The premiere of the 34th season of Saturday Night Live was one of the most eagerly anticipated events of the TV year. And, for the most part, the production lived up to the hype.

Much of the buzz came from having Baltimore's Michael Phelps, the eight-time gold medal winner at the summer Olympics, as host. Phelps made his acting debut in eight sketches - a demanding load for any comedy rookie - and did OK until losing his concentration in the very last sketch of the night, a spoof of his high-calorie diet.

But the real comedic thunder, the sketch that folks will be talking and arguing and getting all culture-war-crazy about, was the show opener with Emmy-award-winner and SNL veteran Tina Fey as Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Fey appeared with the gifted SNL regular Amy Poehler, who portrayed Sen. Hillary Clinton, in a joint "nonpartisan" address on the "ugly role that sexism is playing in the campaign." Palin was also the target of innumerable barbs in the "Weekend Update" segment.

All praise to executive producer Lorne Michaels: He knew what the politically savvy core audience of SNL wanted and he gave it to them before anyone even yelled, "Live from New York."

Playing off the news of ABC anchorman Charles Gibson's interview with Palin on Thursday, the sketch has Poehler's Clinton saying she doesn't agree with the Bush Doctrine. And then, Fey's Palin quickly adds, "I don't even know what that is." The studio audience screamed in delight.

Whatever disappointment anyone was feeling over the last-minute cancellation by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, in deference to Hurricane Ike, was forgotten.

The producers protected Phelps in the opening monologue segment, loading it with cast members and a surprise cameo by actor-pitchman William Shatner. After every other sentence from Phelps, someone would jump in and carry the comedic moment - including Poehler, this time as Phelps' mother, Debbie. The monologue ended with a quick shot of Debbie herself sitting next to Poehler. Clever touch.

Phelps had a couple of nice moments for a comedy neophyte. His best was as a troubled teen playing discordant riffs over and over on a baritone saxophone. I guess you had to be there.

Still, he brought an energy and electricity to the stage, and that went a long way in making the season opener a pop culture event that won big ratings.

Saturday night's telecast was the highest-rated season premiere since the highly emotional return of SNL in 2001 after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. And the city with the highest viewership was Baltimore, where three out of every 10 households watching TV were tuned to Saturday Night Live.

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