Thursday, May 26th, 2011

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.

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  • iamjustryingtolive

    I agree with splitsider. Overall, this was a strong season with a cast that an "era" feel. Nasim and Abby are hysterical. I was surprised at how much I liked Bobby Moynihan this year. I don't know if he grew on me or he improved or some combo but he really did some funny work (Crispino, fat girl in corn ad). Paul Brittain's mother's day sketch was so weird and awesome, dare i say, edgy? Without being plugged into the NY, LA or Chicago comedy scene it's hard to say who i think should join the cast without sounding like a n00b. But i would like to see even more diversity in SNL's cast. How about someone who's Asian, Latin, Native American? And not to play roles for those races but because surely there are comic stars from those backgrounds (and others) ready to breakout.

  • Bill Bullock@facebook

    so, i'm just wondering if leaving seth myers out of these calculations and reflections was purposeful or merely an oversight. I feel that your opinions are largely spot-on, but leaving out the head writer of the show and (what i believe to be, correct me if i am wrong) the longest-running current cast member seems odd.

    • http://splitsider.com Adam Frucci

      @Bill Bullock@facebook Well, Meyers isn't really a castmember. He only does Weekend Update; I believe he was in one sketch this season for about 3 seconds.

    • Bill Bullock@facebook

      @Adam Frucci ok so it was purposeful. i guess that perspective does make it kind of not worth it to count him. i just had a thought, though. i wonder if myers likes the role he has carved out for himself. being basically a writer with one high profile gig a week (and none of the requirements or shames of having to be consistently hilarious in varying roles) may be a comfort. or it may be something he secretly hates. maybe i just dont know enough about SNL

    • Megh Wright

      @Bill Bullock@facebook "No. I’m really glad I don’t have to do impersonations anymore. I like doing the news, I’m way better at being myself than being anyone else. Some comedians are better at disappearing into impersonations of other people, but I always thought that was kind of a stretch for me."


  • iamjustryingtolive

    @BillBullock. word. How amazing would a sketch of Seth Meyers as Dan Savage be?

  • Kinbalk

    Wow, this is some impressive dedication to the show's dynamic here.

    I know this may sound like a hater/troll post but I prefered last year over this. Let me first ask: who likes "what's up with that?" I don't get it, its the same sketch everytime, they only do like 30 seconds of dialogue in a 5-10 minute sketch. Kenan needs to do more sex-aerobic sketches over WUWT. I personally think Jenny Slate was more talented than Nasim, who I think only got the job cause of the Kardashian sketches were becoming a part of the show. And while granted, thankfully they retired Gilly, I need more Target lady (I know I'm in a small minority here but I dont care. Hysterical to me.)

    I was really hoping for more Moynihan this year, but I fear his tenure may be drawing to a close.

  • Eric

    I think Bobby Moynihan is under-utilized. He is my personal favorite and i love seeing him on Asscat at the UCB, or watching him on his Derrick comedy stuff. In the Mystery Team movie, Jordy was the funniest character. He hasn't been given a lot of opportunities to be featured in a sketch which is unfortunate. Maybe they can bring back the pepper guy at pizzeria Uno. Hopefully next season, he will see more of him.

    • Kinbalk

      @Eric "It's hard cause there's windows there in the buildings I'm staying in and I'll look out of these windows and there'll be bros walking by and its not my fault if I think about what they'd look like soapy and wet." Classic.

  • http://twitter.com/joshung Joshua Ungerleider

    Great article. I definitely think Abby Elliot deserves more screen time. Everybody does impressions on SNL, but as far as the women go, I think her impressions are the best (most accurate). I don't think any female cast member does an impression as good as Elliot's Rachel Maddow.

    Killam grew on me. I probably unfairly dismissed him at first for being on Wild N Out.

    Pedrad has been consistently used as though she were a regular cast member. I think, generally a featured player isn't promoted until at least two years, which I think is the only reason it wasn't official already.

