Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013

Breaking Down Each Cast Member's Contribution to 'SNL' Season 38

As mentioned in yesterday's post listing our favorite moments from this season of SNL, Season 38 has been dubbed a "transitional year" by many followers of the show. After a few years of relative stability among the core cast members, stars Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg left a year ago, followed by Abby Elliott later in the summer. With the start of the new season, three performers from Chicago's improv and sketch community joined the cast: Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson, and Cecily Strong. In the wake of Wiig's dominating presence on the show, two freshman females in particular have emerged as go-to's: Kate McKinnon, who joined the cast late in Season 37, and Cecily Strong, who has had one of the strongest starts of any SNL cast member in recent memory. Meanwhile, two male up-and-comers, Bobby Moynihan and Taran Killam, saw a huge increase in airtime with some of the older male cast members preparing for their exits.

And the transition is clearly still under way. The past few weeks have dealt SNL what will likely be its most dramatic shifts: the departures of cast members Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and (possibly) Jason Sudeikis, as well as this December's departure of head writer Seth Meyers. With Meyers setting the tone in the writers room and Hader, Armisen and Sudeikis carrying the burden of the sketch roles in the cast, their combined absence will undoubtedly have a massive impact on the show's future seasons.

But in the midst of all the cast shakeups, let's take a look at the cast from this past season. Who appeared the most in sketches? What kinds of roles did each cast member fall into? Who filled the voids left by Wiig and Samberg? What were some of the more memorable characters and impressions each cast member played? And who are we betting will rejoin the cast in Season 39?

As I did for Season 36 in 2011 and Season 37 in 2012, I have been keeping a running tally of how often each cast member has appeared in sketches, weighing starring roles and Update desk characters greater than one-liners and walk-ons. I displayed it all in this nifty pie chart to give us a sense of each cast member's total "share" of screen time this season:

(Again, I have excluded Seth Meyers from this graph, because his on-screen role is limited to host of Weekend Update and is therefore negligible in the fluctuating cast lineup each week.)

The share of screen time in Season 38 differs distinctively from previous seasons. For one, the amount of roles appeared to be spread more evenly. If all the sketch roles were distributed equally, each cast member would receive 7.69%, so the fact that no cast member received double or half the statistical average suggests that this season was more of a team effort, with fewer obvious stars the way Kristen Wiig was. Also, the break down doesn't stick to cast member seniority — over half of the cast members were outranked by performers with less experience on the show. Finally, it deserves special mention how big of seasons this was for Bobby Moynihan, Taran Killam, and Cecily Strong, all three of whom received a huge amount of exposure compared to previous seasons (or in Strong's case, compared to other first-year cast members). Let's look at each cast member a little more closely:

Bill Hader (10.77%)

Bill Hader has been near the top of the leader board for the past few seasons, and it's no mystery why. Since joining the cast in 2005, he has gradually earned his spot at the heart of the cast by playing nearly every role SNL required of him — background support, straight man, impersonator, character actor, voice over, game show host, and eventually, star. Few SNL cast members have been capable of sustaining a single recurring character for so long — especially one plagued by breaking — before gassing out under viewer fatigue, yet Hader consistently made his soft spoken tour guide of New York's seedy club scene Stefon one of the most hilarious moments of any given episode. And let's not forget Hader's seemingly endless cache of pitch-perfect impressions (Al Pacino, Alan Alda, Clint Eastwood, Vincent Price, James Carville, Julian Assange, Christopher Walken, John Malkovich, James Mason, Shepard Smith, Keith Morrison, Lindsay Buckingham). Lorne Michaels has compared Hader to Dan Aykroyd, and while there does indeed exist a similarity between the two actors' precision and work ethic, a more apt doppleganger might be Phil Hartman, a beloved sketch comedy Renaissance man who held the show together during his long run. Bill Hader was one of the most talented performers SNL has ever seen, and I suspect that only when he is gone will it sink in how much we've been taking him for granted.

Bobby Moynihan (10.57%)

Bobby Moynihan has had an explosive year on SNL, jumping from 7th most featured last season to 2nd this season. Interestingly enough, however, Moynihan hasn't had many new star characters — Drunk Uncle, Anthony Crispino, Guy Fieri, Snooki, Brian Kilmeade, and Chris Christie were all characters he played last season. Rather, his ascension can be explained by the fact that he appeared in pretty much every sketch, playing utility roles such as a one-joke walk-on or a low-status straight man. SNL uses Moynihan the way it used Andy Samberg, as a reliably funny wild card that can guarantee to a laugh with delivery alone. With two years left on his contract, hopefully Moynihan will return next season as the new leader the cast needs.

