Checking in with ‘SNL’ Halfway Through Season 38

We’re at a rest period in the middle of SNL‘s 38th season, and now seems like a good time to present all the Nate Silver-esque data I’ve been compiling over the past few months. Below are some stats from this season, including ratings, online views, cast member screen time, hosts, and top sketches, which will whet your appetite before the show returns on January 19.

Overall I’ve been pleased with this season. The departures of Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg suggested the show might go through another rebuilding year, but the cast has filled in nicely, with new female cast members emerging as breakout stars, Jay Pharoah stepping up to the plate as President Obama, and Bobby Moynihan seeing significantly more screen time. Although we might not have noticed due to a string of weak hosts, the writers room has been generating some of the most original content in seasons. A less historic election resulted in less inspired political material, though there were a few highlights. Let’s get right to it.

Ratings. While not as high as the 2008 election season’s, SNL‘s ratings this season have still been about average, hovering around the 5.0 mark. Bruno Mars hosted the season’s highest-rated episode on Oct. 20 with a 5.4 rating, the highest since last season’s Lindsay Lohan episode. Daniel Craig’s Oct. 6 episode scored the season low at 4.5. The Oct. 27 re-broadcast of Seth MacFarlane’s season premiere scored a 4.1, making it the highest rated SNL rerun in two years.

Hulu Views. Unsurprisingly, the political sketches received the lion’s share of views on Hulu, with the debate parodies and Weekend Update cameos by Big Bird and Gov. Chris Christie as the top videos of this season. This makes sense, given the election year and the tendency for news sites and political blogs to embed Hulu clips of SNL political sketches.

Cast Member Screen Time. Each episode I assign points to each cast member based on their number of appearances in sketches, giving more points for major roles and Weekend Update characters and fewer points for walk-ons and quick cameos. Below are each cast member’s shares from the first half of the season, including the two Weekend Update Thursday specials.
  1.  Bill Hader: 11.14%
  2. Jason Sudeikis: 10.18%
  3. Bobby Moynihan: 9.90%
  4. Taran Killam: 9.08%
  5. Fred Armisen: 8.67%
  6. Kenan Thompson: 8.12%
  7. Jay Pharoah: 7.57%
  8. Vanessa Bayer: 7.29%
  9. Cecily Strong: 7.29%
  10. Kate McKinnon: 7.02%
  11. Nasim Pedrad: 5.50%
  12. Aidy Bryant: 4.26%
  13. Tim Robinson: 3.99%
There are a few things worth pointing out when compared to last season’s. Now that Kristen Wiig has left the cast, Bill Hader tops the list as the cast’s jack-of-all-trades, banking on a wide range of impressions and characters, and his go-to game show host persona. Jason Sudeikis also made frequent appearances, largely due to his playing both Mitt Romney and Joe Biden in the political sketches. However, benefitting the most from Wiig’s departure are Bobby Moynihan and Taran Killam, both of whom were given more starring roles this season, even if two of Moynihan’s Weekend Update segments were cut last minute (Guy Fieri, Elf on the Shelf). Jay Pharoah has moved up from the bottom of the list, thanks to taking over the role of President Obama from Fred Armisen. Newcomer Cecily Strong made a surprising number of appearances, tying Vanessa Bayer as the cast’s most featured female.

Hosts. I pointed out in my recap of the Martin Short episode that this has been a relatively weak season for hosts, with several letdowns in action hero A-listers like Daniel Craig, Jeremy Renner, Jamie Foxx, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. That said, Seth MacFarlane proved to be one of the best SNL hosts we’ve seen in years, and veteran hosts Martin Short and Anne Hathaway both made triumphant returns. Two surprisingly excellent hosts were Louis C.K., whose New York sensibility made him a perfect choice for SNL‘s post-Sandy episode, and Bruno Mars, whose charm and showmanship resulted in one of the season’s highlights.

Musical Monologues. It was a very musical season for monologues, with 9 of the 10 episodes so far opening with songs, from Daniel Craig’s “In Memoriam” bit to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s strange Magic Mike tribute to Jeremy Renner’s piano malfunction. Only Louis C.K.’s monologue was non-musical, and his hilarious 7-minute set about helping an old woman at the airport was all the better for it.

Film Shorts. With Andy Samberg’s departure went his highly popular Digital Short segment, and it seems like SNL is hoping to fill that “variety” void with a series of film shorts. Most of these have been successful — Louie Lincoln, Sad Mouse, Mokiki — if for nothing else than to provide a change of pace in the episode. It has yet to be seen if any of these shorts will go viral like Samberg’s did, but it’s an enjoyable trend nonetheless.

Weekend Update Thursday. One of the bigger disappointments this season were the two primetime, election-themed Weekend Update Thursday specials. SNL hoped to repeat the ratings success of 2008 but instead found a presidential election with less excitement and no Tina Fey Sarah Palin impression to cash in on. The end result were two lackluster specials that stretched the writing staff thin and sucked all the political material from the higher-rated weekend episodes. The specials did, however, give us great segments by Bobby Moynihan’s Drunk Uncle and Bill Hader’s James Carville, as well as introduce us to Cecily Strong’s wonderful Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party.

New Cast Members. While we’re on the subject, Cecily Strong has been the breakout star of the new cast members. Since joining the cast in September, she has had several memorable roles, including expressive sign language interpreter Lydia Callis, Petraeus mistress Paula Broadwell, and of course, her preachy dimwitted Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party. Returning from late last season, Kate McKinnon has also had a big season so far, with appearances as Ellen Degeneres and Spanish artist Cecilia Jimenez. It appears as if McKinnon is being groomed to replace Kristen Wiig in the cast. Meanwhile, Aidy Bryant and Tim Robinson have struggled for screen time. Bryant appeared in more sketches later in the fall (Candy Crowley, Mrs. Claus), while Robinson remains mostly confined to one-liners. Hopefully we’ll get to see more of these two in the second half of season 38.

Sketches. Despite a few forgettable hosts and a rebuilding year for the cast, the sketches have been a strong point for this season. Last season, recurring sketches dominated the lineups, with the writers all trying to get in their favorite Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg bits one last time. This season, we’ve seen a spike in original characters and concepts: Maine Justice, Tech Talk, Cool Drones. Even the unsuccessful sketches still had fresh concepts, at least: Mountain Pass, Yeti Point, Tree Pimps; as did most of the sketches that were cut after dress rehearsal: Malibu High, Renaldo and Alexei, Thanksgiving Dinner. Most of the political sketches have taken the form of the standard debate parodies, but at times the writers discovered some more interesting angles, as with the Undecided Voter. All in all, we have seen an average of about one old sketch premise per episode, which is pretty impressive. Cecily Strong’s Girl You Wish You Hadn’t… is the only breakout character of the season thus far, and though I’m not certain it has the shelf life of Stefon or Drunk Uncle, the fact that she hasn’t worn out after three appearances is a good sign. Below are my Top 5 picks for best sketches this season:

1. Puppet Class

2. Louie Lincoln

3. Pandora Intern

4. Girlfriends Talk Show

5. Swarovski Crystals

And even though it wasn’t really a sketch, Seth MacFarlane’s Ryan Lochte was pretty great:

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

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