'SNL' recap: Will Ferrell's George W. Bush returns

You could be forgiven if, when this week’s cold open started, you thought it was a rerun. Will Ferrell returned to host SNL and the show opened with him playing George W. Bush like it was 2002 all over again.

This is Ferrell’s fourth time as host, and it’s a truly amazing dynamic to watch. Sketch comedy is not easy and often the cast must carry the weight of a pretentious actor host or a clueless athlete host. When old cast members come back, everything feels turbocharged and capable of literally anything.

For the writers, it must feel like Christmas; when Ferrell is cranked up to 10, the most nonsensical lines come off as comedy gold. The flip side is that the show begins to run out of steam when every scene requires him to be its motor. Yes, Ferrell could drunkenly scream phone book listings and be entertaining, but by the time you get to “Office Breakroom,” it feels like the writers took an early lunch and left him to make it all funny through sheer force of *ahem* Will.

For the actors, it’s a chance to go toe to toe with a legend, and the blending of SNL generations feels like an old-school Marvel Team-Up — Hulk and Thing take on Dr. Doom! — you know, before that sort of thing became common.

If he were on the cast today, would Ferrell/Cecily Strong create something as iconic as Cheri Oteri did with the Spartan Cheerleaders? Could Ferrell/Kate McKinnon be as grossly weird as the hot tub “love-ahs” sketches he was in with Rachel Dratch? Probably. Since he was there for only a week, the pairings (McKinnon and  Strong played Ferrell’s wife in two separate sketches each) felt unpolished, but the chemistry was definitely there — which is likely a testament to the strength of all three performers. It would be a shame if they didn’t somehow bring back “Reality Stars” before Strong eventually leaves.

Best Sketch of the Night: “Flight Attendants”

This is peak Ferrell — equal parts vulnerable and driven. But what makes the sketch truly great is the support work. Aidy Bryant and Chris Redd make delightful straight men, Luke Null kills as an almost reluctant beatboxer, but the real gem is Leslie Jones as a passenger who is truly shaken by Ferrell’s wildly inappropriate philosophical ramblings in the middle of a safety demonstration.

Best Use of Host: “Commercial Shoot”

An ordinary sketch script runs about a page a minute, but it’s a safe bet that this four-minute sketch is a page and a half total. Someone probably typed, “McKinnon and Ferrell riff here” at the bottom of page 1, closed the laptop and took the rest of the week off. It’s a great sketch, but dumb old people is easy. What would a scene with Sheila Sovage — the queen of sad hookups — have looked like? Or what if Ferrell paid a visit to Whiskers R We?

Blowing the Budget: “Fighter Pilots”

At times, Ferrell is a live wire — charging a scene with comic energy. But he also slays with his deadpan delivery. Mikey Day, Beck Bennett and Redd are forced to deal with Ferrell’s um … nontraditional call sign. The exorbitant cost of the green screen and four cockpit pieces is offset by the free effect of floating your arms to simulate zero-G. The best thing about this sketch, though, is the callback to one of the great SNL sketches of all time:

The 12:50 a.m. Slot: “Chucky Lee Byrd”

The heyday of wildly overpriced boxed sets being hawked by chipper late-night hosts has long since been steamrolled by the streaming services. But for those of us old enough to remember, this is a note-perfect parody that quickly slides into chaos once the hosts actually listen to the innocuous ’50s-style descriptions of teen love. It’s fun to speculate if this got shelved last month to avoid any James Franco-related controversy.

Speaking of which: thoughts on “Dinner Discussion”?

Saturday Night Live airs Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. on NBC.

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