First off: a big thanks to Myles McNutt for taking over the recap of a fairly entertaining Daniel Radcliffe-hosted “Saturday Night Live” last month. As such, it’s felt like an extremely long time since last I covered the show here at HitFix. Hopefully that means that I’m as well-rested as the cast/crew of the show is after an extended hiatus. Up tonight: Channing Tatum, a name I will type out as “Carol Channing” at least once tonight. Tatum’s not exactly known for his comedic chops. Or, um, acting chops, if one gets right down to brass tacks. But he’s here to pimp one or more of the approximately 438 movies that he’s inthis year. Along for the ride on the musical front: indie darlings Bon Iver. (I looked it up: apparently “Bon Iver” is NOT a name of a dude in the band. Can you tell I have a lot of history with this band? Yeah.)
 
Anyways, we’re back to the usual shenanigans here tonight: I’ll watch each sketch and grade it as it happens. This week, I’ll single out sketches that would have been improved had recently departed cast member Paul Brittain still remained on the show. Was it something I said, Paul? I loved Lord Wyndemere. Now I’ll never hear him ask for sweets again. 2012 already stinks as a year.
 
Anyways, onto the recap!
 
Newt Gingrich, Moon President: It’s 2014, and Gingrich has taken over the moon in response to Obama turning full socialist in his second term. Unfortunately, Bobby Moynihan’s impression of Newt really isn’t an impression at all. Which would be fine, if his take had something specific. But it’s as bland as can be, which is strange. Moynihan is usually the antithesis of bland when he takes center stage. As such, the sketch is about a crazy comment rather than anything specific about Gingrich’s demeanor. (It plays like someone reading about Gingrich on Wikipedia and playing him in a sketch based only on the information therein.) Jason Sudeikis’ Mitt Romney at least has a specific, albeit obvious, take on that candidate. But a LOT of work will have to be done to get Gingrich into fighting shape on the show. Some of the moon-centric gags were amusing, and the phrase “And may divorce be with you!” as a slogan was pretty great. But overall? A pretty mediocre start. [Grade: C+]
 
Monologue: Hey, it’s WWE Superstar, John Cena! Oh wait, nope. That’s Tatum. He knows how to butter up the crowd, instantly leading with his past as a male stripper. He picks out various women in the crowd for whom he has given a lapdance in the past. And then, just because he can, Tatum starts in on a routine onstage, complete with ripping off his shirt. So, we know he’s a good-looking man. I think we knew that before the monologue started. He certainly seems game. But I’d be game to take off my shirt on television if I had abs like that. Which like, I TOTALLY DO. I am just humble about it. [Grade: B-]
 
It’s Getting Freaky with Cee Lo Green: Or, as I call it, “What’s Up With That? Lite”. Tatum appears as Matthew McConaughey, and props to him, it’s a pretty stellar impression. It’s mostly an impression of McConaughey in “Dazed and Confused,” but that’s just fine. After his appearance, a lesbian couple come on to discuss their sexual problems to Brown, which prompts Colonel Nasty to come to the stage to give some advice. Did Colonel Nasty have rainbow-colored facial hair last time? Because it’s awesome. (Unlike Nasty’s actual advice, which was pretty lame.) And since we haven’t seen enough of Tatum’s chest yet, he returns wearing only bongos over his…um, bongos. He’s gonna be topless in every sketch, isn’t it? The best part of this sketch? Jay Pharoah’s crazy lip quiver each time the horn section played. It looked as if he was fearful of not pleasing his overlord. [Grade: B-]
 
Downton Abbey on Spike: Well, “SNL” pulled up from an early nosedive with this one. If you don’t watch “Downton Abbey,” you probably didn’t get a single joke. Also, you’re a horrible human being for not watching “Downton Abbey.” But if you do watch it, and enjoy it, you probably found a lot to love about this bro-centric trailer for the show. Describing the three daughters as “Hot,” “Way Hot,” and “The Other One” is cruel, yet probably the way most people WOULD actually describe them. I’ve never thought of the Dowager Countess as “Chicken Lady” before tonight. Now? I won’t be able to NOT think about it. And yes, every scene in “Downton” features eavesdropping and or a guy who’s other car is actually a bike. Great show, and a brilliant parody of it. Had it started stronger, it would have been perfect. As such? Still incredible. [Grade: A-]
 
NBC NFL Promo: The crew tries to record a promo in which they attempt to interact in a casual manner. Spoiler alert: they can’t act natural. Isn’t that just WACKY? In some ways, it’s the sister of that sketch in which four guys share increasingly awful stories in between the chorus of a 1970’s rock song. Unfortunately, the “everyone lifts up their head slowly in creepy unison” joke was only funny the first of the 941 times they did in it the sketch. (This number, like the earlier assessment of total Tatum movies coming out in 2012, is a slight approximation.) Tatum wears a suit in this sketch, and therefore I did not realize he was actually in it until the final few seconds. [Grade: D+]
 
Secret Word: OH NO. This sketch. With extra poop jokes! And an extraterrestrial bent! Weirdly enough, the sci-fi aspect actually gives the sketch a bit more focus, as the words given to Tatum’s alien-infected astronaut actually relate to his predicament. I realize arguing for character-based humor in a game show sketch is ridiculous, but it’s infinitely better than watching Wiig’s character do the same thing in every…single…version of this sketch. When I die, and go to hell, and I need to have a cavity filled, “Secret Word” will be playing in the Dentist’s Office For The Damned. [Grade: C-]
 