  • kablooooooom

    It's interesting, Jimmy Fallon was just on NPR talking to Terri Gross about how it's great to be able to do an impression, but you have to do something funny with that impression… thus Neil Young doing a Willow Smith song, not just Neil Young singing Neil Young. I'm not suggesting they stick Pharoah's characters into absurd situations, but just to remember that there has to be more to the joke then it's just Pharoah doing an uncanny impression of someone. It's something Abby Elliott has gotten right time and time again this season.

    I feel like Bill Hader has really come into his own this season. And honestly, I've never been a huge Kristen Wiig fan, but she has grown on me. I hope next season they stop relying on her characters and maybe do more impressions.

    In addition to that, still not thrilled by Kenan Thompson either. Can't stand most of his characters.

    I hope next season they add some more diversity to the cast and put Nasim in more sketches. I still think she is hilarious. It's a shame she didn't get much love this season.

  • akivaddict

    Great article (very accurate observations)!!
    Quick question: Is Abby Elliot the youngest, or is it actually Jay Pharoah??
    (I thought it was Pharoah- which would account for his inexperienced flubs- but… Wikipedia has lied to me before).

  • thejasten

    Fantastic Article.
    As far as Fred Armisan being the "Wild card" though, I think that in recent years, and especially since Will Forte's departure,the wild card role is equally distributed between Armisan, Wiig and Hader (Who I totally agree with you has the most range and was def MVP this season)

    It's bittersweet that it has taken Kenan Thompson this long to develop into an SNL worthy performer. I think his time is nearing an end, and it's only now that Kenan has started to belong. To his credit, Jay Pharoah is much better than the Kenan that started on the show. Maybe Lorne will see the potential and keep him around.

    @akivaddict while Pharoah is younger than Abby Elliot, she joined the cast in 2008, at the age of 20, becoming the youngest cast member to ever join. Pharoah of course joined this past season at the age of 22.

  • Amy O'Connor

    Am I the only one that thinks that all of Nasim Pedrad's characters are the same – down to the physical mannerisms and vocal intonation? I think that she's a talented sketch comedian, of course, and a fabulous utility player. But I wouldn't go so far as to call her diverse. Bedelia, Henry, her character from "My Brother Knows Everything" – I feel like these are way too similar and not displaying the diversity I think she possesses. I'd like to see her portray more adult characters next season, as opposed to relying on the "awkward kid" staple.

  • Michael Combs

    @thejasten. Abby Elliot wasn't the youngest member to join SNL.

    Anthony Michael Hall joined the cast in 1985 at the tender age of 17. That same season Robert Downey Jr joined at 20.

  • SnlFan

    I really believe that this cast and crew of very talented writers and performers are under appreciated. Bill Hader's Herb Welch and James Carville have left me in stitches every time they were on the show. I actually adored Wigg's Gilly and Penelope, though sometimes repetitive I loved how the writers managed to put her in different situations to see how she would react (Gilly in the Glee parody was hilarious). I find Andy Samberg's Digital shorts to be a great way of blending the very popular style of "Web Humour" into such a traditional show. I also found that this season Andy has been able to do a wider variety of characters such as One Take Tony and Mort Mort Feingold rather than just celebrity impressions. I think that Nasim Pedrad will turn out to be an SNL all star just judging by her timing, and character work this season. I love the energy that Bobby Moynihan brings to his characters and his overall versatility. All of the featured players have shown that they are there for a reason and have all given great performances throughout the season. Jay is a great impressionist who will continue to get better and better and Vanessa Bayer's Miley Cyrus always manages to crack me up. Taran Killam showed crazy character commitment when playing Gerard Butler and always goes all out. The rest of the cast never ceased to amaze me with their constant re-invention of themselves (Fred's Ricardo in TCM, Kenan's Jimmy MacMillan, Jason's Devil and Abby's Rachel Maddow clearly stood out) and of course Seth Meyers great delivery in Weekend Update.

    It's true that the show can sometimes be hit or miss, but in five or ten years no one is going to remember the sketches that didn't quite work, they will remember the ones that made them laugh. Their never truly was a "Golden Period", but as time progresses the not so nice memories fade and the great ones remain.