We've reached the midpoint of SNL's 39th season — one that has optimistically been called a "transitional year," but one more commonly known as "the year the shit hit the fan with that whole black woman issue." Despite the fact that the bulk of the SNL coverage in fall 2013 has zeroed in on the show's diversity controversy, SNL has given us plenty of other things to talk about, from new cast members and emerging stars on the show, to surprise cameos and celebrity hosts who defied our expectations — in good and bad ways.
Unfortunately, few of those topics have gotten much ink in fall 2013 (outside of sites like this one, at least), with only a handful of strong episodes, and the rest of the weeks sustained only by one or two truly great sketches. The cast's six talented newcomers have only begun to win over a fan base infamously skeptical of change, while the rest of the cast, once stacked with fan favorites Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, Andy Samberg, and Fred Armisen, now seems relatively thin, supported heavily by the collective charm of Taran Killam, Kate McKinnon, and Cecily Strong — who has been filling in nicely so far at the Weekend Update desk, even if it means we won't ever again see her Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started A Conversation With At A Party. However, this temporary rut is a situation SNL has found itself in before, and despite the "rebuilding year" mindset, the show keeps turning out a solid product… some weeks more successfully than others.
The Diversity Controversy
The jist: Kenan Thompson defended SNL when he was asked why none of the show's six new cast members was a woman of color. Everyone lashed out. SNL did a sketch with Kerry Washington playing multiple black women and promised to fix things. Producers held special auditions for black comediennes in Los Angeles and New York. Lorne Michaels announced plans to cast a new black woman in January. And racism in America was ended.
We examined SNL's diversity problem in depth in October, looking specifically at the show's history of race issues, as well as the comedy theaters from which the show primarily recruits new talent. We found that theaters such as the Second City, the Upright Citizens Brigade, and the Groundlings are even more whitewashed than the current SNL cast, and despite those theaters' attempts to diversify, the top talent auditioning for SNL producers remains primarily white.
What is surprising has been SNL's response to the controversy. As we saw in past accusations of lack of diversity, SNL has a track record of keeping its head down and letting the comedy speak for itself. Indeed, when the show regularly trounced the more colorful MADtv and In Living Color in the ratings, and continues to crown the latest comedy stars on a yearly basis, the arguments for a course-correction likely fall on deaf ears. But this year, due in part to the vulnerable rebuilding season, perhaps, the show couldn't escape the scrutiny. SNL became its own headline, evidenced in a cold open with Kerry Washington that, despite receiving big laughs, did little to temper the criticism. While Lorne Michaels' decision to add a new cast member mid-season isn't unprecedented, the fact that it came in direct response to media controversy, and the fact that that performer will be a black woman, is. As has been mentioned repeatedly this fall, the show's cast has only featured four black women in its history, so whoever gets added to the cast in the coming weeks will find herself firmly in the spotlight.
Ratings have been down slightly from this time last season, with the average episode hovering right below a 5.0, putting it in line with the slightly-lower ratings from last spring. The Christmas episode with Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake was an exception, of course — its 6.3 rating topped every episode last season as well as Fallon's 2011 episode, and gave SNL its highest ratings in two years. Receiving the lowest rating was Edward Norton's October 26 episode. The fact that Norton hadn't appeared in a major film in 2013, as well as musical guest's Janelle Monae's lack of name recognition, may have contributed to the dip in viewers.
The hosts have been a mixed bag this season, with two reliable SNL alums bookending the half-season (Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon) and a lineup in between featuring album-promoting music stars (Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga), well regarded actors with nothing in particular to plug right now (Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, John Goodman), trending A-listers who hosted surprisingly good episodes (Kerry Washington, Josh Hutcherson), and that Paul Rudd Anchorman 2 ad we'd all like to forget. Music stars pulling double duty as hosts and musical guests have become increasingly common, with Cyrus and Gaga this season, Bruno Mars, Justin Bieber, and Justin Timberlake last season, and Drake on the schedule for January 18.
Kerry Washington hosted the season's best episode so far. Her poise in addressing the show's racial controversy combined with her funny delivery throughout a mix of various roles was a season highlight. While Tina Fey and Josh Hutcherson were both praised for their performances (as well as Jimmy Fallon, to a lesser extent), we were particularly impressed with Lady Gaga's November episode. While the pop diva herself didn't particularly blow us away, the night saw some of the season's brightest moments, from the debut of Taran Killam's hilarious snarky critic from 1860, Jebediah Atkinson, to a beautifully shot short about depressed Blockbuster clerks, and a curiously self-aware sketch that cast Gaga as her batty older self, wallowing in her former glory while only her Grammy statuette applauded.
Weekend Update and Seth Meyers' Exit
One of the more highly anticipated developments in Season 39 was sophomore cast member Cecily Strong joining the outgoing Seth Meyers at the Weekend Update desk. Strong saw perhaps the best first season of any cast member from recent memory, but many viewers wondered how she would fare opposite to Meyers and handle the rapid fire snark expected from a modern Update host. The actress is off to a good start, only rarely stumbling over words (something that tripped up Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon quite often in their first years at the desk, if I remember correctly) and settling into her own comedic voice. Specifically, her tendency to deliver punch lines in character and call out weird reactions by the studio audience gives reassurance that Strong is loosening up and making Weekend Update her own.
