Breaking Down Each Cast Member’s Contributions to SNL Season 36
Over the course of this past season of SNL, I’ve been keeping track of which sketches each performer was in. After last weekend’s finale I tallied the sum totals of available roles in each episode and total roles each performer played throughout the entire 22-episode season, weighting the larger roles more than simple walk-ons and one-line parts. Below, I have displayed the results in a pie chart to illustrate each performer’s share of screen time.
It’s a relief to see that these numbers are fairly evenly distributed. Although some cast members are clearly getting more screen time than others, at least no single cast member is clearly dominating over all the rest. The cast is full of talented people, and this season, more than previous seasons, has been an ensemble effort. And really, the order of who gets the most screen time sticks pretty closely to how long each person has been on the show.
That said, each cast member contributed to the show differently. Let’s take a look at each one:
Bill Hader. Hader has easily made himself the most indispensible member of the SNL cast. He is capable of characters as ridiculous as the ones Kristen Wiig plays, but he is also the cast’s most talented impressionist and Aykroyd-esque spokesman. His true value resides in his perceived good nature — Hader comes across like a genuinely nice person, a too-often ignored attribute. Audiences loyally rally behind him whenever he struggles to maintain composure during his Stefon pieces, and despite the fact that a few of his characters are just as overplayed as Wiig’s, audiences never seem to tire of them.
Kristen Wiig. While her handful of notoriously overplayed characters have become the poster children for SNL’s character exhaustion, Kristen Wiig has been less the Atlas this season critics make her out to be. After single cameos as Penelope and Gilly in the fall, she recently announced that she would be retiring the characters for good. Even her panicky travel expert Judy Grimes made only one appearance this season. Instead, Wiig has explored new territory. The “mama grizzlies” of the midterm election finally gave her the political roles she had to wait in the wings for during the 2008 election, and she’s anchored herself in recurring roles Kat (of the Garth and Kat segments) and Mindy Alyce Grayson (of the Secret Word sketches). Still, if her past Emmy nominations are any indicator of her value, Wiig remains a huge asset to SNL.
Fred Armisen. It used to be the case that whichever SNL cast member played the current president had a secure position on the show. This isn’t necessarily the case for Armisen, whose President Obama hasn’t resonated with audiences. While Armisen may be gradually feeling more comfortable in the role, SNL has steered away from doing too many direct presidential addresses as their cold opens this season, allowing Armisen to embrace his niche as the cast’s wild card performer, playing desperate stand-up comic characters and extreme-alternative musicians (who seem to have wandered out of Armisen’s IFC show Portlandia). There remains speculation that newcomer Jay Pharoah may replace Armisen as Obama, but after Pharoah’s diminished role in the past few months, that may still be up in the air. Regardless, with the third-greatest share of the total screen time this season, Armisen remains one of the show’s most trusted performers.
Andy Samberg. Since he joined the SNL staff in 2005, Samberg (with Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer) has honed perhaps the most clearly defined niche in the cast: the Digital Short. With his weekly videos now an accepted part of the SNL lineup, Samberg can guarantee that he’ll star in one of the most popular pieces of the night. The cross promotion between SNL and The Lonely Island has benefitted both parties, but mostly Samberg himself, whose position on the show is secure for the foreseeable future.
Jason Sudeikis. Originally brought on as a replacement for Will Ferrell, Jason Sudeikis has since fulfilled the role of SNL’s leading male, or the Bill Murray role. Sudeikis’ Midwestern charm makes him a natural straight man in any sketch, but he’s just dangerous enough to give his call-outs some teeth. This quality makes him the perfect Joe Biden — a character that that should be unleashed more often (the actual person too). This season, Sudeikis hasn’t had many memorable roles other than the occasional news anchor, the guy in the bar who actually gets to talk, the tracksuit dancer on “What’s Up With That?” and the devil at the Weekend Update desk, but his frequent appearances reveal his reliability. And given his recent turn as Mitt Romney, it’s likely we’ll be seeing plenty more of Sudeikis next season.
Kenan Thompson. It seems like Kenan Thompson, who when he first got hired played like he was still on All That, has eventually caught on with SNL audiences. He has a number of well-liked recurring roles, such as the eternally singing host of “What’s Up With That,” Grady Wilson, an old man who makes instructional sex videos in his basement, and Lorenzo Macintosh, and overzealous convict in a “scared straight” program. I particularly enjoyed his performance this season as New York gubernatorial candidate Jimmy MacMillan of “The Rent is Too Damn High” Party. Thompson’s likability, combined with his rare position as a black actor who has successfully assimilated with the SNL style, makes him a cornerstone of the current cast.
