one of the least topical “SNL” episodes ever. Outside of the first two sketches, nearly everything tonight could have been covered a decade ago. Not every sketch need be a time capsule of a specific moment in time, but most sketches shouldn’t evoke the late 90’s, either. [Grade: B-]

 

Best Sketch: “The Best of Both Worlds”

Worst Sketch: The Lincoln Financial Triumvirate of Doom

Show MVP: Bill Hader, for his one-two punch of Clint Eastwood and Stefon

 

What did you think of tonight’s show? Was third time the charm, or should “SNL” stop producing anything more than back-to-back episodes? Did Ben Stiller seem uneasy in the live format, or did the material just underutilize him? Sound off below!