Breaking Down Each Cast Member’s Contribution to ‘SNL’ Season 37

Now that we’ve looked at some of the highlights from the past season of SNL, let’s talk about the cast. One thing that often fails to get mentioned is the comedic powerhouse we have in the current ensemble. Save for an occasional low-drama tweak (Paul Brittain was let go from the show in February; Kate McKinnon added in April), there has been relatively low turnover throughout the past few seasons — a sign that Lorne is pretty happy with the way things are going. As he should be! Not since Phil Hartman have we seen performers so clearly suited for sketch comedy the way Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are. Even Bill Murray said last year that the current cast is the strongest since the show’s first few years.

Most importantly, everyone seems to genuinely like each other. I sometimes sense sideline anxiety from younger performers like Abby Elliott and Jay Pharoah, but in general, the cast seems to be having fun. This must be at least partially due to many of the actors’ and writers’ backgrounds in improv, which values the ensemble over the individual and emphasizes connecting with your scene partner as the chief priority. For evidence of this relationship-based mentality, just look at Weekend Update. In previous generations, a desk character would be given an uninterrupted three minutes for his or her bit – now, the tone is more conversational. Stefon, Drunk Uncle, and Garth and Kat need Seth Meyers – they’re all defined largely by their attitudes towards him. These on-stage moments, as well as a few candid ones, suggest a harmonious workplace at Studio 8H.

Of course, this dynamic may likely change when Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg and Jason Sudeikis leave the cast. But while the three of them are heavyweight talents and big names to have attached to the show, they are by no means load-bearing, and the show will continue to thrive well after they leave. (All bets are off should Bill Hader follow them out, however.)

As I did last year, I’ve been keeping track of the total number of sketches each cast member appeared in throughout the 22-episode season, weighing larger roles more than simple walk-ons and one-liners. Displaying the results in a pie chart gives us a sense of each cast member’s total share of the screen time:

(Note: Seth Meyers is not included here, as he typically only appears in Weekend Update each week, making his share of the total screen time negligible.)

Again, the results are fairly evenly distributed and the pecking order is pretty consistent with seniority. Let’s examine each cast member a little more closely.

Kristen Wiig. With SNL trying to get as much mileage as possible out of its biggest star, it’s not surprising that Wiig took the lion’s share of sketch roles this season. It’s amazing, though, when you think about Wiig’s journey from the quirky featured player into the leading lady she is today. In the middle of the last decade, SNL enjoyed a few seasons with women at the helm – head writer Tina Fey and workhorses Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, and Rachel Dratch – and Kristen Wiig, then known for her mildly popular Aunt Linda and Target Lady characters, was considered the next torch bearer. And right when she was about to step into the limelight for her first election year on the show, she again had to wait on the sidelines while Fey returned to play Sarah Palin for the duration of the election. In the meantime, Wiig defined herself as a master character actress with her obsessive one-upper Penelope and stage-fright travel expert Judy Grimes, scoring Emmy nominations for her work that year, and every year since. Her momentum has never slowed – her return to Season 37 has seen a variety of new characters and impressions (Flirting Expert, Michelle Bachmann, Lana Del Rey, Paula Deen, Tanning Mom) on top of her already consistent work. Kristen Wiig is perhaps the most talented actress SNL has had in its cast, and she will be missed.

Bill Hader. It amazes me how underrated Bill Hader continues to be, considering how many different hats he wears. The cast’s most talented impressionist, a vocal chameleon, a fine character actor, an archetypcal game show host, and a straight-up earnest and good-hearted guy, Hader is the glue that holds the show together. This season gave Hader fewer opportunities to shine – although his Stefon and Herb Welch characters got plenty of face time, the only new material we saw from him was an Of Mice and Men inspired portrayal of Rick Perry, a dimwitted home wrecker in The Californians, and Col. Nasty, a cackling mainstay of the Gettin’ Freaky with Cee Lo sketches.

Andy Samberg. Without the other two thirds of The Lonely Island working on the show this season, Andy Samberg was forced to carve a niche for himself outside of the digital short segment. He did so primarily with two recurring roles: a wholesome and ultra-conservative Rick Santorum, which actually had some funny moments in what were otherwise slow GOP sketches, and of course, the proudly intense Nic Cage, which was one of the best segments of the season. Later in the season, his nostalgic digital shorts reminded us of Samberg’s true contributions during his time on the show: He brought SNL into the 21st century and made the show “cool” again. We often think of people like Samberg using SNL as a stepping stone to greater exposure and fame, but in reality, SNL used Samberg and The Lonely Island just as much as they used SNL.

Jason Sudeikis. In the past I have labeled Jason Sudeikis as the cast’s leading man, occasionally comparing him Bill Murray when he was a cast member. Both were products of the Chicago improv scene, both can come across as assholes, and both get away with it because of their Midwestern charms. This season, Sudeikis didn’t seem to be in any hurry to get new characters on the show – his roles were mostly confined to Mitt Romney, Joe Biden, Robert Osbourne in the Turner Classic Movies sketches, and the director in the season’s hundred or so “on-set mishaps” pieces. I guess it’s important to have a “man’s man” in the cast, and should Sudeikis return to play Mitt Romney in the fall’s election sketches, I hope he does more with his time left than the early retirement Darrell Hammond fell into while playing John McCain in 2008.

