Saturday Night Live season premiere! SNL #39.1 RECAP: Host Tina Fey, musical guest Arcade Fire

Saturday Night Live has a big new cast for season 39. In case you didn’t know that or hadn’t heard, SNL wasn’t afraid to remind you again and again in the first half-hour that times continue to change because that’s how time works. It doesn’t keep slipping into the future. The future stays in the future. The present moves all around us and through us, like a, what were we talking about?

SNL. When you have a TV show that’s an multi-generational institution, it’s best to keep enough things the same so everyone’s not so “I fear change” and responds ironically by changing the channel. That’s why you bring in an old hired hand to host, for some trusted laugh-out-loud moments — it certainly helps that former Weekend Update anchor and former SNL head writer Tina Fey also won another Emmy to kick off this week; for co-writing the series finale to 30 Rock, her NBC series that used a fictional version of SNL as the backdrop for a behind-the-scenes sitcom. Are you all caught up now? No? Let’s get you caught up, then…

Over the summer, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis left the show; and Tim Robinson left the cast but stayed with SNL as a writer. Meanwhile, writer Mike O’Brien received a promotion to cast member. Also added to the cast: Beck Bennett, John Milhiser, Kyle Mooney, Noël Wells and Brooks Whelan. Oh, and Cecily Strong was named earlier this month as co-anchor and successor to the Weekend Update chair!

Now are you all caught up? Alrighty then! To the recap…

Plenty of weird things happened in the news this week, that they could have picked almost any of it to open cold. And yet, the more things “ch- word,” the more they stay the same word. And so. We open cold with President Barack Obama (Jay Pharoah), speaking about the launch of Obamacare — we’re supposed to be able to start enrolling Oct. 1 for competitive health-care services that kick in Jan. 1, 2014, if only the House Republicans would stop acting so delusional about not getting their way on everything, because why should all Americans have a chance to have health insurance? That’s not in the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness mantra, is it? Health? Egads. At any rate. Try not to focus on Pharaoh’s Obama impersonation, because that’s not even what this sketch is about; rather, it’s about trotting out regular people to talk about what affordable health care means to them. Which generally means misinformation, because that’s what happens when you combine political propaganda and dumb people. Aidy Bryant’s character thinks she has free medicine. Bobby Moynihan’s character wonders why his slacker son (newbie Beck Bennett) gets to have healthcare, and leaves with a shoutout to NJ Gov. Chris Christie (whom Moynihan plays in sketches). Taran Killam slides into frame as Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz. Cecily Strong plays a lady who didn’t get her iPhone fixed by the Genius Bar. Kate McKinnon as a smoking doctor says people need to stop putting toys up their butts. “Stop putting stuff up your damn butts!” And, season premieres usually bring out the big-gun cameos…here’s Aaron Paul as “Jesse from New Mexico” to talk about a friend of his whose life would have changed if only he had affordable health care. Not a Breaking Bad spoiler alert.

Side note: The first voice we actually hear this season belongs to Steve Higgins, the “announcer” “sidekick” to Jimmy Fallon who has been a writer/producer on SNL since 1995! No more voiceovers from Bill Hader. Insert sad face emoticon here.


Same old opening credits, but plug in some new faces, congratulate Aidy Bryant on her promotion from “featured player” to main cast, and wonder aloud or to yourself who is attempting to impersonate longtime SNL announcer Don Pardo. Pardo, 95, had rumored to retire multiple times over the past decade. Does this mean he actually has retired?

While you’re thinking about that, stop to welcome host Tina Fey back to the program!

Fey jokes about getting the chance to do all of her recurring characters, such as Queef Latina, and others less notably. Of course, the joke is she didn’t have recurring characters, as she was one of those writers who became head writer who became Weekend Update anchor without really being known onscreen for other stuff. Kinda sorta like Seth Meyers, actually. As the show has done in past “rebuilding years,” the host is an old SNL pro who welcomes the new cast members formally by bringing them onstage during the monologue. To Wells, the only new lady, Fey, 43, asks: “How old are you?” “I’m 26.” “You go stand over here.” Fey then initiates them into the cast by reminding us how SNL cast members in their early days often get called upon to dance awkwardly in a host monologue. True story. And so they do the same, as others have done before them.

The traditional fake ad slot is a parody promotional video instead for HBO’s critically favored Girls. You can tell SNL wants this to badly break — in addition to and Hulu, they’ve put it on the YouTube officially via NBC. It’s the first showcase for Wells, who impersonates Lena Dunham’s Hannah. Cecily Strong takes on Marnie; Kate McKinnon as Jessa, Vanessa Bayer as Shoshanna, and Tina Fey as Blerta, the “new” “girl” from Albania — who tells Hannah things like “you are weak and soft and dressed like baby.”

After the first ad break, we’re at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

Fey and Killam are Express Air gate agents, and while McKinnon and Bennett wait to board their flight to Dallas, we’re treated to a number of stereotypes of people who annoy you on airplane trips as they all get to board the plane first. Milhiser and Whelan get their first speaking lines, too. Moynihan sells his creepy character. Kenan Thompson gets to play with an abnormally large prop of a carry-on suitcase. The scene ends cute weird. You know, like an SNL sketch would.

And your answer to who plays game show hosts since Bill Hader left is…Who is Kenan Thompson?

