In a season that has been fairly low on high-profile hosts and musical guests, “Saturday Night Live”  decided to kick off April with quite the combination. Tina Fey is a former cast member (great for drawing in jaded fans who insist that “SNL” has gone downhill), the star of a “hip” television show (NBC’s own “30 Rock,” so bonus points for network synergy), and currently starring in a hit movie (“Date Night,” which will open strong at the box office this weekend according to early estimates). Combine with the fact that she intends on bringing her Sarah Palin impression (which brought huge ratings in the leadup to the 2008 election) out of retirement, and the fact that Fey is actually very funny and likeable, and you have a host that manages to be good for NBC’s bottom line while being great for the show as well. 

Of course, NBC had to go and ruin it all by bringing in some teenage singer no one’s ever heard of to be the musical guest; has anyone even heard of “Justin Bieber?” I mean, it’s not like he’s been consistently trending on Twitter for what seems like years or anything, right? And I’m sure he doesn’t currently have the #1 album in the country - that just seems crazy. If he was that successful, though, he’d be quite the coup for the show, and they’d truly have a hit episode on their hands. 

And by hit episode, I mean one of the most humorously incongruous pairings in the show’s history, which is at least good for a laugh. 

[A recap of the Tina Fey-Justin Bieber "Saturday Night Live" showdown after the break...]

The idea of opening with an unfunny census gag with Fred Armisen’s habitually weak Obama impression on a show where Tina Fey is involved is a terrible idea. It might have been fine if the jokes were actually funny, but none of them (and I do mean none of them were). Some were just bizarre (like the one about incest), others were stale (the Health Care reform jokes, for example), and others were not even jokes (the ATM pin number, for one). I would have thought they would have realized by now that Armisen’s Obama isn’t funny on its own: if the material is fine, or if he’s playing off of someone else, it isn’t so bad, but this was painful in a way that the show should know to avoid by now. [Grade: D] 

Tina Fey’s monologue is our first chance to see the real star of the show tonight, and I’m disappointed they didn’t just let her be funny: parading out Steve Martin and Justin Bieber for support is fine, sure, and I’m guessing they wanted to give the tweens staying up past their bedtime one shot of Bieber before the stroke of midnight, but Fey is at her best when she’s just being funny. And here she has two separate Justin Bieber jokes before his appearance, and outside of a rather clever nanny bait-and-switch (where we learn that Fey and her daughter both have nannies) the whole “I’m Every Woman” bit just fell flat. Perhaps New York Jets fans think otherwise with Mark Sanchez’s appearance, but I’d have much rather preferred Jeff Richmond making an actual cameo, so I don’t think it was aimed at me. [Grade: C] 

At this stage in the year, I’m content when “SNL” just goes for something, even if it’s not entirely successful. So while the actual voiceover in the “Duncan Hines’ Brownie Husband” commercial isn’t quite as funny as they think it is, Tina Fey making out with a giant brownie man delivered as one would expect. Fey is completely willing to go over the top with something like this, and so I can only imagine that the editors got the footage from the shoot and got lazy with the script edits. It wasn’t complex, and it was certainly a little disturbing, but that’s better than boring. [Grade: B+] 

Sometimes I criticize “SNL”  for doing some fairly generic sketches, but then there’s topical sketches like their take on the Tiger Woods situation and you realize that there’s a risk involved. In this case, their material wasn’t actually funny: the script didn’t give Tina Fey anything particularly funny as the Callgirl Correspondent, and most of the jokes were about golf or sports in general instead of about Tiger Woods. And when they did do a direct parody of the Nike ad featuring Woods’ father’s words being used out of context, they played it safe with a “truth is funny” approach that felt like a missed opportunity. It’s one thing when they don’t talk about anything relevant, and it’s another when they attempt to use relevancy to elevate otherwise weak material. There was some fun stuff here on the periphery, like Jim Nantz (who recently went through a nasty divorce) checking out Fey’s character, but none of it made me laugh, and I think that’s the point here. [Grade: C-] 

It was inevitable that Fey would be bringing back her Sarah Palin impression, but this is an example of an impression that was often funnier than the material, which was more topical than it was necessarily that funny. Conveniently, I thought that Seth Meyers (who wrote the piece, according to Fey) did quite a nice job with this one: the jokes were more or less just a list of funny things for Tina Fey to say, but I thought that quite a few (like “Hey Journalist, I gotcha!” and “Todd!”) managed to be quite funny in their own right, and the basic idea of a Sarah Palin network worked pretty well even if Tea Party Wheel of Fortune and Elites were a little bit lazy. Sure, there was more potential in throwing Palin into a more complex political situation, but Fey has never really done the impression in that context, and this allowed for her to go the impression while basically just reading a teleprompter. It wasn’t all that novel, but the Jay Leno joke was enough to make this worthwhile. [Grade: B] 

