Tina Fey and Amy Poehler Brought Some Much-Needed Specificity to ‘SNL’

It’s no accident that this weekend’s SNL co-hosts opened the episode’s best sketch by introducing themselves as Helen Walsh and… Tina Fey. The show unfortunately doesn’t offer sketch-by-sketch writing credits; critics and superfans alike are left to scour for tidbits on writers’ Twitter feeds the next day or oral histories several years down the road. But “Meet Your Second Wife” feels entirely of a piece with Fey’s highly specific, deeply cynical comic voice — as did the rest of her and Amy Poehler’s triumphant return to Studio 8H.

As we noted in our recap, “Meet Your Second Wife” used a game-show parody, SNL‘s most beloved and arguably most overused format, to deliver “a joke with bite that the current incarnation of SNL always seems to fumble.” The premise is simple: three men (and their current wives) are blindsided by the much younger women they’ll one day marry… once those “second wives” are no longer children. For now, they’re just an eighth grader who loves horses, a five-year-old who can’t do simple math, and — in one final, devastating joke — a three-month-old fetus.

A sizable number of SNL‘s current cast members, especially the women playing the contestants’ horrified first wives, bring their A-games here. Yet the spirit of the sketch feels unmistakably Fey and Poehler’s, driven by the same skepticism of men’s motives and wry resentment of the burdens placed on women as their highs (every Golden Globes monologue) and lows (“All Beyoncé and JLo have done is add to the laundry list of attributes women must have to qualify as beautiful”) alike.

What made “Meet Your Second Wife” work, in other words, was a particular perspective, one that allowed the sketch to come off as sharper, even more political, than the broad-based “Republicans are dumb!” humor of the debate-themed cold open, not to mention The Hosting Decision That Shall Not Be Named.  It’s the flip side of the tendencies that get both comedians accused of second-waver sex negativity; declaring Sandra Bullock’s divorce “not an Oscar problem, [but] a lady problem. The problem is there are girls like Bombshell McGee out there” is millimeters away from the basic premise of “Meet Your Second Wife,” separated only by a subtle difference in who’s the butt of the joke. The narrower one’s comic blade, the deeper it cuts — and the bigger the areas it excludes.

Basically, it’s a tradeoff, and one that’s by no means particular to Fey and Poehler. But it’s in the nature of tradeoffs that they have their benefits along with their drawbacks, and Saturday night saw those benefits come out in spades. There wasn’t just “Meet Your Second Wife”; there was also “A Hillary Christmas,” in which Poehler and Kate McKinnon’s Clinton impressions commiserated over the hardships of having to be “a sweet old lady, but a sweet old lady who says ‘Yaaaas queen'” (and Fey’s Sarah Palin tagged along for the ride). There was “Special Offer,” in which Fey delivered the sort of Cosby potshot she and Poehler were taking a decade before it was cool. And there was “Tina and Amy’s Dope Squad,” an admittedly silly Taylor Swift parody that still begins with the kind of borderline-insulting question that always seems to happen at celebrity press junkets, then evolves into an indirect send-up of the bankrupt but resilient idea that “having it all” is a real thing.

SNL doesn’t typically have a defined set of beliefs beyond “funny and left of center,” which at 16 cast members and more than two dozen writers is both understandable and, in the form of variety and flexibility, often a good thing. But Fey and Poehler’s turn at the helm was a reminder that a noticeable, unapologetic, and yes, feminist agenda doesn’t kill comedy, but help it.