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 was worthy of 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 "non-partisan 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 political 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. And the show was off and running.

The writers and producers protected Phelps in the 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' mom, Debbie. The monologue ended with a quick shot of Debbie herself sitting next to Poehler. Clever touch.

Phelps had some 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 worth staying up late for.

(Above: NBC photo of a scene from Saturday Night Live)