Jason Sudeikis (9.55%)

It appears as if Jason Sudeikis is trying to make a quiet exit from SNL — rumors circulated that he would leave the show with Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg last year, then that he would leave after the November election, and now that he will be leaving along with Bill Hader and Fred Armisen, but nothing official has been yet announced. It's a shame too, because Jason Sudeikis deserves every bit a farewell as those other four. He has had an amazing run on the show, banking on a Midwestern everyman charm to make dislikable characters likable: the Devil, one of the Two A-Holes, Mitt Romney, Ricky Gervais, Pete Twinkle (the ESPN host with Will Forte), etc. Other than carrying the political sketches in the fall, Sudeikis has largely faded into the role of the "jokey moderator" this season — a role he pulls off effortlessly for sure, but not one that showcases his full potential. With a busy movie production schedule late this summer and fall, Sudeikis' return looks less and less likely, but given the track record for departing SNL cast members, it won't be long before he comes back.

Taran Killam (9.15%)

Another cast member making strides this season was Taran Killam, who hustled his way into being one of the busiest members of the cast. Viewers who haven't warmed up to Bobby Moynihan yet ought to at least have taken notice of Killam, whose Groundlings-honed character chops and aggressive physicality make him a reliable go-to in sketches. Killam also appears to have what it takes when it comes to impressions as well, showing off celebrities (Piers Morgan, Brad Pitt, Michael Cera) and uptight Republican politicians (Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul), which may have cemented his position on the show for the next four years, at least. In the past, I've compared Taran Killam's skillset to that of Will Ferrell, especially in his early years on the show. While Killam has yet to settle into the patience and vulnerability that defined Ferrell's stardom, he certainly has what it takes to be the next big name to come from SNL.

Kenan Thompson (8.60%)

With Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and Jason Sudeikis departing the show, Kenan Thompson is set to become the most senior cast member, going into his 10th season on the show. (Other factoids about Kenan Thompson: he was the first SNL cast member to be born after the show premiered in 1975, and he joins Taran Killam as the cast's two former child actors from Nickelodeon sketch shows.) While several viewers remain on the fence about Thompson, he really won me over at several points this season with hilarious Weekend Update cameos (The One Black Guy In Every Commercial, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Lewis). However, his reliance on the talk show format (Al Sharpton, Steve Harvey) remains frustrating, especially when his most popular recurring sketch (What Up With That?) makes fun of that very format. Overall, Kenan Thompson deserves credit for transitioning from a fringe performer who plays like he's still on All That to a core cast member… who still kind of kind of plays like he's on All That.

Fred Armisen (8.27%)

Season 38 began with a cold open in which Fred Armisen "introduced" the President of the United States, who would now be played by Jay Pharoah. It was a symbolic, passing-of-the-torch gesture, one that marked the beginning of the end for Armisen on SNL. We should be thankful that Armisen was able to play Obama for four seasons; otherwise he might not have lasted on the show so long, and SNL never would have had some of its most delightful oddball characters, like Nuni Schoener, Nicholas Fehn, Mahmoud Ahmadenejad, a junkie from A Taste of New York, Zac Efron's MOTHERRRR. Of course, there's always Portlandia for that now, and even some of Armisen's SNL work paralleled storylines on his own show (see SNL's One Man Show versus Portlandia's One Man Show). Armisen's signature obscure musical parody sketches took a backseat this season to his more common role: trying to make fellow cast members laugh in The Californians, Regine, Slow Term Memory Loss Theater, and Garth & Kat. However, he scored big as British punk rocker Ian Rubbish, who had a soft spot for Margaret Thatcher and later provided Armisen with an emotional goodbye.

Cecily Strong (7.52%)

As the cast's most featured female performer, freshman cast member Cecily Strong has made a remarkable debut on SNL, folding in seamlessly with her fellow cast members and blowing up with a boatload of hilarious characters — Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With, Pornstar Commercial, Girlfriends Talk Show, Lydia Callis, etc. Sure, so far many of her characters are defined by their gender, but I think what has made Strong so successful is her ability to play familiar, authentic female roles without falling into stereotype. But Strong's greatest strength might be her camaraderie with Vanessa Bayer and Aidy Bryant — the three performed together at iO and Second City in Chicago, and should all three return next season, we could have on our hands a second Chicago funny lady triumvirate, reminiscent of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Rachel Dratch 10 years ago.

