Saturday Night Revived

Something strange happened the other night. I was deleting some 14 never-watched Oprah episodes from my DVR queue (really? Dr. Oz is on, again?) and came upon a lengthy list of Saturday Night Live re-runs from last season. Clearly, this batch of 10 or so episodes had to go to make room for this summer's new crop of "series recordings." I mean, the only thing more rare than actually watching an entire episode of this 33-year-old series is wanting to watch it again, right?

But as I scrolled down, my right thumb excitedly poised to send these eps into the ether, I found myself remembering how funny a lot of these were as the host names rolled by (LeBron James, Christopher Walken, Shia LaBeouf). And then, a strange realization washed over me: I actually saw every episode of SNL that aired in 2007-2008 season. Even stranger, I actually wanted to watch some of these again.

In the name of Stuart Smalley, how did this happen???

Well, the writer's strike definitely didn't hurt. Viewership for the show's Feb. 23 return with host Tina Fey was up 36 percent above pre-strike original episodes -- 7 million viewers total, its largest audience in two years (which leads me to believe that if the crew had a bit more time between eps, they wouldn't be desperate enough to do any more annoying game-show sketches. Just saying).

But really, last season was all about the talent. For the first time since Phil Hartman hosted "The Sinatra Hour," and Chris Farley lived in a van down by the river, and Adam Sandler laughed his way through " Opera Man," the SNL ensemble is tight. Really tight. Will Forte is pitch-perfect as the severely mulletted "MacGruber." Fred Armisen's Obama was a subtly perfect study in mimicry. And Kristin Wiig, well, nails pretty much everything she touches. Who else could pull off those mediocre Target Lady sketches, or make financial guru Suze Orman seem suddenly hilarious?

I think there's also something to be said for seeing these talented folks pop up in movies and other shows while they're still in the SNL cast. Will Forte wins the latter category with his gut-busting cameo as a delusional dry cleaner on last summer's Flight of the Conchords, and more recently as Barney's ill-suited wingman on How I Met Your Mother last spring. It helps SNL seem, I don't know, more current and young to have its players on the radar of Hollywood's reigning kings of comedy, like Judd Apatow, whose only so-so script for last winter's Walk Hard at least made room for Wiig to have a small role.

And then, there are those digital shorts. I don't know who had the utterly genius notion to start doing these -- the inaugural Natalie Portman rap and "Lazy Sunday" with Andy Samberg are still my favorites -- but Papa Lorne was wise to O.K. the targeting of the YouTube-generation. Yes, last year's "D--- in a Box" got all the Monday-morning buzz, but I challenge anyone to dig up a funnier three minutes than the season opener's digital bit featuring Samberg serenading a bearded Armisen (who, as it happens, pulls off a mean red evening gown) channeling the sweetly gay side of Iranian madman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

It's not surprising that SNL -- and all comedy shows, really -- would thrive during a campaign season, but I think last season offered up a surprisingly sophisticated approach to lambasting the absurdity of the Clinton-Obama drama -- not the least of which included the candidates themselves popping up for well-orchestrated, "Look, I can laugh at myself! Vote for me!" stunts. It was also great to have a female candidate in the mix this year, if only to let Amy Poehler work her magic as Clinton.

Which then makes me wonder: What will happen to the show after the election? McCain, if elected, would be great for enduring comedy fodder (and another reason to keep Darrell Hammond on the roster), but Obama? For all he is, the presumptive Democratic nominee isn't funny; he has no quirks, nor any propensity toward non sequiturs. A comic wasteland, really. So let's hope the gang is planning ahead. And fingers crossed that Obama's running mate turns out to have some sort of lambaste-worthy speech impediment, at the very least.

In the meantime, I'm going to keep a handful of last season's eps stored in my DVR. Best-case scenario? I can delete them come September when the new season has me glued to the tube. Or at the worst, they will serve as digital evidence that SNL once again rose from the ashes of its own mediocrity.