Fred Armisen. With fewer Obama sketches this season, and fewer of his weird 10-to-1 sketches, we’ve seen much less of Fred Armisen this season. Armisen is wired differently than the other people in the room – many of his ideas come from an intangible place of “What if this guy just talks like this?” or “What if these people are singing these ridiculously stupid lyrics, but they’re really getting into it?” Armisen’s favorite target seems to be live performers themselves – his past characters Fericito and Nicolas Fehn mocked various stand-up comic types – and this season he went after the god-awful one-man show trend. With his show Portlandia on IFC getting picked up for a third season, I wonder how much longer Armisen will be interested in remaining on the show. Let’s hope it’s for a little longer – his unique perspective is truly irreplaceable.

Taran Killam. It’s been a huge season for the rookie, who was able to build on the momentum he gained with his bizarre Les Jeunes de Paris sketches to land bigger roles, like Piers Morgan, Steve Doocy, Andy Cohen, and one of the hosts of the J Pop America Fun Time Now talk show. When he’s not anchoring a sketch, Killam still manages to get some kind of screen time – a waiter, Secret Service agent, butler, etc. He also occasionally shows off his surprisingly good impersonation skills (Ashton Kutcher, Brad Pitt). It seems like Killam is well on his way toward becoming a key go-to performer in the cast, and I’m looking forward to his future on the show.

Bobby Moynihan. The best thing about Bobby Moynihan being so criminally underused on the show is that there’s no filler. Pretty much every time we see him, something amazing happens. Ass Dan. Guy Fieri. The guy who yells “WHHAAAAT?!” and drops the mic. He gave us two season-bests: Drunk Uncle, easily the best new character on the show; and his 10-to-1 sketch with Katy Perry. With Wiig, Sudeikis, and Samberg’s departure, hopefully Moynihan will finally have some room to show us what he can do. Here’s hoping we get to see Sideways Dracula in Season 38!

Kenan Thompson. We’ve seen more of the same from Kenan Thompson in Season 37 – more music intro talk show sketches, including the new Gettin’ Freaky with Cee Lo, which is more or less an updated version of Deep House Dish. His Herman Cain was a joy to watch in the GOP sketches, but I wasn’t crazy about his Al Sharpton sketches. I’m still impressed that Thompson has been able to assimilate so well into being an SNL regular. But I have to wonder… with What Up With That well past its prime, are Thompson’s best days behind him?

Vanessa Bayer. Vanessa Bayer was one of the first newcomers out of the gate last season with her hilarious Miley Cyrus impression, but this season, she has been confined mostly to co-hosts, game show contestants, housewives, etc. Her chemistry with Taran Killam in the J Pop talk show sketches has been great this year, but she’s running the risk of getting overshadowed by Kate McKinnon’s aggressive character work.

Nasim Pedrad. With Kristen Wiig getting the ball so often this season (and Kate McKinnon’s trial episodes in April and May), this wasn’t a very big season for Nasim Pedrad. After playing Raquel, the attention-starved daughter of a child psychologist, in the Alec Baldwin-hosted season premiere, she more or less stuck to supporting roles for the rest of the season. Pedrad is especially fun to watch playing damaged children and teenagers – hopefully she’ll get more chances to return to those characters next season.

Abby Elliott. I’m always surprised how little screen time Abby Elliot actually receives on the show, especially for someone who is such a fine character actress and impressionist. Her shining moment in Season 37 was her Zooey Deschanel talk show, where she mocked the new quirky girl trend. Of all the female cast members, Elliott seems best fit to step into Kristen Wiig’s shoes, though she’ll have trouble doing so if she doesn’t get some original characters on the air.

Jay Pharoah. Jay Pharoah still seems to be having trouble adjusting to the SNL speed. His impressions – in the rare occasions he gets to do them – seem to be improving, and judging from his Twitter account, he has a good attitude about it all. The Charles Barkley and Maya Rudolph episodes opened up roles for him, giving him some reps with the rest of the cast and more exposure. Pharoah’s most interesting appearance this season came in the form of The Jay Pharoah Show, a meta commentary on the SNL’s struggle in finding a way to use Pharoah’s talents. The actor has seen moderate success with his Principal Frye character – perhaps he would be better off creating a few new characters and using his impersonation skills as a backup plan.

Paul Brittain. Poor, poor Paul Brittain. Right as he seemed to picking up some momentum with his hilarious Lord Wyndemere character, SNL decided he wasn’t a good fit and didn’t renew his contract for the rest of Season 37. Although he didn’t stand out like fellow rookie Taran Killam, Brittain proved himself to be a well rounded performer – his James Franco was a lot of fun last season and his Ron Paul was often the strongest impression of all the candidates in the GOP sketches. It was a bummer to see him go, but not many people get to put down “SNL cast member” on their resumes.

Kate McKinnon. Kate McKinnon was hired on a trial basis in April through the rest of the season. No word yet on whether or not the show will be asking her to return, but McKinnon proved quite capable of impressions (Tabatha Coffey, Penelope Cruz), and many viewers enjoyed her Swedish Chelsea Lately character. McKinnon plays with confidence and would make a fine addition to the cast if SNL chose to do so.

There will be plenty to speculate over as we wait for next season’s casting news and host schedule to emerge in August and September. Until then, have a great summer!

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs with his improv team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.

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