Vanessa Bayer (7.45%)

This brings us to Vanessa Bayer, who, after having a promising first season and was largely sidelined during Kristen Wiig's farewell tour last season, has seen a bit of a second wind with an influx of Chicagoans. Her Miley Cyrus and J-Pop sketches made returns, but her biggest hits this season were her wise-cracking (yet socially inept) Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy and the other half of Cecily Strong's hilarious ditsy Pornstar duo. Some commentators have floated Bayer's name around as a potential replacement for Seth Meyers as Weekend Update host — indeed, her frank delivery and strong timing evoke Jane Curtin's news persona from the early years of SNL. When Meyers departs SNL for Late Night this December, it would be interesting to see Bayer take on that new role.

Jay Pharoah (6.64%)

It was expected to be a huge year for Jay Pharoah, with his long-anticipated takeover of the role of President Obama (which many viewers suspected was a major reason — if not the only reason — for Pharoah being cast), right in the dead heat of an election season, when SNL's relevancy peaks. Instead, it turned out to be more of the same. Pharoah's Obama, while far more accurate an impersonation than Fred Armisen's, still wasn't much funnier than his predecessor's. As I've said, that speaks more to Barack Obama's lack of candid moments than to Pharoah's skills. But when a cast member's primary niche is parodying a subject matter that offers little ground for direct parody, we have a problem. Yes, Pharoah's total screen time has gone up this season — thanks to his playing Obama and an appearance or two by Principal Frye (whose gray hairs are multiplying with each appearance) — but since the election, the writers don't seem interested in writing any material for him, and his roles have slowed to a trickle. Of course, Barack Obama won the election, and unless the show is willing to piss off Pharoah's loyal Twitter followers and replace him with any of the talented sketch comedians around the country who can mimic the president, we'll likely be seeing more of him next season.

Kate McKinnon (6.50%)

When Kate McKinnon joined the cast for a few episodes at the end of last season, she seemed to immediately fall under a microscope. She was the first new cast member to the show in almost two years, and as a female performer known for her big characters, the assumption was that she was brought on to replace Kristen Wiig. Whether or not that assumption is true, McKinnon has seen a substantial level of success in her first year, despite facing what seems to be (at least, from the comments on my episode recaps) some reluctance by viewers to warm up to her broad, physical style. I will admit that her characters at times feel one-dimensional, and she relies on her "wide eyes" face a bit too often. However, her character work is nothing short of brilliant (see: Olya Povlatsky, Cecilia Gimenez), and her impressions of Ellen Degeneres, Jodi Foster, and Ann Romney (three roles that seemed inspired from McKinnon's perspective as SNL's first lesbian cast member) were some of the finest we saw this season.

Nasim Pedrad (5.83%)

With Cecily Strong, Vanessa Bayer, and Kate McKinnon picking up the bulk of the female roles this season, Nasim Pedrad was unfortunately left on the sidelines. Other than one appearance by her very amusing Arianna Huffington and another by Tippy, a girl who walks in late to every conversation, Nasim's contributions were largely forgettable and were confined to the roles of girlfriend or translator. That said, Pedrad is the most underrated performer in the cast — she has a particular knack for playing awkward teenage characters — so hopefully the success she had in the relatively few appearances she made this season will earn her spot next season.

Tim Robinson (4.74%)

I expected Tim Robinson to be at the bottom of the list — he is the only cast member not to have a single appearance on Weekend Update. In retrospect, however, he got a surprising amount of face time by playing minor roles, which is the same "paying your dues" gauntlet most first-year performers must suffer through (just look at Bobby Moynihan, Fred Armisen, or Taran Killam's first seasons). Anyone who has seen Robinson do improv knows he's one of the funniest live performers in the country, which we've seen hints of over the past months — singing crazy lyrics with Jason Sudeikis, as a real estate agent pleading with vandals, and as Carl, the scapegoat to Bobby Moynihan and Cecily Strong's ranting employees, who was funny enough to make Kevin Hart break. Hopefully Lorne will give Tim Robinson the benefit of the doubt and give him some time to grow on the show.

