'Saturday Night Live' finale recap: Ben Affleck shines, but Stefon and Fred Armisen steal the show

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Image Credit: Dana Edelson/NBC

Last year, Kristen Wiig’s emotional SNL sendoff set a high water mark for cast member farewells. (Compare it to, say, the way Chris Kattan said goodbye with a “terrible re-enactment” of his SNL career during his last show 10 years ago.)

I’d say that mark was met — and possibly exceeded — by the closing sketch of tonight’s show, in which Fred Armisen (as punk rocker Ian Rubbish, first introduced when Vince Vaughn hosted a few weeks ago) sang a sweet original tune filled with simple, evocative lyrics like, “It’s been all right, I’ve had a lovely night.” He was joined onstage by bandmates Derek Gash (Bill Hader, who’s also leaving the show) and Keith Grimshaw (Taran Killam, who’d better not be going anywhere).

While Wiig’s goodbye paid tribute to her as a singular, standout personality, Armisen and Hader’s was more understated. But because Armisen is a chameleon, it’s only fitting that he bid farewell in character — and it was equally fitting to see Hader, the show’s strongest supporting presence (when he’s not playing Stefon), say goodbye while backing up one of his castmates.

There’ll be plenty more time to discuss “Lovely Day” — as well as the slew of cameos it brought with it — at the end of the recap. First, though, let’s get some other business out of the way: namely, the show’s Politics Nation cold open and host Ben Affleck’s bifurcated monologue, which tackled both his lame induction into the Five-Timers Club and his awkward Oscars acceptance speech.

Both seem sort of beside the point in light of Hader and Armisen’s departures — but hey, at least they were funny. Kenan Thompson’s Sharpton is getting more absurdly dim every time he appears on the show — thinking that “theories” is pronounced “thee-oh-ryes,” likening his hairdresser to Frederick Douglass’s, comparing how much the IRS has bothered white people over the last 20 years to how much they bothered black people yesterday — which bodes well for next season, when Thompson will become the most seasoned performer on the show. (Kenan joined the cast in 2003. Jason Sudeikis — who may or may not be leaving SNL — started writing sketches for the show that same year, but didn’t become a featured player until 2005.)

Affleck’s monologue may have been more successful if it had focused on either the Five-Timers thing or the Oscars thing, rather than trying to tackle both. Still, I’m glad SNL acknowledged how it couldn’t very well invite Steve Martin et al back just months after they showed up to induct Justin Timberlake — and Jennifer Garner’s subsequent cameo was gold, proving that she and Affleck may deserve a chance to wipe away the stain of Daredevil by appearing onscreen together again.

As much as everyone loved Argo, it’s been three months since it won Best Picture and a full seven months since its theatrical release. Given this, any jokes about the movie are bound to feel stale — and Saturday Night Live‘s take, which found Fred Armisen’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad making his own rebuttal to the film, was no exception. (And isn’t it weird that Iranian cast member Nasim Pedrad didn’t appear onscreen in a sketch actually set in Iran?) That said, the sketch did feature two exceptionally solid bits: Ahmadinejad’s insistence on saying “pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd” before every one of his lines, and Affleck saying that he did the fake movie only because he’s “long been looking to appear in a movie worse than Gigli.”

Thankfully, the three sketches that followed felt much more fresh. First up was a pretaped commercial parody hawking a new kind of Xanax — one formulated specially to deal with the feelings of inadequacy that plague straight people when attending beautiful gay weddings. A typical compare and contrast: “Barack Obama called personally to give [the gay couple] his congratulations. At my wedding, my grandmother called Obama the N-word.”

Next was a clever, Depression-era period piece that cast Hader as decent, down-on-his-luck Edward and Kate McKinnon as Shirley Temple-esque Primadonna, apparently Edward’s daughter. As the sketch progressed, we learned that Edward was actually a two-bit good-for-nothing with a habit of hitting people with bricks, then stealing all their money — and that Primadonna was actually a middle-aged hooker. McKinnon proved again that she’s got a knack for knocking even the simplest lines out of the park; the way she said “I’m 40″ was reason enough to get me excited to see what she’ll do next season.

Finally, there was Affleck’s turn as a camp director welcoming his charges to their summer home away from home. The twist: It’s a camp devoted to “turning” gay kids straight. Maybe it’s a mistake to say that this sketch felt fresh; the kids and Affleck’s arts and music counselor, a preening Taran Killam, were all flamboyant in predictable ways. But even if they were obvious, Bobby Moynihan’s jazz hands killed — and the tension between Killam and Affleck was hilarious, as well as surprisingly believable. Unfortunately, the sketch isn’t online yet, likely because it featured Killam singing “I Love the Nightlife.”

