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Will Ferrell as George W. Bush on ‘SNL’: ‘Those were the days’

SNL cold open: Will Ferrell brings back George W. Bush

President George W. Bush, played by guest host Will Ferrell, addresses the nation and compares his presidency to that of President Donald Trump's. Credit: YouTube/SNL

Way back before he was Ricky Bobby and Buddy the Elf, or Ron Burgundy, or Mustafa or Mugatu, Will Ferrell was the Guy who Saved “Saturday Night Live.” If “SNL” was ever in danger of cancellation, it may have been the year before Ferrell arrived (’94). But after he arrived, "SNL" was never even remotely in trouble again. Ferrell brought whatever it was that was so desperately needed — a presidential impersonation for the ages and an exuberant silliness in every character, dozens of them. Long ago (he left in 2002), he reminded viewers why they needed “SNL” in their lives. Ferrell did the best work of his career here because he was made for “SNL” and “SNL” was made for him.

Little wonder then that his fourth time returning to Studio 8H as guest host would be such a triumph. From the cold open — he played Dubya, natch, “where the w stands for wazzzzup” — to the “Chucky Lee Byrd” commercial for the pedophile ’50s rocker, Ferrell reminded viewers too young to remember and those old enough to remember how this is supposed to be done. “SNL” is supposed to be fun. Last night was fun.

Here’s what went down in case you missed it: As expected, he opened with “W” — as he did in 2015, the last time he was here — from his replica of the Oval Office where he insisted that any nostalgia for his two terms is misplaced: “I want to address my fellow Americans tonight and remind you guys that I was really bad . . . Don’t look at my presidency and say, ‘this is how we do it.’ ”

His prez further reminded us what “SNL” presidents used to do — deliver punchline after punchline, without merely mugging for the camera. “Back in my day,” he recalled, “we didn’t let the Russians rig our election. We used the Supreme Court, like real Americans.”

Leslie Jones then wandered out as Condoleezza Rice to sing a duet of “Those Were the Days" (“Boy the way the game was played/Everybody knew their place/Cheney shot a guy in the face/those were the daaaays . . .")

The guest monologue then imagined the guest as brain-damaged: What would happen if you hit your head on a steel beam just before addressing a live national audience, with a trickle of blood on your forehead and a deep oozing gash on your skull? Would you summon ancient memories, and jumble the name of musical guest Chris Stapleton with Matchbox 20?

Ferrell starred in every skit, and got the punchline in every skit too. The logic of his “Clown Penis” handle — logically enough — was that “when an enemy pilot sees me on his tail, I want him to feel the same way you’d feel if a clown showed you his penis: Confused and very scared.”

The skit about a reality show — “90s House?” “Big Brother?” Who could tell? They’re all the same — had some more nostalgia, and a surprise guest appearance too: Tracy Morgan, in bed (“I’m still taking a nap.”)

“Dickinson’s Diner” paired the superstar of “SNL” past with the superstar of “SNL” now, as Ferrell and Kate McKinnon struggled to get out the line “baked in a crispy pastry crust.”

As both fatalist and atheist in the beatboxing airline crew skit, he insisted that “the afterlife is a void of black [and] religion is a delusion that shields us from impermanence” — this he said while demonstrating how to put on oxygen masks.

During “Weekend Update,” he was Jacob Silj, the guy who suffers from “voice immodulation syndrome,” who speaks in a loud monotone and whose “life has been a waking nightmare.”

The best skit of the night was — let’s call it — “Awkward Dinner Party” when the subject of Aziz Ansari is broached. This saw the struggle to express an opinion on sexual harassment as a treacherous minefield, where the slightest rhetorical misstep would be misconstrued to mean the opposite of what was intended, and so the safest recourse was to say nothing at all. Both subtle and silly, it was also a smart recalibration of the pitfalls of political correctness, where words become so loaded that it’s impossible to argue, much less, explore an opinion.

Moreover, Ferrell’s was also one of those rising-tide-lift-all-boats appearances, and a sharp reminder of how important the guest host actually is here. Because he knows the pace, structure and tone so intimately, no time is wasted to indoctrinate a first-timer. He’s the old-timer who knows how it’s done already, so let’s get down to business everybody.

And down to business they did: Saturday’s “Weekend Update” was one of the three or four best of the season, and offered more proof why Heidi Gardner — as flustered teen YouTube movie critic — is a big star of the future. Every line here gashed, and drew blood, and not like that fake blood on Ferrell’s forehead in the monologue:

Trump adviser Stephen Miller “looks like he has a sex doll named ‘Mother.’ ”

Or a mock-up of Trump as the Hamburglar: “No one’s trying to convict the Hamburglar for stealing hamburgers. That’s just what he does.”

Like the Awkward Dinner Party itself, “SNL” also has struggled this season to make sense, or fun, of #MeToo and Time’s Up. But in that fake commercial for an underarm deodorant called Next, it finally found the right combination, where the accused sweats profusely (and of course needs a deodorant.) Says one sweaty actor: “Lots of women are brave, but this woman is a liar. No comment.”

By the way, if you didn’t make it to the final seconds, Billy Joel was invoked. In the Chucky Byrd infomercial skit, Kate McKinnon’s character asks, “who makes ’50s rock in the 1980s?”

Beck Bennett’s character: “Billy Joel? Ever heard of him?”

Even Billy might laugh at that one.

Oh yes, and Ferrell wrapped his night with a shout-out to his son: “Axel Ferrell turned 8 this week.”

Happy birthday, Axel. Your dad did good.

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