Aidy Bryant (4.40%)
Newcomer Aidy Bryant received the least amount of screen time, but that's not to say she didn't make an impression. On the contrary, Bryant had several memorable roles this season, from CNN correspondent Candy Crowley to the neglected cohost of Girlfriends Talk Show, to a terrified acupuncturist with Kristen Wiig. With each appearance, Bryant gave a winning performance, slowly but surely familiarizing viewers with her characters' hilarious vulnerability and occasional sass. Bryant has a tremendous amount of potential and, as with fellow newbies Cecily Strong and Tim Robinson, SNL would do right in bringing her back for Season 39.

We'll keep you updated about any casting news that breaks over the summer, but we likely won't hear about any new cast members or writers until a week before the season premiere in the fall. Thanks for reading!

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

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  • Michael

    Nice work. Although there is going to be an adjustment period with the departures of Fred and Bill, I think the future is bright. Bobby and Taran seem to be ready to take over the spotlight next year. Kenan, whether you like him or not, will continue to be a solid contributor. I also think Tim Robinson (Amish Wooden Spoons, Tit Pic) can provide that "weird" energy that we got so often from Fred's sketches.

    You're right on about the chemistry between Cecily Strong, Vanessa Bayer, and Aidy Bryant. It seems that they really enjoy working together and should provide highlights in the years to come.

    • http://twitter.com/apsutter2004 Appey

      Yea it was great seeing the connection between the girls right from the start. There is always so much anticipation and nerves when there are several new castmembers but the girls took right to it like ducks to water. One of the very first episodes they had this season was all the girls together doing the girlfriends talk show and it was so nice seeing the immediate camaraderie.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-Mclachlan/747758431 Jeff Mclachlan

    If Mullaney had been picked up Nasim Pedrad would be gone too, so it already seems like she has one foot out the door. I won't be surprised to see her make a Summer departure too, a la Abby Eliott. Also, Lorne was (is?) developing a sitcom for Kenan, so his days are no doubt numbered too.

    A good idea for a Splitsider article would be to look at the comics and improv performers who SNL might be looking at to fill their current and upcoming vacancies.

    • eavoss

      Various improv theaters and stand up clubs around the country have been holding performer showcases for Lorne and producers, which will continue to last throughout the summer. We'll try to keep an hear to the ground if we hear anything.

    • Kasper HUsted

      Seeing as 'Mulaney' wasn't picked up, is it entirely unlikely that John Mulaney will be a strong candidate for the role of both head writer and Weekend Update anchor? He is certainly fit for the job.

      • Jeseta

        I don't think he would get head writer, he has only been there 5-ish years? Definitely a possibility for anchor though.

    • Jeseta

      Where did you hear about the sitcom for Kenan?

  • http://twitter.com/WilliamScurry Bill Scurry

    I think Kate McKinnon is the future of the show, every bit as canny as Kristin Wiig is. We just have to give her time to expand.

    • eavoss

      Agreed. If I remember correctly, viewers were divided on Kristen Wiig in her early seasons on the show, turned off by her broad style. Then again, I'm not sure those haters ever really warmed up to her.

  • Mike

    "Anyone who has seen Robinson do improv knows he's one of the funniest live performers in the country" This is beyond true and I think he is going to be the most interesting person to watch on the show next season. He's a really fun performer.

    • http://twitter.com/apsutter2004 Appey

      I think he's really gonna grow well. He was in very few skits as a lead but the ones he had were great. I think he and Taran are going to be the male stars in the next couple seasons.

    • Michael

      B-b-b-b-b-basketball…give me, give me, give me the ball cause I'm gonna dunk it!!

  • http://twitter.com/apsutter2004 Appey

    As much as I love Kristen Wiig, I'm glad that she left because she was completely dominating in previous seasons and most of her recurring characters are garbage. I'm really gonna miss Bill Hader. He's hilarious and plays so many roles. Love when he is a gameshow host(especially for the Dylan McDermott or Dermott Mulroney game.)
    I'm still incredibly disappointed that they won't give more airtime to Nasim. She is hilarious and versatile but has been overshadowed by the other women in the cast. I'm hoping that when Meyers leaves the writing room will be shaken up a little bit and she'll get more roles.

  • Derek Martz

    My god, did I love the acupuncture sketch.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jonathan.michaels2 Jonathan Michaels

    I don't care how often it's brought up, but Bayer is a terrible choice for Update.

    If they don't give it to Mulaney, they should just bring in someone new.

    Although if Seth stays through Christmas, they really should try out the rest of the cast as co anchors with him, see who has the chops while still having Seth there to hold it together if aomeone bombs.

