By Melissa Maerz
January 08, 2015 at 06:00 PM EST
Paul Drinkwater/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Taylor Swift was right: There’s a special place in hell for Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. And that place is right behind the microphone at the Golden Globes, where they’ll appear this Sunday night for the third and final time. Hosting any awards show can be a thankless job—but somehow, this self-described duo of “crazy aunts” has reinvigorated the art, knocking ’em dead for the past two years in a room that, not unlike hell itself, is filled with booze, A-list celebrities, and a whole lot of fun.

Over the years, Fey and Poehler have not only cemented their reputations as Hollywood’s best awards show hosts. With their wit, charm, and willingness to rib George Clooney, they’ve also lent a certain legitimacy to the Globes itself, even as they poke fun at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. (Last year, Poehler joked that “when left untreated, HFPA can lead to cervical cancer.”) Once viewed as a sillier version of the more “serious” Oscars, it’s now the most watchable ceremony on TV, as well as a welcome reminder that when you’re giving out awards for the best entertainment, the whole idea is to make the show itself entertaining.

So why can’t other hosts meet that simple goal quite so well? What is it that makes Poehler and Fey so successful at a job that, as Ricky Gervais once observed, should be easy: getting drunk, saying whatever you want, and getting paid for it?

1. They’re just like your real friends, except they’re on TV

When it’s really good, the Golden Globes telecast is relaxed enough to make you believe it’s just a super chill party. As Poehler once put it, it’s a place where “the beautiful people of film rub shoulders with the rat-faced people of television.” And everyone’s so relaxed (read: drunk) that it seems anyone’s welcome to join them—even you, if you weren’t wearing sweatpants and watching at home on a bean bag chair.

While you’re trying to out-quip your friends at your own private Golden Globes party, real-life friends Poehler and Fey share that same loose, conversational vibe on screen. They’re not above commenting on fashion or how skinny the stars look (Fey described The Hunger Games as “what I call the six weeks it took to get me into this dress”), or how crazy-bananas certain acceptance speeches are. They high-five each other and use the commercial breaks to refill their cocktail glasses. Poehler never fails to sneak in at least one joke about how she’s just an average girl from Boston. (“Masters of Sex… is the degree I got from Boston College.” “Hey, Ben [Affleck]! I’m from Boston, too, so good for you. You’re not better than me.”) They’re just like you—only way funnier, and maybe slightly better equipped to pull off a bandage dress.

2. They focus on skewering the industry, not the stars

I’m a big apologist for Ricky Gervais, not only because he was hilarious and devastating as a Globes host, but also because it’s hugely hypocritical for the HFPA to hire him for the job multiple times, knowing that he was going to skewer celebrities, then act shocked and dismissive when he did exactly that.

However, I understand that there’s an unspoken rule for Golden Globes hosts: Everyone loves to laugh at the industry, but no one wants anyone else to laugh at her own private place within that industry. Fair enough. Poehler and Fey are respectful that way, sending up bigger, easier targets, like sexism and ageism in the movies. (According to Fey, Meryl Streep is “proving that there are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60.”) When they do make cracks about the talent, they don’t point fingers at specific actors. Where Gervais riffed on Robert Downey Jr’s drug habit, Poehler simply observed that standing before this crowd, she could “smell the pills from here.” Just like that, she got away with skewering everyone and offending no one.

3. When they do poke fun at the stars, they’re not mean

How could Leonardo DiCaprio possibly be upset when Fey announced, “And now, like a supermodel’s vagina, let’s all give a warm welcome to Leonardo DiCaprio”? How could George Clooney possibly object to hearing Fey describe Gravity as “the story of how George Clooney would rather float away into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age”? These are compliments disguised as jokes. That’s not to say that all their humor is only designed to flatter. When the two quipped that “Meryl Streep has the flu… and I hear she’s amazing in it,” they weren’t only praising the actress, they were capturing a certain fatigue over Streep’s (well-deserved!) awards show love.

