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'Saturday Night Live' recap: Mazel tov, Drake (and Sasheer Zamata)!

Even after 38 and a half seasons, SNL still has the capacity to surprise. Yesterday, I assumed that 2014′s first episode would make some noise about new featured player Sasheer Zamata; given the show’s unusually public search for black female talent, fanfare or at least a formal introduction seemed likely.

But in the end, SNL decided to go a more matter-of-fact route: Zamata wasn’t set apart from the rest of the cast. Instead, she was simply and easily integrated into the show, appearing in no fewer than five sketches throughout the episode. And though Sasheer certainly got more screen time than the average featured player — blink and you’ll miss Brooks Wheelan and John Milhiser each week — she was never given the responsibility of carrying an entire sketch, which may have been too much for her very first show. All in all, I’m glad SNL defied my expectations and took a subtler approach; this seems like the best way to gradually end the conversation about Sasheer Zamata, Black Lady Comedian, and move toward a world where she’s just another part of the group.

Another reason SNL was smart not to make the night all about Sasheer (or its other new additions, SNL writers LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones): We got more time to spend with Drake. And Drake was really, really great. Especially in the night’s…

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Drake takes over 'Saturday Night Live' tonight: Talk about it here!

Man, where do we even begin?

This is a pretty big night for SNL. Let us count the ways: It’s the first show of 2014. The first show starring Drake as both host and musical guest, as well as Drake’s first major acting credit since Degrassi (unless you count his voice work in 2012′s Ice Age: Continental Drift). And, perhaps most importantly, it’s also the first show that will feature the work of SNL‘s much-publicized new talent — writers Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes, and featured player Sasheer Zamata.

No disrespect to Drake (or Ben Affleck), but that last item is what most people are buzzing about going into tonight’s episode. (Sorry, Aubrey — don’t cry.) SNL will obviously have to address its hunt for black female talent at some point during the evening, most likely during the cold open or the monologue. (What are the odds that Kerry Washington and/or Al Sharpton show up again to comment on the matter?) No matter what happens after that, talk of Jones, Tookes, Zamata, and however the show handles their first week on the job will definitely dominate the conversation about SNL tomorrow.

I’m hoping, though, that even in the midst of all this, Drake himself will get a few moments to shine. After all, he did some pretty great stuff the last time he stopped by the show:

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Drake breaks out 'Degrassi'-honed acting chops in 'SNL' promos -- VIDEO

Do Drake’s newly released ‘Saturday Night Live’ promos poke fun at Degrassi, the Canadian teen soap that starred Drake (then known as Aubrey Graham) for eight years?

Did Jimmy break up with Ashley after she got high on ecstasy and made out with Sean at the end of the school year, prompting her to reinvent herself for Grade 9 as an artsy goth chick with a pixie cut? (The answer to this question, like the previous one, is “yes.”)

Drake, of course, is more than a former teen star; he’s also an accomplished rapper, and an able straight man for the antics of promo costars Bobby Moynihan and Jay Pharoah. But it’s in the clip’s brief, glorious Degrassi segment that he truly shines as a funnyman; let’s hope it’s only a taste of what’s to come on SNL this weekend. At least cross your finger for more material like this and less material like Moynihan and Pharoah talking about beats.

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Bobby Moynihan joins En Vogue and names the moment he became a man in our Pop Culture Personality Test -- VIDEO

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You can get a double dose of Bobby Moynihan this week with the Jan. 18 return of Saturday Night Live (host and musical guest Drake) and Monday night’s premiere of Chozen, the new animated FX comedy in which he voices the titular gay white ex-con rapper. Yes, you read that right. “As you know, FX is fearless,” Moynihan says. “Every other line on the show is pretty crazy. Chozen does a lot of crazy things. I’m gonna go with, like, the least crazy, actually: There’s a scene where he’s smoking a joint and finds a hot dog on the floor, takes a drag, eats the hot dog, and then exhales. I just wish I could do that in real life. I wish I had that talent. And again, that’s the least crazy thing he’s done.”

Moynihan felt comfortable when he got the audition because the character’s voice reminded him of Mark Payne, the Pizzeria Uno employee he’s played on SNL and at the Upright Citizens Brigade. Though he doesn’t perform Chozen’s raps in the show (that’s creator Grant Dekernion), Moynihan dreams of the day when he puts out his own rap album. “In my mind, not in real life,” he says. “My rap name will be Optimus Rhymes. Or the Notorious B.o.B.”

For more pop culture revelations, watch the always entertaining Moynihan take the EW Pop Culture Personality Test below.  READ FULL STORY

8 things to know about new 'SNL' cast member Sasheer Zamata

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In all the excitement about SNL finally hiring another black woman, we can’t overlook an important detail: New featured player Sasheer Zamata is not just an African-American lady. She’s a seasoned comedian with four years of professional experience, and she has an individual identity — as well as, you know, a name. (Ahem, headlines like this.)

