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This is how it generally works: Jay Pharoah or Jason Sudeikis screams “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” The house band kicks in, the immortal Don Pardo announces the cast. And then, the stage door opens, and a smiling celebrity walks out towards the camera. You try and gauge her body language because what you really want to know is: Is this going to be funny? It’s late on Saturday night and you just need to know whether you’re going to watch this from start to finish right now… or whether you should go to bed and simply scan up through “Weekend Update” tomorrow on the DVR.

Like a football or basketball game, a host can’t “win” SNL with a great opening monologue, but he or she sure can screw it up. So it’s no surprise that the best hosts typically come out of the gate revving on all cylinders. Good jokes help, and so do pratfalls, but the best of the best remind us that this is live television. It can be messy, and it can even be a trainwreck. But whatever it is, it can’t be boring.

For the second straight year, readers have voted to determine who was SNL‘s best host. Throughout the show’s season, the most recent host was pitted against the four most popular previous hosts in a vote, and the one with the least number of voters was eliminated while the four survivors advanced to the next week. Like any democracy, it’s a system that’s not without its flaws. This year, we rigged modified the system with what I call the Barabbas Addendum, which restored a previously eliminated host to the final vote. The electorate rescued Seth MacFarlane to join our final five: Martin Short, Justin Timberlake, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, and Ben Affleck.

I’ve said before that there are very few happy accidents on Saturday Night Live. Comedy is precise. Live comedy is a gauntlet that can expose and undermine the proudest of entertainers. Each of our finalists, however, delivered monologues that set the tone for excellent shows that showcased the best of their abilities. More importantly for the success of the show, all of them also had a blast. I mean, it’s possible they were terrified underneath, but once the show began, all six of them were giggly and daring and totally committed. They’re good at hosting because they embrace the experience, trusting the writers and trusting their own talent.

Before we announce the winner of Mr. (or Mrs.) Saturday Night 2013, though, there are four other non-democratic awards to present.

Most Underrated Host: Louis CK (Nov. 3)

It helps, of course, if you think CK is a comic genius, but even if you’re not tuned in to his brand of comedy, his first time hosting had a refreshingly off-beat vibe. Some hosts come in to Studio 8H and adhere to the proven formula and trust the writers to protect them. You almost got the sense that CK came with his own ideas — and the writing staff gave the comic’s comic a wide berth to make the show his own. It wasn’t perfect, but it felt like a CK joint. The monologue was a seven-minute stand-up bit on helping an ancient, disoriented Old World lady get to her airplane on time, and the show wrapped up with the original “Last Call” sketch, co-starring Kate McKinnon. In between there was the brilliant Lincoln short and the glorious Game of Thrones inspired misfire. (The latter literally gets funnier every time you watch it… because it has to.) CK lasted a few weeks in our voting contest before being eliminated by Jeremy Renner, but if he hosts again next year, he’s a total must-watch, especially with one show under his belt.

Best First-time Host: Seth MacFarlane (Sept. 15)

In some ways, MacFarlane’s first appearance on Saturday Night Live was an audition for the Oscars. Less than a month after hosting the season premiere, the Academy Awards announced that the creative force behind Family Guy and Ted would host Hollywood’s biggest night. On SNL, he sang, he provided voices, he mimicked celebrities. He did everything every host tries to do — he just did all of them well. Actually, I suspect MacFarlane is one of those whose second and third shows will be even better than his promising debut, in which he leaned on the easy references his biggest fans would most appreciate. With those out of the way, he should be even freer and more unpredictable the next time he visits.

Best Opening Monologue: Vince Vaughn (April 13)

There was a long sad stretch this season where every action star and Oscar nominee seemed eager to prove his versatility by singing during his SNL monologue. I’ll admit it is sorta funny when someone like quarterback Tom Brady tries something this outlandish, but if you’re an entertainer to start with, you have to be a-maze-ing at singing or dancing to get me to give two hoots about your hidden talent. Vaughn went in a completely different direction, wheeling out the classic, rat-tat-tat Swingers/Old School Vince Vaughn who likes to perform without a net. Was his interaction with the audience scripted? Was it half-scripted? Was it totally ad-libbed? For a few seconds, I was sweating for him. But as time went on, he seemed perfectly in control. I dug it in a very serious way. If it was simply Vaughn being Vaughn, then kudos. But if it was the writers, than bully for them.

Best Sketch Starring the Host: “Homeland,” with Anne Hathaway

If you weren’t a viewer of Showtime’s Homeland, which stars Claire Danes as an unstable CIA operative intimately involved with her most dangerous suspect, this sketch was likely four minutes of scrunched noses and raised eyebrows. But if you were obsessed with the show, like the nearly 6 million people who watched the season 2 finale, Hathaway’s impression of jazz-freakout Carrie was one of the most perceptive caricatures SNL has ever showcased. Hathaway even took time during her farewell later that night to apologize to Danes for poking fun, but she had absolutely nothing to be sorry about. Can we hope Homeland is in the middle of a season again the next time Hathaway gets the call?

NEXT: The 2013 Mrs. (or Mr.) Saturday Night is…

…Justin Timberlake.

Timberlake’s episode, which featured him being inducted into the exclusive Five-Timers Club, had the look and feel of a coronation. The show occurred at the center of a Timberlake promotional blitz that was anything but subtle — he even spent an entire week on Late Night with his “History of Rap” partner Jimmy Fallon. On his much-hyped return to SNL, he dominated the cold-open as Elton John, reunited with Andy Samberg to meet two wild and crazy Czechoslovakian brothers, and brought his foam mascot get-up to Veganville. Even internet cynics struggled to complain.

Number of times he’s hosted: Five

On the show to promote…: The 20/20 Experience

Musical guest: You’re kidding, right?

TV ratings: 5.9/15

Special guests: Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, Alec Baldwin, Martin Short, Paul Simon, Chevy Chase, Candice Bergen, Jay-Z

Final Vote

Melissa McCarthy was the runner-up for the second consecutive year. (You know the saying, always a Bridesmaid…) But she’s certainly now on the short list of essential hosts, along with Timberlake, Fallon, Wiig, Zach Galifianakis, and Jon Hamm (who by the way, despite popping up for frequent cameos lately, hasn’t hosted since 2010). Of course, the person I’m already looking forward to hosting next season was a cast member just five days ago. Bill Hader will be missed, and I suspect he’ll want to take some time before he returns to the show as a host. Nevertheless, it’s tempting to circle Sept. 27 on the calendar, the day that Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 arrives in theaters.

When began this contest last year, we didn’t know what to expect. Would it become a simple popularity contest, with the celebs with the biggest Twitter followings dominating the race irregardless of their late-night performance? Two years in, though, it’s difficult to argue with the results. Sure, you can debate the merits of the finalists and even make a strong case for one of the hosts who didn’t make the cut. But our voters seem to be taking their task pretty seriously, as they should. None of the finalists they chose either year were lemons, and the two champions are all-stars in their SNL hosting primes. Sometimes, democracy does work. Raise your hand if you agree.

Thanks again for voting throughout the year, and congratulations to Justin Timberlake, Mr. Saturday Night 2013.

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Mr. Saturday Night
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  • 119 minutes
  • Billy Crystal