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Together again for the first time: Fey and Poehler paint a masterpiece with SNL's Sarah/Hillary sendup

Tina and Amy: brilliantly paired as Sarah, Hillary.

Anticipation has rarely been this high for a Saturday Night Live season opener.

After all, Olympic gold medal god Michael Phelps would be hosting and . . . scratch that.

After all, Tina Fey might play the role that many envisioned for her on the day John McCain dropped the puck and made Sarah Palin his "hockey mom."

Events simply overtook Phelps as no swimmer officially could. He's arguably still better known than Republican VP nominee Palin, but maybe by only a few hundredths of a second.

Fey's smashing return visit to SNL, greatly aided by another of Amy Poehler's impeccable sendups of Hillary Clinton, rendered Phelps virtually irrelevant for the rest of the night.

It's not his fault, at least in that context. Phelps otherwise barely managed to slog through SNL's in-over-his-head pool while the show's other big-name drop, an announced appearance by Barack Obama, failed to materialize. In deference to Hurricane Ike's same-day destructive path, the Democratic presidential nominee belatedly and wisely bowed out.

Fey-Poehler were much more than enough, though. Their show-opening -- and show-stopping -- "non-partisan message" registered as an instant classic in the long SNL tradition of hit and miss political sketches. Everything clicked like a three-inch high heel.

It all starts with the writing, and this sketch in large part was penned by SNL cast member Seth Meyers (who also co-anchors Weekend Update with Poehler.) Then you have to deliver on it in ways that poor Phelps mostly just couldn't during the eight sketches later bestowed on him.

Through no fault of her own -- but now fortuitously -- Fey obviously has the Palin look down. She also nailed the voice, the mannerisms and what ABC anchor Charles Gibson suggested was her "hubris" in their much-dissected one-on-one encounter late last week.

"Tonight we are crossing party lines to address the now very ugly role that sexism is playing in the campaign," Fey's Palin proclaimed.

"An issue which I am frankly surprised to hear people suddenly care about," rejoined Poehler's Hillary.

In its own way, SNL championed Hillary last season during an Update segment in which Fey said that bitches get things done. The show also skewered the so-called "mainstream media's" reverential treatment of Obama in a debate sketch later seen as pivotal in turning the coverage around a bit. Not that MSNBC really listened.

SNL's "Hillary" returned as a not-so-stiff upper-lipped loser who finally boiled over as "Palin" pronounced, "It's truly amazing and I think women everywhere can agree, that no matter your politics, it's time for a woman to make it to the White House."

"No, mine!" Hillary retorted. "I didn't want a woman to be president. I wanted to be President and I just happen to be a woman. And I don't want to hear you compare your road to the White House to my road to the White House. I scratched and clawed through mud and barbed wire and you just glided in on a dog sled wearing your pageant sash and your Tina Fey glasses!"

Palin simultaneously struck a series of seductive poses, ending with a strong-armed, pantomimed rifle cock.

Update later used what sometimes was a pole ax on Palin, this time shown as her still-photo self.

The race is tightening, said anchor Poehler, who's well along in her pregnancy and expecting her first child this fall with husband-actor Will Arnett. "John McCain is now only six points behind Sarah Palin."

That's funny. Some unkinder cuts came from cast member Will Forte in the guise of Palin's "biggest fan," bearded, flanneled, uncouth Alaska Pete.

He railed against the allegedly Palin-hating "media elite -- with your ivory towers, and your Four Seasons and your indoor plumbin'."

At the GOP convention, Palin lovingly "held that baby (five-month-old, Down Syndrome-afflicted Trig) in the air like The Lion King," Alaska Pete huffed before affectionately referring to the 44-year-old mother of five as a "Super MILF." And after daughter Bristol has her baby, Palin will become a "GILF," he noted.

Palin supporters no doubt will be crying foul, and have grounds to do so. Not that the McCain campaign isn't already using an assault rifle of its own in defense of the Alaska governor. Widely criticized, factually tortured 30-second spots basically portray Obama as a belittling sexist who also, by the way, wants to teach sex to kindergarteners.

Returning the love Friday night on his HBO Real Time show, comedian/politico Bill Maher tore into Palin as only a world class, real-life womanizer could. One can be a longtime fan of his unbridled humor -- guilty, your honor -- without laughing at lines such as "She thought the "Bush doctrine' has something to do with forbidding her daughters to shave down there."

Or how about this one: Palin's favorite sign of support upon returning to Alaska last week was "the one held up by her daughter -- 'I got my period.' "

Oh, it's going to get uglier, particularly on TV and the zillions of partisan web sites wearing blinders in service of their political views. But SNL's Sarah-Hillary sendup had the good grace to be smart, funny and brilliantly acted by Fey and Poehler, the only duo to ever make the show's usual gang of dominant male cast members seem almost impotent.

Maybe you haven't seen it yet? Here's the complete video of a sketch that's going to be endlessly excerpted on television while almost assuredly receiving bipartisan support: