When was the last time Bill Murray was on “Saturday Night Live?”
Come on, think (think think). No peeking. (Only TV writers who pretend they know but actually have to go to IMDb to find out can peek).
Naturally you give up, so the answer is 2016, during that skit when he sang a tribute to the World Series-bound Chicago Cubs. But that hardly counts. He’s a fan and even “SNL” was caught up in the Cubs moment. The last time, besides 12 or so hours ago, was in 1993, which makes Saturday’s 43rd season outing both historical and memorable. As Stephen Bannon, he not only finally put a face to the long-running black-cowl-draped “SNL” figure, but put a voice to him as well. “SNL’s” Bannon is anonymous no more. He’s Bill Murray. How perfect.
And how perfect was he Saturday night — when “SNL” returned from a month-long break refreshed, revived and actually funny?
“As a kingmaker I convinced this country to elect Donald [Trump] and I can do it again,” he promised during the “Morning Joe” cold open. “Already auditioning candidates — Logan Paul, Martin Shkreli, Jared Fogle, the Subway guy — he’s back! — and it’s time for America to slide down the Bannon-ster again.”
Turn to camera. Wink. Smile. Bask in the glow of his own Bannonesque brilliance.
Fred Armisen — who will wrap his fine run on “Portlandia” this year — also returned for a curtain call, as Michael Wolff, author of “Fire and Fury,” but with Murray in the house, who noticed? At least he starred in the best cold open of the 43rd season so far — a smart takedown of “Morning Joe,” the ultimate echo chamber, as unctuous, self-satisfied morning show that likes nothing better than listening to itself.
The rest of the Sam Rockwell-hosted edition proceeded smoothly until it did not, when Rockwell uttered an expletive during the first sketch (which has since been deleted from streaming versions on NBC.com and Hulu.) The Golden Globe winner — for “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.” — accidentally dropped the word when scolding Cecily Strong and Mikey Day, playing a pair of thick kids who couldn’t quite understand some basic science concepts. He almost caught himself, but the censors didn’t. This was the first unintentional use of this specific word since February 2017, when host Kristen Stewart dropped it during her monologue.
The first “SNL” of 2018 was otherwise good, and smooth. That’s auspicious because the first half of this season struggled — mostly with how to make fun of a president who presents material on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, and how to create memorable skits that actually make you laugh as opposed to make you wait for the next one.
Besides Murray’s surprise appearance, this was also a showcase edition of sorts, because it’s the first with Michael Che and Colin Jost as head writers. In those rare times in recent years when head writers were also “Weekend Update” anchors — notably when Seth Meyers and Tina Fey were — “SNL” has been at its best. Last night offered a first glimpse at a future where they will be in the driver’s seat, along with two other head writers, Kent Sublette and Bryan Tucker. The result were two good digital shorts (Rockwell as Stanley Tucci; “Drunk Boyfriend”); an effective takedown of E!’s “The Look;” and a few solid scores on “Update.” (Jost: “What a thrill it is to be alive at a time when [Stormy Daniels] is the fourth biggest story of the week...” )
They also pulled Leslie Jones solidly into the show, as Oprah Winfrey, who got anything but a presidential endorsement last night (“The only thing that can beat me is BREAD!”). And for the first time this season, Chris Redd got prominent placement in a handful sketches, too, while effectively flaying Stedman Graham during “Update.”
Aidy Bryant, meanwhile, got the sharpest line of the night, referring to Mark Wahlberg’s $1.5 million donation to Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund: “It would be so cool if that didn’t take a week-long public shaming to do the right thing.”
The new writers also tackled a long-standing “SNL” problem, notably the post-“Update” sketches which have tended to be the bottom-of-the-barrel stuff that couldn’t make it to the top of the barrel most weeks. (“SNL” knows, and Nielsen establishes, that most viewers tune out after “Weekend Update.”) Those Saturday night weren’t exactly stellar, but — really? — who among us didn’t didn’t laugh during the “Dog Head Guy” sketch when the Dog Head Guy was eating the ham sandwich?
So with Murray, a lively Rockwell, a funny “Weekend Update,” and one Dog Head Guy, the 43rd season appears to be, finally, emphatically, on the mend.