GIVE THE PEOPLE what they want, and they'll stay up to see it.

Propelled by a much-hinted-at appearance by Tina Fey and with Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps as guest host, the 34th season premiere of NBC's "Saturday Night Live" this weekend scored its highest overnight ratings for a season opener since 2001, when millions tuned in to see how it would cope in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Fulfilling the vision of every viewer who saw Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for the first time and thought "Tina Fey!" the former "SNL" head writer and "Weekend Update" anchor, sporting what looked like Palin's suit and glasses and what sounded an awful lot like Palin's prairie accent, did everything but field-dress her lookalike in the first few minutes of the show, where she appeared, with "SNL's" Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton, to decry sexism.

It was a performance that ought to qualify the "30 Rock" creator and star to be Palin's body double - a la "Dave" - should the Republican vice presidential nominee ever be eaten by a bear, but it was a heavily pregnant Poehler who had some of the best lines, as she seemed to be saying the things that the real Hillary has so far avoided in her appearances for Democratic nominee Barack Obama - mainly that, XX chromosome aside, she and Palin don't have much in common.

"I scratched and clawed through mud and barbed wire and you just glided in on a dogsled wearing your pageant sash and your Tina Fey glasses," Poehler said at one point.

Palin loyalists aren't likely to be swayed by Poehler or Clinton, but could "SNL" have some effect on the people covering the candidate? Witness what happened last February after an "SNL" debate sketch showed Obama being treated with extreme deference, Clinton with near-contempt: Coverage of Obama grew noticeably tougher.

Saturday night, Poehler seemed to be looking to move the needle yet again, saying, "It is never sexist to question female politicians' credentials. Please ask this one about dinosaurs. So I invite the media to grow a pair. And if you can't, I will lend you mine." *

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