Bon Iver comes on to play “Holocene.” It has a gorgeous guitar line, but I’ll admit that I can’t make out more than every fifth word lead singer Justin Vernor is saying. He’s like Mumble Bane for the Coachella set. I’m a big fan of musical collectives that contribute to a layered sound, whether it be Arcade Fire or the E Street Band, so I dig the textures of this track. But I’ll admit the vocals are putting me slightly off, both from my lack of understanding but also the falsettos put forth. It’s gorgeous, but distancing all the same. Appreciating a song is fine. Letting it envelope you is preferable. [Grade: B]
 
Weekend Update: Guy Fieri appears to help suggest some Super Bowl snacks, which include a square yard of butter and a gaggle of hot dogs encased by an UGG boot. The NYC/New England Multi-Layer dip sounds more promising, if only for the two lobsters that do NOT like each other. After her disastrous performance last month on “SNL,” Lana Del Ray (Wiig) returns to talk about the backlash. Hey, why not? The real Del Ray’s performance garnered so much attention that “SNL” would be foolish not to attempt to get every outlet to write about the debacle once again. It also feeds into the show’s extremely thin-skinned nature towards any internet criticism of the show (or, indeed, internet criticism in general) this year. I can’t tell if the show is making a stand or just can’t stand dudes online that brag about having Tatum’s abs. [Grade: B]
 
Rebecca’s Bat Mitzvah: It’s another one of Nasim Pedrad’s extra earnest teens. But throw in Tatum’s excellent dance skills and Abby Elliot’s skanky older sister teaching them both some inappropriate moves, and you had a nice variation on Pedrad’s go-to character type. Pedrad’s asexual, awkward teens are always specific and well-drawn. But it’s great to see her tap into some more manic energy as well. Not a lot to this sketch, but it was well-executed and didn’t overstay it’s welcome. [Grade: B+]
 
Tom Brady in Ruby Tuesday: The premise: Bobby’s Moynihan’s female “flesh cube” hits on the Patriots’ QB the night before the Super Bowl. This is what I was talking about earlier in terms of Moynihan’s energy when playing ANYTHING but Gingrich. He carries the entire sketch while Tatum sleepwalks through his part. (I’m guessing this sketch was massively rewritten at the last moment, given that the pair blatantly looks at cue cards the entire time.) Brady can’t resist the flesh cube, but to be fair, who needs a supermodel when you can sleep with the creator of “Sham Whats?” The entire sketch pandered to the New York Giants’ crowd, which made the Patriots fan writing this recap extremely pleased. [Grade: F-] Kidding. [Grade: B]
 
Go-Tech Flex (With Thumbpulse): I’ll say this for Tatum: he plays a fun him-bo. That makes this fairly tame workout parody fairly enjoyable. It’s hard to make a parody of a product that’s funnier than the actual Shake Weight commercial. So this is all about Tatum’s energetic selling of this Rube Goldberg-esque machine. He’s energetic. He’s cheesy. He gives honeycomb to his assistant. He’ll give you a pair of his short shorts if you order now. Making the sketch about him, not the machine, was a smart move. Granted, it’s easier to make him look strong in a pre-produced segment. But when the writing has been good for him tonight, he’s been a game host in the live sketches as well.  [Grade: B]
 
Whoa, it’s getting all sorts of Kenny G sexy in here, as Bon Iver returns with “Beth/Rest”. Somewhere right now in the world, Michael McDonald is annoyed he didn’t right this song first. The synth-based track feels like a lost track from the heyday of 80’s soul, and stands in fairly stark contrast musically from the first number tonight. Unfortunately, my problems with the vocals still remain, which will undoubtedly anger any Bon Iver fans reading this recap. Oh well. Luckily HitFix employs music critics who actually know what they are talking about. Don’t punish them for my ignorance. [Grade: B-]
 
Bongo’s Clown Room: It’s Ladies Night, hosted by Jason Sudeikis’ smarmy DJ. I know he’s played this character before, in another sketch that also featured his last performance in a certain skeezy club. I love how Sudeikis lets certain jokes just sit there, the way that Norm Macdonald would during his “Weekend Update” days. There’s absolutely no progression to the sketch at all: it’s just this DJ delivering non-sequiturs for what feels like forty minutes. Occasionally, a midget in an Indian outfit comes out to bounce on Taran Killam’s stomach to break up the monotony. Or I just hallucinated that. It’s the last sketch of the night. It’s possible. I enjoy the energy Sudeikis brings to this character, but there’s no way any sketch should be as long as this. This was the “Rapper’s Delight” of single-joke sketches. [Grade: C]
 
Best Sketch: “Downton Abbey on Spike”
 
Worst Sketch: “NBC NFL Promo”
 
Biggest Surprise: I won’t go with “Tatum as a solid host,” since I gave that about a 50/50 shot going into the night. I think I’ll go with the incredible amount of Bobby Moynihan, who seemingly had more air time than most of the cast combined.
 
Better Living Through Brittain: Sketches that could have used some Paul Brittain? The cold open, the Cee Lo sketch, and “Bongo’s Clown Room”. Otherwise, there would have been no room for him. Hell, there was barely any room for the cast still remaining.
 
Conspiracy Theory: Bobby Moynihan played a woman who seduced Tom Brady due to the actor sharing a similarly sounding last name with Brady’s ex, Bridget Moynahan. The Patriots have not won a Super Bowl since they broke up. As Bill Simmons would say, I will now light myself on fire.
 
What did you think of Channing Tatum’s performance? Did he exceed expectations or underwhelm you? Did you miss Paul Brittain, or forget him entirely? Is Moynihan’s Gingrich working for you? Sound off below!