And when we reach that point in the show when things are effectively turned over to Justin Bieber, and do you know what? I’m okay with that. Tina Fey’s “Hot for Student” sketch wasn’t precisely the most subtle sketch in the world, and the Fey side of things was a bit forced, but doing the sketch live as opposed to taped made Bieber’s performance that much more impressive. He isn’t much of an actor, relying mainly on mumbling and shrugging, but he can sing, and the sketch took full advatange of this fact. “Lonely Lady with the Big Brown Eyes” and the subsequent songs featured lines about Filene’s and Spanx, and at one point Fey referred to Bieber as a “dreamy Christmas Elf,” so even when the sketch overstayed its welcome and didn’t quite stick the landing there was plenty that was fairly memorable. I’m not exactly a Bieber fan, but this sketch used his talent to its advantage, and Fey was along for the ride. [Grade: B+] 

I thought Weekend Update was actually pretty weak in terms of the actual jokes, with none of them really registering as anything close to memorable. However, there were three separate “guests,”  which made this a packed Update nonetheless. I think my favourite was actually probably Jason Sudeikis as Satan discussing the Catholic Church’s response to molestation charges. It was really straight forward, but it was a clever approach to the bit, and Sudeikis totally committed ot the bit and it showed. By comparison, Tina Fey’s “Women’s News” segment was fine but it felt like it was treading on ground that the internet has sort of beaten down over the past few weeks. It’s not that it’s no longer relevant, per se, but it’s basic Bombshell McGee-bashing with a side of Tiki Barber gossip. And as for Kristen Wiig’s Aunt Linda, I’m not going to lie: I was glad that this episode was light on Kristen Wiig, who Fey seems to have replaced, but that this was her only major apperance was just not fair. Aunt Linda is unfunny and unfortunate, and this bit is only getting less funny as time goes on.  It averages out to a decent Update, I guess. [Grade: B-] 

Sometimes I wonder just how certain sketches manage to get through Dress Rehearsal, which is an interesting question for Al Roker’s Ruff, Rugged and Roker. The sketch is a single joke, the idea that Roker films his Today Show weather reports while at an all-night party, and while Thompson has a lot of fun with the switch from affable and bumbling Roker to the booze-loving Roker, the rest of the sketch is painfully unfunny. They failed to actually build a sketch around that transition, throwing in some random gossip magnets (Lindsay Lohan’s mother, Kim Kardashian) for no reason than to fill time. It’s lazy, it’s unfunny, and I don’t understnd how there was nothing better to possibly fill that slot. [Grade: D] 

One of my “SNL” pet peeves is sketches where the host plays a role that the host doesn’t need to play. For example, the mother in the High School Dance sketch was entirely irrelevant, so having Fey take the time to play the role adds nothing to the sketch at all, and just makes me sad she’s being wasted. I’m not suggesting that supporting players like Pedrad don’t deserve a chance to take a starring role, but the Mother needed at least a bit more material to try to bring the sketch to life in some way. It all just felt a little bit limp, and by the time the sketch was predictably Biebered it had run out of steam. [Grade: C] 

As for that final sketch, I honestly don’t know where to begin: the idea of a 9-inch tall prostitute isn’t funny, the execution of a 9-inch prostitute wasn’t funny, and the choice to use special effects and take the audience out of the equation led to no audience response and thus an incredibly awkward and bizarre sketch. If I was surprised Roker passed dress rehearsal, I’m shocked this got past whoever wrote the darn thing. [Grade: D-] 

And yes, that brings us to the big question of the night: Justin Bieber’s musical performances were not the highlight of the night for those who have gone through puberty, but I thought he performed pretty well, and the backup vocals were fairly absent during the verses which demonstrated his ability to actually sing live. “Baby” was a pretty strong performance overall, as it played into the elaborate setup with backup singers and backup dancers and backup DJs, but “U Smile” was a complete and total mess. Bieber’s vocal was fine for what it is, but the song is closer to a ballad than anything else, and the backup dancers never stopped moving for the entire performance. I don’t know if they double as some sort of security should fans rush the stage or something, but they served no purpose but to serve as an enormous distraction in what was perhaps the most overchoreographed performance I’ve seen in my entire life. Surely Bieber’s management knew that he would be reaching some audiences outside of his usual target group with these performances, so cutting out the hideously lame dance moves from the backup routine seems like it would have been an intelligent idea to avoid the inevitable mockery. 

This wasn’t, as noted, a particularly congruous episode of “SNL”: Bieber and Fey are not a logical pair, and when the teenager tried to put his arm around Fey in the episode ending sendoff it was one of the most wondrously awkward moments I’ve seen on the show in a long time. But while laughing at just that would have been unsatisfying, the combination made for one pretty engaging sketch, and Fey remains a good host for the show when she gets the right material. Things were a bit uneven outside of that this week, but I’d say Fey and Bieber lived up to their end of the bargain. 

 

Other Thoughts 

*** I nearly increased the grade for the monologue based entirely on Tina Fey’s cleavage-baring dress, and the various photo tags during the episode were similarly smokin’ hot. Just sayin’. 

*** I love that Justin Bieber was given a Gloria Alfred joke – I am now intensely curious whether or not Justin Bieber knew who Gloria Alfred was before he got that joke. 

*** I might have found Bieber’s “When Tina Smiles” adlib cute if it wasn’t for the earlier sketch where the show portrayed a disturbing sexual attraction between them – life imitating art is never a good idea on a sketch comedy show, dude.

 

What'd you think of Tina Fey's return? And Justin Bieber's "SNL" breakout?