Speaking of music: Here comes Kanye West, introduced by a weirdly choked up Affleck. (Maybe ‘Ye was mean to him backstage?) Kanye always puts on a show when he does SNL, setting his appearances apart in a good way. This time, he debuted his new song “Black Skinhead” in front of a flickering projection screen that showed images of prices and a “not for sale” notice. The performance was angry, intense, simultaneously captivating and unpleasant — and sure to get people talking, which is certainly what West wants most of all.

Kanye brought back the projection screen for “New Slaves,” a song he debuted Friday night by — you guessed it — projecting a video performance of  it onto 66 buildings around the world. As in “Black Skinhead,” the rapper is courting controversy with racially-charged lyrics and an anti-capitalist message that seems strange for someone who dates Kim Kardashian (and who specifically ordered Persian rugs with cherub imagery). Looks like his upcoming album, apparently called Yeezus, will be quite the conversation-starter.

West’s performances may have bewildered and terrified you. Thankfully, Weekend Update had the perfect antidote: guest appearances by Amy Poehler (who returned to do a “Really?!” bit with Seth Meyers) and, of course, our beloved Stefon. Stefon’s appearance began as normal: he named one of New York’s hottest clubs, he made yet another midget joke. And that’s when things got interesting.

After being told yet again that he hadn’t given Meyers the sort of recommendation he was looking for, Stefon had had enough. He told the Update anchor that he was sick of the way Seth treats him — and that he was getting married to someone who truly respects him. Then Stefon ran off, leaving a shell-shocked Seth to try to continue Update as usual. After trying and failing to deliver another one-liner, Meyers had his own When Harry Met Sally moment: he’s been in love with Stefon all along!

A bit of encouragement from Poehler was all Meyers needed to go after Stefon, following him to a nearby church filled with the insane entities Stefon has been describing for all these years. Among them: A gaggle of human parking cones serving as Stefon’s groomsmen, Alf in a trench coat, a Furkel, Germfs, Gizblow, the coked-up gremlin, a geisha, Menorah the Explorer, and DJ Baby Bok Choy. Review our directory of Stefon’s clubs, and you may be able to spot even more. Ben Affleck was there as well, reprising his role as Stefon’s brother David — a part he first played during Stefon’s first-ever appearance on the show in 2008.

Though Stefon’s groom — Anderson Cooper, obviously — put up a good fight, Seth’s Graduate-esque bellow was enough to win Stefon over. The new couple returned to the Update desk together, where they joined a group of Update’s most frequent visitors (Cecily Strong’s Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With, Sudeikis’s Devil, Armisen’s David Patterson, Moynihan’s Drunk Uncle, Thompson’s Jean K. Jean, Vanessa Bayer’s Bar Mitzvah Boy, Nasim Pedrad’s Arianna Huffington, and Kate McKinnon’s Ann Romney) to finally say goodbye for good. Here’s video; you have my full permission to watch it on an endless loop.

After Stefon’s climactic, pitch-perfect sendoff, SNL was brought to a screeching halt (as is the show’s wont). Two of the next four sketches — not-dead Greg Pulino’s funeral and that engagement party filled with emotional cops — were duds, though Affleck did pretty well in both given the material. Much better was a repeat performance by Bayer and Strong’s braindead Saboski Crystals girls, this time hawking “Herman” (a.k.a. Herpes Hermès) handbags. Any characters that can survive three same-season appearances without wearing out their welcome are definitely keepers — especially given the stable of characters that Armisen and Hader will be taking with them when they leave the show.

Which brings me, once again, to “Lovely Day” and Armisen and Hader’s last goodbye. As Ian Rubbish and the gang sang sweetly, they were gradually joined onstage by a dream team of indie musicians: Aimee Mann, Michael Penn, Steve Jones of The Sex Pistols, J. Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, and, of course, Carrie Brownstein of both Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia, the land to which Armisen is apparently moving permanently. Between the song’s wistful lyrics, the “I Heart LM” on Armisen’s guitar strap — that’s got to be a shoutout to Lorne Michaels — and the teary hugs that followed the performance, you can be excused for getting a little misty as the show ended.

And that’s our season — an uneven ride that fortunately ended on a high note. How do you think Hader and Armisen’s goodbyes compared to Kristen Wiig’s? How sorry are you to see them go? Does Sudeikis’s lack of fanfare mean that he’s going to stick around next season? And finally, do you agree that Affleck did a pretty great job, even if he was totally overshadowed by the show’s departing cast members?

Read more:
‘Saturday Night Live’: A full directory of Stefon’s favorite clubs. (This post has EVERYTHING.)
‘SNL’: Costumes of the Year!
Seth Meyers will return to ‘SNL’ this fall, leave for ‘Late Night’ in 2014

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