    • eavoss

      I like the idea of cycling through different cast members in the position… that way I'd be able to see Bayer try it out before I jumped on that train. I agree with you that John Mulaney would be the ideal choice, though.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ericfishlegs Eric Lyden

      I agree with Mulaney partially because (and this is a dumb reason) almost everyone has a recurring Update character that I like and would hate to see disappear. Save for Robinson who just doesn't have the news anchor vibe. I started watching when Dennis Miller was doing Update and it kind of set a precedent to me that the Update guy doesn't do sketches unless they're group game deals and everyone is involved.

  • John Smith

    It really feels like Kenan is on for more than that, a lot more.

  • Laura

    Kate McKinnon gets my vote for 'next big SNL star'. She got a lot of air time at the beginning of the season, until they started forcing Cecily Strong into all the female roles, but she proved a lot in that amount of time. She's a fearless performer who is willing to go the extra mile for a sketch no matter how crazy and can carry a sketch on her own when given the chance. She could use some work when it comes to playing the 'straight' character, she's sometimes too goofy when the scene doesn't call for it (the 1-800-FLOWERS sketch is an example of how she DOES have the ability to be subtle and hilarious though, she was perfect in that), but her overall talent and presence is too strong for them to hold her back like they did for the second half of this season.

  • matt

    lorne would be foolish to keep aidy bryant, her update characters were garbage and she doesn't have any stage presence. just because someone has improvised with bayer in the past doesn't mean she should get a pass for next season. girlfriend talk show was a contrived sketch and her "vulnerability and sass" don't equate to laughs nearly enough. besides, those qualities are better for a sitcom performer anyway. SNL performers need range and she hasn't shown nearly enough.

  • BondJamesBond

    Going to miss Bill and Jason the most. Taran is going to take off next season, even more than he did this year.

    Will be glad when Seth is gone as head writer (I was mostly fine with him as WU anchor) – big drop-off from when Tina was head writer.

    Also, I really like Cecily Strong (especially the porn girl commercials). Aidy and Tim – meh (so far, anyway). Kate – she seems to be good, but those eyes are a distraction.

    Abby Elliott – Lorne needs to bring her back. Her pilot (I believe was for Lorne) didn't get picked up – last minute, too. The pilot was the reason she left SNL in the first place. Feels like she got hosed.

    Will the exodus, can we finally kill off The Californians? Ugh.

    I don't see any of the current cast as WU anchor material (yet), so I have no problem with Mulaney taking it. After all, he and Hader did create Stefon…

  • Kelly Scofield

    I totally agree with you in Bill Hader's part.He is a great performer and huge asset to the show,and people don't really give credit to him.They took him for granted.People say that Andy Samberg is better than him.I think he is in a way better than Andy. Andy Samberg's digital shorts are funny but they didn't contribute a lot to the show but Bill various characters did, including a lot of voices in commercials and so on.And Kristen Wiig is great too but she took over a lot and played way too many characters.

  • Kelly Scofield

    I also think Taran is great ,very talented and funny. He can do both weird and normal. I think he has the most skills among the cast members. Bobby,Kenan,Kate and the rest are funny but they don't have a lot of skills. Taran can sing,dance,impression and a lot physical stuffs. I think he will shine after veterans like Bill,Fred and Jason left.Cecily, she is a bit funny but the reason why she is so popular even as first year because she is young and pretty and her breakout character is a very 2013 type of persona.I want to see more of her other side,to decide if she is really good.

  • salliemae

    Let Robinson go — that's a no-brainer. Bryant also.

  • kizz52

    I totally dig what you have been doing with the pie charts over the last few years. Thumbs Up! totally cool. I'm a lifelong fan of SNL since part way through season 2. ('76-'77)

  • fando jone

    She is hilarious and versatile but has been overshadowed by the other
    women in the cast. I'm hoping that when Meyers leaves the writing room
    will be shaken up a little bit and she'll get more roles.

    collectibles and unique antiques

  • alex123

    One of the very first episodes they had this season was all the girls together doing the girlfriends talk show and it was so nice seeing the immediate camaraderie.


  • alex123

    One of the very first episodes they had this season was all the girls
    together doing the girlfriends talk show and it was so nice seeing the
    immediate camaraderie.

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  • alex123

    One of the very first episodes they had this season was all the girls
    together doing the girlfriends talk show and it was so nice seeing the
    immediate camaraderie.

  • Alan

    Are you doing one for season 39?? I love this!!

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