Seth Meyers' upcoming exit in February presents the biggest uncertainty for the season's latter half. For one, it remains unknown whether Strong will host the news segment by herself, as Meyers did, or if producers will promote another cast member or writer to co-host. (If the latter proves to be the case, my hope is that Lorne gives the position to Mike O'Brien, a longtime writer for the show and a hilarious freshman cast member in need of a niche.) Meyers will take Weekend Update writer Alex Baze with him to Late Night, leaving SNL's writing staff in the hands of Colin Jost and Rob Klein. While the show's other senior writers are still on staff — Steve Higgins, Paula Pell, John Solomon — as well as some talented up-and-comers — Sarah Schneider, Zach Kanin, Chris Kelly, and Michael Che — the tone of sketches is unlikely to change too drastically, but it will be interesting to see how the show adapts without Meyers' leadership.
Returning Cast Members
With Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, and Fred Armisen gone, rarely has so much responsibility fallen on the shoulders of returning cast members to rise to the occasion, reminding viewers that it's still worth tuning in every week. And the old guard — namely Taran Killam, Kate McKinnon, and Cecily Strong — have certainly stepped up to the plate. Particularly lethal as Weekend Update characters, the performers have yet to truly misfire in a sketch. I was surprised Bobby Moynihan wasn't used more this half-season — the longtime cast member has demonstrated his ability to carry a sketch and find a laugh as well as any other cast member. In his place seems to be Kenan Thompson, now the senior-most cast member, whom the show has entrusted to helm and moderate early sketches (the way Hader and Sudeikis were used), despite fans' ongoing skepticism of his abilities. However, Thompson has become indispensable to writers, proving particularly effective at the Update desk and in cold opens. Jay Pharoah's impression skills are as strong as ever, and he even seems to be showing signs of internalizing SNL's formulaic rhythm (see: the Kerry Washington episode), while Nasim Pedrad's character-work was finally put back on display this season. Meanwhile, Aidy Bryant and Vanessa Bayer remain reliable players, rounding out a formidable lineup of female talent in the cast. Below is the relative screen time of the returning cast members so far this season:
Taran Killam: 11.02%
Kenan Thompson: 10.91%
Cecily Strong: 10.26%
Kate McKinnon: 8.42%
Bobby Moynihan: 7.99%
Aidy Bryant: 7.45%
Vanessa Bayer: 7.34%
Jay Pharoah: 7.24%
Nasim Pedrad: 5.72%
New Cast Members
Newcomers to SNL always face a lot of attention, but the fact that the show hadn't hired so many of them since 1995 led to a particularly hot spotlight for the six freshmen. The season premiere threw them in the deep end, with Tina Fey forcing them to dance in humiliating costumes during the monologue segment, and later struggling to distinguish them from members of Arcade Fire (a bit that would come back to haunt SNL after it made their whiteness particularly obvious).
By now, each of the featured players have had at least one moment in the sun. Kyle Mooney has carved out the last few minutes of the night to star in offbeat pieces reminiscent of his Good Neighbor videos. Noel Wells' impression skills (Lena Dunham, Zooey Deshanel) have gotten her airtime. Beck Bennett seems the most well adjusted, appearing alongside Mooney in video segments and receiving praise for his CEO Baby character. John Milhiser got off to a slow start but struck gold with his Jon Cryer and by busting a move with Lady Gaga. Brooks Wheelan had an amusing turn in a Weekend Update bit about his embarrassing tattoos, and Mike O'Brien had funny bits as a reporter following around bugs and an old-timey car salesman, but both performers have yet to show their true potential. Below is the screen time breakdown for the new cast members:
Beck Bennett: 4.75%
Noel Wells: 4.64%
Kyle Mooney: 4.00%
Mike O'Brien: 3.46%
Brooks Wheelan: 3.46%
John Milhiser: 3.35%
When it comes to the sketches this season, the writers have masked their slow adjustment to the new cast with a lot of icing and little cake. The joke quality is as strong as ever, and the ornamental pieces of each episode have been quite entertaining: clever cold opens (government shutdown ala Gravity, Kerry Washington as Michelle Obama/Oprah/Beyonce, Miley Cyrus' apocalyptic VMAs stunt), perfectly executed video parodies (Girls Promo, Wes Anderson Horror Film, We Did Stop), and absurdist end-of-night pieces (Blockbuster, Ice Cream).
But the live sketches – where writers have to truly connect with actors — have underwhelmed. Only three premises have been popular enough to repeat (Jebediah Atkinson, Shallon, Waking Up with Kimye) and the rest have relied heavily on impressions, worn talk show setups, and bits from bygone eras (Lawrence Welk, Bill Brasky, Barry Gibb Talk Show). The most fun concept arrived during the Josh Hutcherson episode, wherein the lyrics of The Outfield's "Your Love" were inserted into a cheesy 80s scene. As if out of fresh ideas, the writers tried to recapture this magic the very next episode, with Paul Rudd rocking out to Fleetwood Mac's "I Don't Want To Know." Meanwhile, the one truly "dangerous" live moment came from Beck Bennett, who wowed us with his ability to play straight while jerking his body around like a baby.
Still, season 39 has had its moments. Here are our top five:
5. Beer Pong. Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett's Good Neighbor absurdism on SNL has never been so rapidfire funny.
4. Your Love. The brilliance of this concept resides in its simplicity… and the amount of fun the cast seems to be having here. Also, it's nearly impossible to find online. Watch it here.
3. Twin Bed. A relevant setup in a perfect showcase of SNL's female talent.
2. Mornin' Miami. The saving grace of the Miley Cyrus episode. Simply Bitch Fantastic.
1. Jebediah Atkinson. Taran Killam cleans up as the critic who panned the Gettysburg Address.
Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs on the house team Wheelhouse at the iO West Theater.