Nasim Pedrad. Fans of Nasim Pedrad worried throughout this season that she would suffer the same fate of other talented featured performers from the past few years (Jenny Slate, Casey Wilson) and lose so many roles to Kristen Wiig that she’d eventually fade out of the picture and get axed. Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case so far. Pedrad has remarkable versatility — she can play typical mothers and girlfriends as well as more flawed, post-gender roles, such as mom-enthusiast Bedilia. I think it’s pretty likely that Pedrad will return next season promoted to a member of the main cast.
Taran Killam. In the first half of the season Taran Killam looked like another featured performer who would be fading into obscurity. Then, halfway through the season, he began to kick it into gear and get some more roles thrown in his direction. Killam hustled and made the most of each one, bringing extreme physical commitment to sketches and providing a raw new energy to the show. He also turned out to be a surprisingly good impressionist — his Eminem was one of the best impressions we saw all season. Next season, Killam is on track to emerge as one of the show’s new stars.
Bobby Moynihan. As one of the newer members of the main cast, it’s not that shocking that Moynihan has been relatively under the radar this season. But it’s a shame, because Moynihan brings a sense of joy and wonderment to his characters that isn’t present elsewhere in the cast. His most memorable roles this season have been at the Weekend Update desk, especially with his “secondhand news correspondent” Anthony Crispino, but his future seems to be playing more innocent characters, like Keith, the easily impressed movie fan boy.
Abby Elliott. Elliott, who made headlines for being the first second-generation cast member (her father, Chris Elliott, was on the show in its 1994-1995 season) and for being its current youngest (she’s 23), was initially brought on mid-season in 2008 to replace Amy Poehler. This season, she was promoted to a regular cast member. Unfortunately, she hasn’t as of yet been shown as much love as her predecessorn. But what screen time she has had she’s made the most of, with memorable impressions of people like Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep, Khloe Kardashian, and Rachael Maddow. Hopefully next season we’ll see more of her character work, such as she showed this year in the commercial for the girl who gives bad news to people.
Vanessa Bayer. Chicago actress Vanessa Bayer turned out to be a delight this season, with her most memorable role as Miley Cyrus. As the season wore on she lost a bit of momentum as Taran Killam became the dominant rookie, and fewer roles were given to her (she was the only cast member completely absent in the season finale). But she’s definitely carved out a space for herself on the show, so it should be exciting to see her get more comfortable on the show next season.
Paul Brittain. Paul Brittain is another newcomer who had a strong start that faded out throughout the season. He had some great moments playing Johnny Depp and James Franco, and another fantastic turn as “Sex” Ed Vincent, a creatively frank sex education instructor. He is clearly a talented performer, but I wish we’d seen more from him.
Jay Pharoah. This brings us to one of the most peculiar yet unfortunate casting scenarios this season. When it was announced that comedian and impressionist Jay Pharoah would be joining the cast, fans were intrigued that a black performer with no more experience than a few YouTube videos could make it to SNL, even potentially play the role of President Obama. Critics buzzed and viewers lined up to see what were billed as pitch-perfect impersonations of Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Eddie Murphy, and others. Pharoah showed us what he could do. To be fair, the guy’s a good impersonator. But while watching him in sketches, we realized a very simple truth: This is SNL. Everyone does impersonations. Some of them are not merely good at it; they’re at the top of their game. They’ve been doing it for years and years. And in addition to being expert impressionists, they’re also seasoned comedy actors. They know how to hit a mark and deliver a punchline that someone else wrote. Pharoah, who at first seemed like a performer that would be a thrill to write for, too often shot himself in the foot with poor or awkward delivery, causing him to suffer from sketch starvation during the spring, and end the season with the lowest percentage of screen time. We’ll see what happens with Pharoah – Lorne may decide to keep him around for another season. But I think the young actor would be better off getting more experience as a live performer before a role with the highest possible profile is thrust upon him.
What do you think? Who were your favorite castmembers this season? Who, if anyone, do you think won’t be returning? Who would you like to see join the cast next season?
We’ll have plenty more to talk about when SNL announces the new cast at the end of the summer. Until then, let the speculation begin!
Erik Voss really loves SNL.