What is a funny conceit that’s winking at us in a meta way, but sometimes too meta? It’s the game show: New Cast Member or Arcade Fire. “Wow. Talk about a Sophie’s Choice!” Tina Fey says, playing herself. Can I see them do an impression? “Wow. That does not help at all.” OK. No audience is THAT excited to see Lorne Michaels. And Lorne’s crack that “the black” one is the new cast member is a little too on-the-nose of a wink, because winks are supposed to be with your eyelids and not your nose. You’re doing it wrong, Lorne!

Here comes the fake ad, and knowing a few people who have taken up e-cigarettes in the past year, I know and you know that this trend is ripe for mockery. How about electronic smoking for meth heads? It’s E-Meth. Get “totally gakked up on woop chicken” with Killam, Whelan and McKinnon. Whelan gets naked, but you’ll likely remember this more because Aaron Paul makes cameo #2 as Jesse Pinkman here, saying: “You know it’s good because it’s blue, bitch!”

Ladies or gentlemen, Arcade Fire. Already knowing they’re performing an extra half-hour concert on NBC immediately following SNL, what songs will they play here? Asking only for hardcore Arcade Fire fans. It’s just a “Reflektor.”

There IS new opening credits and music for Weekend Update!

Cecily Strong is thanking the women who paved the way for her before on Update. Cue Tina Fey! Too soon. Women like Jane Curtin. Amy Poehler. “And of course, Tina Fey.” Fey has advice. Prison advice. Life advice. “You do you. You’re in charge.” Um. OK. I’m not yet seeing what Lorne is saying on this call, but I’ll give it time if he does…

Bruce Chandling, “veteran stand-up comic” played by newbie Kyle Mooney, is here to offer his opinions on the United Nations and new Iranian president…Starts off hacky. New York pizza and L.A. pizza are different. And then he breaks character to be old and depressed? And plugs his one-nighter gig. I mean. I just. I mean. I just. Disclosure: I say or don’t say this coming from a place of not much caring for Fred Armisen’s “political” comedian Nicholas Fein, either. But. I mean. I just.

Better bring out Drunk Uncle. Drunk Uncle! Bibby Mini-han. And Meth Newphew, Aaron Paul as a version of Pinkman, again. Third time the charm? But the first time and second time already were so charming. If I had told you yesterday that Aaron Paul would appear more in the season premiere of SNL than in the series finale of Breaking Bad, would you have believed me? Do you believe me now? How about 24 hours from now?

So this is where the older and the more casual viewers of SNL typically turn off the tube and call it a night. Which means it’s late enough to let your comedy freak flags fly. At least that’s what happened traditionally, in the days and nights before social media and Internet-ready share-worthy clips.

Here, on this night, we return from the break with Thompson taking over another stock role filled by a former colleague, as he plays Reese De’What on an AMC “Cinema Classics” special. The 1940s film, “Unwanted Woman,” stars Killam and Fey and features Bryant, but gets overshadowed by all of the dead stuffed animals, thanks to an ultimatum allowing a mentally challenged taxidermist to have a big role in the production. The joke’s all in the visual of the actors squirming amid the dead animals. But not even Toonces the Driving Cat can save this sketch.

In another, the premise is sometimes funnier than the execution, we travel back in time once more, this time to the filming of the first used car commercial. Which must have been on a movie newsreel, by the look and sound of it. Mike O’Brien is selling all of the models: The Model T. Fey plays his Debbie Downer of a wife. Because how crazy are these prices? Oh, literally crazy.

Once again, Arcade Fire. This song is not called Raccoon Eyes, but “Afterlife.”

There’s going to be time for one more sketch, and maybe a video, depending upon how long the ads are.

And for the first five-to-one weird sketch, it’s the farthest and furthest thing from weirdness, but instead the most predictable thing they could have done. Former porn stars turned saleswoman of luxury items. Played by Bayer and Strong. Recurring sketch time! Tina Fey dresses up like them but does her job in missing her cue, coming too soon. “I got banged by some rapping gerbils in the back of a Kia.” Oh, ’twas Manolo Blahniks the whole time.

Goodnights, everybody! Tina Fey thanks everyone, and reminds us to stay tuned, because they’re allowed to go over for a half-hour for more Arcade Fire. Except it’s not really a live concert on TV. It’s live in the room. But for us on TV, it’s a pre-recorded concert and comedy art project. In this week when everything the media is feeding us and feeding upon turns out to be a fake vanity comedy art project, why not end the week on something like this? Why not.

For those of you keeping score — and you shouldn’t be keeping score, because it’s doing things like that, that creates an atmosphere where cast members worry about their jobs from week to week — each of the new cast members did get a little piece of the action. More so than some people (free Nasim Pedrad and let FOX pick up Mulaney to series?!).

  • Bennett appeared in the cold open, and had a couple of lines in the airport sketch.
  • Wells starred in the Girls parody video.
  • Whelan got naked in the E-Meth video and got a line in the airport sketch.
  • Milhiser got a line in the airport sketch.
  • Mooney got a character on Weekend Update.
  • O’Brien starred in the used car commercial origin story sketch.

And they all danced happily ever after behind host Tina Fey during her monologue.

See you here next week to see Miley Cyrus stick her tongue out at Vanessa Bayer, or something like that. In the meantime, twerk it if you got it, and even if you do, don’t twerk it. Please. Don’t twerk it.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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