By Maureen Lee Lenker
January 28, 2018 at 12:18 PM EST
Will Heath/NBC
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Will Ferrell returned to Studio 8H for the first time since a 2015 cold-open cameo, alongside returning musical guest Chris Stapleton. Ferrell remains one of Saturday Night Live’s most beloved alumni, and this marked his fourth return as host since leaving the show in 2002. Though he kicked off the show with a fan favorite, the return of President George “Dubya” Bush, the episode was otherwise short on nostalgia moments — a disappointing turn of events for those hoping for reprises of some of Ferrell’s best recurring characters. Still, the funnyman proved why he remains one of the show’s most stalwart players, appearing in every sketch of the night and bringing his signature off-the-wall energy to an otherwise lackluster collection of sketches.

Cold Open

As is so often the case, the cold open proved to be the most memorable segment of the night. Ferrell reprised his impression of our 43rd president, George W. Bush, to great hilarity. Broadcasting from a replica Oval Office in the basement of his Texas home, Bush came back to SNL to remind the viewing audience not to use our current political moment as a reason to romanticize his presidency. Throwing in many Bush malapropisms, including “economer” for “economist” and insisting he’s not a “Trump synthesizer,” Ferrell-as-Bush instructed viewers, “Please do not look back at my presidency and think this is how we do it.” While joking about Bush’s retirement pastime of oil painting, he also brought up the Iraq war, the war in Afghanistan, and his role in creating ISIS, and reminded everyone how Vice President Pence pales in comparison to the deeds of Dick Cheney. With one great burn directed at “rigging elections” (Supreme Court vs. Russian meddling), he brought the house down before welcoming Leslie Jones on as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to sing All in the Family’s “Those Were the Days” (complete with Jones’ spot-on Jean Stapleton impression).

Monologue

Sending up his long history on the show, Ferrell approached his opening monologue as if it was his first time on the show, using the conceit that he had suffered a head injury during his quick change backstage and lost his memory. Reworking the words to “I Think I’m Gonna Like it Here” from Annie to play up his failing memory, Ferrell did what he does best — spun comedy gold out of utter nonsense. After a great Ferrell impression of the insufferable Men’s Warehouse ads, cast members Cecily Strong and Kenan Thompson came out to strap the bleeding Ferrell onto a stretcher, but not before he uttered the most on-point line of the evening: “There’s too many song monologues, you know that?” So true — though in this case, we weren’t complaining.

Weekend Update

Even the genuine “fake news” has far too much to tackle when it comes to the dizzying news cycle, but hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che did their best, taking aim at the government shutdown, developments in the Mueller investigation, and a case of escaped baboons at a Paris zoo. Jost compared Senator Chuck Schumer’s bowing to a temporary deal to end the government shutdown to a groundhog seeing its own shadow to secure “three more weeks of government,” and then compared President Trump’s blatant obstruction efforts to someone pulled over for drunk driving challenging a cop to a keg stand. Michael Che tackled reports of an FBI “secret society” working against Trump, joking that he believed the conspiracy theory because of Tupac’s murder. Jost also took shots at Patriots and Eagles fans in light of the upcoming Super Bowl, saying, “It’s the first Super Bowl where fans will have even more brain damage than the players.”

Ferrell joined “Update” for the best segment of the SNL news show, in his only other reprise of an old character: political expert Jacob Silj, who suffers from a made-up disease called “voice immodulation syndrome,” which means he cannot control the volume or tone of his speech. The segment devolved into Ferrell’s character defending his loud talking and uttering off-the-wall or offensive things he believed others couldn’t hear, and it played like a bonkers second cousin to Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy. Though not one of Ferrell’s most well-known characters from his run on the show, it still made for a fun (and timely) throwback. Heidi Gardner also joined for a segment as a teen YouTube film critic Bailey Gismert, which ultimately fell flat despite her sickeningly realistic portrayal of a YouTube-obsessed teen.

Best Sketch: “Next, For Men”

SNL almost always excels in the fake-commercial department, and they knocked it out of the park with a fictional deodorant directed specifically at “men feeling the heat ’cause their time’s up.” Ferrell and cast members Kyle Mooney and Alex Moffat didn’t break a sweat through an ad in which they portrayed horrible men accused of sexual misconduct keeping their cool in the midst of public booing, red carpet questioning, and more. Moffat shined in particular as a Hollywood actor dismissing claims on a red carpet, while the tagline “an antiperspirant that keeps working with me ’cause no one else will” captured the edgy humor that puts SNL at its best. The Time’s Up and #MeToo movements were popular subjects of the night — another sketch found a bevy of cast members navigating the minefield of the consent conversation when one raised the subject of Aziz Ansari. The sketch was a pointed and funny take on how difficult it is to discuss thornier, gray areas of misconduct and consent as the next step of the #MeToo conversation.

Worst Sketch: “Office Breakdown”

The sketches are often weaker post-“Weekend Update,” and this week did not prove an exception. Ferrell played a boss who just could not let go of the fact that his employees corrected him for confusing Crate and Barrel with Cracker BarrelThe concept was meant to take advantage of Ferrell’s deft ability to make an overreaction a source of humor, but it was a case of overextending a joke that wasn’t really funny to begin with.

Best of Chris Stapleton: “Hard Livin’”

Stapleton brought a very different vibe to the Studio 8H stage after past weeks had been populated by younger, more avant-garde artists Troye Sivan and Halsey. Country artist Stapleton brought the signature guitar strumming and growling voice that have made his debut album the best-selling country record for two years straight to the studio. Country music fans were in for an extra treat as Stapleton brought fellow artist Sturgill Simpson (a previous SNL musical guest) on board for both his numbers, but “Hard Livin’” stole the night with a meticulous guitar solo from Simpson. The two artists have both received love for returning to country roots in an era when the genre is often dominated by pop music conventions.

Best Makeup: “Reality Stars”

The SNL makeup team always seems to perform miracles in an incredibly short span of time, but they exceeded expectations with a reality TV send-up of the Real Housewives franchise. Will Ferrell and Cecily Strong returned to their hometown after making it big as reality stars in California, complete with bleach-blond hair and an abundance of plastic surgery. The makeup team crafted an incredibly realistic take on the overly polished cheekbones, immovable faces, and too-taut skin that often feature on reality television.

Best Cameo: Tracy Morgan

This Big Brother parody was mostly forgettable — Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett once again turned to their gag of making mountains out of molehills in a pretaped sketch, which though done repeatedly on the show never seems to land. However, the sketch did have one great cameo moment from Ferrell’s former cast mate Tracy Morgan — we only wish he’d stuck around longer.

Episode MVP: Will Ferrell

Often, the host is thrown in as window dressing and the comedy pros that populate the cast carry the show. Not here. Ferrell, an old pro at SNL sketch comedy, easily walked away with the night. Appearing in every sketch, he crafted a diverse array of characters, and while cast members around him frequently held back laughter, he carried on with his stone-faced self-seriousness, which only made things all the more hilarious. From purposely (and hilariously) mangling his lines as an older customer attempting to shoot a commercial for a beloved local diner to his run as a nihilistic flight attendant bringing existential dread to a Southwest airlines safety spiel, Ferrell showcased his wide range and penchant for ridiculousness, with a glee that is sometimes missing from his big-screen movie roles nowadays.

This recap previously incorrectly identified SNL cast member Heidi Gardner as former member Abby Elliot.

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The original late-night comedy sketch show from the one and only Lorne Michaels.
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