March 07, 2010 at 12:52 PM EST

After a dismal cold-open about President Obama’s health-care reform during which the studio audience was quietly bored, as though it was attending an actual Obama health-care summit, Saturday Night Live perked up considerably with host Zach Galifianakis and his piano musings during the opening monologue, including: “I’ve been in Canada, opening for Miles Davis,” said Galifianakis, then corrected himself: “Kilometers Davis.”

The first sketch seemed scheduled to drive away all but the hardiest viewers early in the evening. It was one of SNL‘s recurring Vogelcheck family get-togethers, this one set in a funeral home, where the clan displayed its usual (that is to say, wildly excessive) inappropriate affection. I’d gotten pretty inured to this premise, but tonight the cast topped itself. I’m not talking about Fred Armisen licking and tongue-kissing the corpse (Will Forte), but rather Bill Hader exchanging saliva with a cute little pug dog — that I laughed at.

A high point was reached almost immediately after (that is, after an absurdist sketch in which Kristen Wiig and Galifianakis repeated the word “bidet” with increasing intensity): a taped piece called “Zach Drops By The Set,” in which Galifianakis inserted himself into NBC shows such as Brian Williams’ Nightly News, 30 Rock, an old edition of SNL with Robin Williams hosting, and, best of all, an episode of Law & Order.

“Weekend Update” was marred by a weak Mo’Nique impersonation by Kenan Thompson. Thompson wasn’t anything like the Oscar-nominated Mo’Nique; it was as though this was the one moment of the night when the show wanted not to offend the object of its ridicule.

There was a strikingly surreal version of “What Up With That” in which Kenan Thompson’s D’Andre Cole played host to Paul Rudd, “the sexy and the sinister” Frank Rich (one could almost feel the New York media elite quivering with envy), and Hader, as always, a wordless Lindsay Buckingham. Abby Elliott was wheeled on as a now-grown Jessica McClure with the well she fell into in 1987. As always, Jason Sudeikis’ red-jump-suited boogie-downs were peerless, and Galifianakis contributed to the demented tableau by appearing as “ambidextrous flute player” R. J. Sizzle.

As the show proceeded, the week’s pattern became clear: With only a couple of exceptions, SNL relied on skits it has done in the past (there was yet another Kristen Wiig-Kathie Lee Gifford-Today Show parody, for example), but raised (or lowered) to new levels of silliness. And this week, that strategy — undoubtedly influenced by Galafianakis’ brand of incongruous whimsy — worked.

Musical guest Vampire Weekend played two crisply sung, knottily chorded songs.

The final sketch of the night, “Pageant Talk,” provided a fittingly weird conclusion, presenting us with the Southern family of a beauty pageant contestant (Jenny Slate), her bitter mother (Wiig), and Galafianakis as the head of the family, doing a drawling version of Rip Taylor crossed with Tennessee Williams.

And, oh, right: He apparently shaved off his beard, off-camera, some time before that last sketch. (NBC hasn’t made video of the last sketch available.)

Galifianakis’ parting words were, “Thank you to the magic of life!” It certainly was a magical SNL — strange but vastly entertaining magic, a uniquely peculiar evening.

Agree? Disagree?

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