So! Now that SNL has finally solved all its diversity problems forever and ever, let’s take a minute to put that issue aside and focus instead on Zamata herself. Here are a few things you should know about her before her big debut Jan. 18:

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Why we're pumped to see Drake host 'SNL' -- VIDEO

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Two words, guys: Wheelchair Jimmy.

Fine, a few more words: This weekend, Saturday Night Live announced that 2014′s first show will be helmed entirely by Drake, playing the role of both host and musical guest. Pulling double duty on SNL is a big deal for any artist, but it’s especially notable for a rapper; only a handful in SNL history have done so before, including M.C. Hammer (in 1991), Queen Latifah (in 2004), and Ludacris (in 2006).

All three of these rappers have one thing in common: previous acting experience. Ludacris hosted after receiving good notice for his work in films like Crash and Hustle & Flow. Queen Latifah had 117 episodes of Living Single under her belt, not to mention an Oscar-nominated turn in Chicago. Hammer had… the short-lived Saturday morning cartoon Hammerman, which starred its namesake as a mild-mannered “guy named Stanley” who transforms into a superhero when he puts on a pair of magical dancing shoes. Seriously. (I didn’t say they all had good acting experience.)

And Drake, of course, also fits this mold. Long before he started going by his middle name, Drake was known as Aubrey Graham — one of the original stars of Degrassi: The Next Generation, a.k.a. the greatest Canadian export since The Kids in the Hall. Drake played Jimmy Brooks, a basketball star who’s one of the most popular kids in school. He’s also a bit of an amateur rapper himself:
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'Saturday Night Live' best host poll: Can anyone beat Jimmy Fallon?

When Jimmy Fallon aced the Christmas 2011 episode of Saturday Night Live, yours truly suggested that his hosting become an annual holiday event. The former cast member and future Tonight Show host has all the skills to be one of show’s best guests, and he was in top form when he stepped back in to Studio 8H over the weekend to spread some more Christmas cheer. He sang, he did impressions, he broke character — it was the full-on Fallon treatment. Admittedly, he had some assistance from Justin Timberlake — Bing Crosby to Fallon’s Bob Hope — but you can’t penalize a guy for having funny, charismatic friends.

Safe to say that Fallon is about to make a huge impression on our Mr. Saturday Night poll. In fact, with none of the other four contenders with more than 26 percent of the vote, the field is wide open for Fallon to set a first-week record for support. Last week, John Goodman eked out a win, but it wasn’t a margin of victory that promises him a long life in our season-long contest. Paul Rudd was right behind, while Kerry Washington slipped to a close third, despite an encouraging six-point bump. Josh Hutcherson rallied support, eliminating Tina Fey, who’d been hanging precariously since hosting the season premiere. Blerg.
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'SNL' recap: Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake's Christmas bro-down

Now that’s what I call a Christmas show!

Saturday’s Jimberlake joint wasn’t perfect. It certainly wasn’t as consistently wonderful as Jimmy Fallon’s last Christmas episode, which set the standard for SNL holiday cheer two years ago. And it did contain one sketch offensively bad enough to almost ruin the whole night’s effect. Pound for pound, though, Fallon and his unofficial cohost Justin Timberlake did present one of this season’s best overall episodes — thanks largely to their unflagging energy and enthusiasm, which gave a jolt of joy to even the night’s less inspired bits. (We’re making fun of Paul Ryan? Still? Now?) Last week’s holiday-themed John Goodman episode was a letdown; this week’s holiday show felt like a pleasant corrective.

But interestingly enough, the night’s biggest triumph actually didn’t rely on Fallon and Timberlake’s chemistry at all. I’m talking, of course, about the episode’s…

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Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake rule 'Saturday Night Live' tonight: Talk about it here!

#JimmyFallon. #JustinTimberlake. #SaturdayNightLive. #BestEpisodeEver?

Let’s not take things too far. We should, however, be prepared for an SNL episode where everyone’s at the top of their game. Fallon (the episode’s host) and Timberlake (its nominal musical guest, though you know he’s basically co-hosting) tend to bring out the best in everyone around them whenever they stop by SNL individually. And with their powers combined, TimberFal can reach all kinds of heights.

Surprises, of course, will be in store. But given what we already know about this dynamic duo, it’s safe to make a few predictions about what to expect as well. Such as:

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Jimmy Fallon comes home for Christmas in 'Saturday Night Live' promos -- VIDEO

Jimmy Fallon: What a nice guy! So nice, in fact, that he’s totally cool spending most of his SNL promos ceding the spotlight to somebody who isn’t even present — Justin Timberlake, who will join his pal Fallon on this weekend’s show.

Nominally, Fallon is hosting the show, while Timberlake is just there to sing. But knowing these guys, it’s safe to guess that Timberlake is going to play a bigger role than most musical guests. And given Fallon’s improvised promos song — featuring an adorably serious Kate McKinnon, channeling Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig’s Garth and Kat — perhaps we can expect the future Tonight Show host to crash SNL‘s musical stage as well.

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