4. They set the bar high—but not so high they can’t reach their drinks

Let’s face it: The real reason we watch the Globes is to watch famous people get wasted. (“Look how drunk Glenn Close is!” Poehler once quipped.) And the hosts are no exception. Obviously, no one believes they’re actually getting loaded on stage; if they were, they’d never be this good. But the concept is genius. If the critics love them the next day, then their brilliance was effortless: Hey, they were drunk! And if the critics hate them, because they made mistakes or didn’t land their jokes or accidentally offended someone, they have a good excuse: Hey, they were drunk!

5. They understand that women are watching

Judging by a totally scientific study (me, asking at least five of my friends), women tend to love awards shows way more than men—or, at least, according to one gay friend, more than straight men. Just look at the advertising during the show: when it’s not pop culture related, it’s all beauty products and yogurts. So it’s a little unsettling that so many ceremonies have a frat-boy vibe, from Seth MacFarlane’s “We Saw Your Boobs” sketch at the Oscars to the countless wah-wah puns about actresses’ “Golden Globes.”

Poehler and Fey make up for that imbalance by swinging the other way. They applauded a great year for women in film and television in 2013, calling out great female performances in their monologue—but they also know that true equality means embarrassing everyone equally, so they’re just as hard on Taylor Swift as they are on Jonah Hill (which, really, isn’t hard at all). Plus, when things come down to the wire, they know which side to take: “I haven’t really been following the controversy over Zero Dark Thirty,” Poehler said in one of the 2013 ceremony’s best lines, “but when it comes to torture, I trust the lady who spent three years married to James Cameron.”

6. They play off the crowd expertly

Those warm bodies in the seats are actors, people. They’re dying to perform! Fey and Poehler know this—and unlike most awards show hosts, who only turn to the crowd for the occasional reaction shot, many of their finest moments have been buoyed by audience participation. Consider: Daniel Day Lewis pretending that he was the star of E.T. by lifting a single, phone-home finger into the air; Mandy Patinkin falsely applauding Poehler’s Les Miz solo; Julia Louis-Dreyfus scarfing down a hot dog. This isn’t just a savvy use of resources—it also takes some pressure off the hosts, because the show isn’t all about them. Plus, on a night that brings out everyone’s worst competitive streak, it’s nice to see actors actually trying to bring out the best in each other instead of just looking out for me, me, me!

7. As veterans of improv comedy, they’re great with spur-of-the-moment jokes

Whenever there’s an awkward moment—and there are always awkward moments—Poehler and Fey are there with a quick retort. Take Fey’s God-I-am-so-old comeback to Lena Dunham’s acceptance speech: “Congratulations, Lena, glad we got you through middle school,” she groaned, before glugging her drink. Or take the hosts’ response to Jodie Foster’s uncomfortable confession that she’s single and looking for love: “Good night! We’re going home with Jodie Foster!”

8. When it comes to being star-struck, they are definitely not “over it”

…or, at least, they’re very good at feigning genuine enthusiasm. They get positively giggly about celebrity sightings. “That was Hillary Clinton’s husband!” Poehler gasped when Bill Clinton crashed the Globes. When she won her own Best Actress statue for Parks and Recreation, Poehler sat on Bono’s lap and made out with him, while he cupped her perfectly-styled hair. It was total fantasy fulfillment for those of us whose updos will never be mused by rock-star fingers. We might occasionally enjoy seeing people who are richer, more beautiful, and more famous than us taken down by a Globes punchline. But deep down, we will always be fans.

9. They’re not trying to reinvent the wheel

They’re not performing any duets with Snow White or dressing up like Marilyn Monroe in drag. They don’t have to. They’re such pros, they don’t create memes or GIF-able moments or rely on other stunts to get people talking. They just have to be funny. And that’s harder than it seems. Just ask Poehler, who somehow managed to get away with a (tasteful) joke about slavery last year.

10. It’s the perfect time for them to go out on a high note

Has there ever been a better year for Fey and Poehler to host? Between the leaked Sony emails and The Interview, the intro monologue writes itself. Clooney, a favorite target of the hosts, is due to receive the Cecil B DeMille Award for lifetime achievement. And they’ve got the solid cast of nominees to support their sketches from the audience, including Gervais, who’s nominated for Derek, and Steve Carrell, who’s nominated for Foxcatcher and often gives great, faux-angry reaction shots when he loses. Plus, they’ve already promised to pit the nominees against each other with a Hunger Games-style competition. What could possibly go wrong?