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Friday, May 23rd, 2014

Breaking Down Each Cast Member's Contribution to 'SNL' Season 39

With SNL's 39th season coming to a close, we're taking a look at the past season with a series of posts examining the highs, lows, and other memorable moments from the past eight months. Here, we look at the performers that make up SNL's current cast, including their overall contributions to the show, memorable roles, relative screen time, and prospects for returning next season.

SNL's 39th season was a crowded one. Record-breaking crowded, even. Six new hires, plus a seventh midseason, rose the total to 17, making the current cast the largest SNL has seen during its entire four-decade run, topping even the infamously bloated 1990-1991 season. That season only had 16 at its peak, including a lineup so stacked with Hartmans, Carveys, and Farleys that few fans complained. SNL finds itself in a much different situation now, with many viewers still having trouble telling apart its five white male freshmen — which started as a joke this season but has proven to be a legitimate problem. It's a matter of supply and demand: while the number of actors has increased, the number of sketches in any given episode — and thus, the number of roles available — has remained the same. As a result, cast members had fewer opportunities to carve out their niches on the show, making it even more difficult to win over fans. This was especially true for the newcomers, some of whom are still trying to form strong partnerships with writers.

With longtime stars Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, and Fred Armisen leaving the cast last year (along with Tim Robinson, who was moved to the writing staff), producers have mostly turned to Taran Killam, Cecily Strong, Kenan Thompson, and Kate McKinnon to carry the torch. With Bobby Moynihan, Aidy Bryant, Vanessa Bayer, and Jay Pharoah also proving to be perfectly reliable players, there's certainly enough talent to fill the void. But the fresh-faced starpower that Killam, McKinnon and Strong brought in their first years has been tough to make out from the new class, whose scramble for airtime has kicked up such a dust cloud that voices like Nasim Pedrad have been completely drowned out. Indeed, we're a long way away from the lean, mean, seven original Not Ready for Prime Time Players.

That isn't meant as a criticism of any of the current cast members. No one in the cast isn't talented enough to work on SNL, and I find it a little too mean spirited to outright call for any of them to lose their jobs just because Lorne Michaels bit off more than he could chew. Every cast member had great moments on SNL this season, regardless of how familiar fans are with them or what future may be in store for them.

While we wait for the official word to come down about next season's cast (which usually comes later in the summer), taking a look at each the individual screen time breakdown from this season gives us some indication of much the show has relied on each cast member. As I did for Season 36 in 2011, Season 37 in 2012, and Season 38 in 2013, once again I have tediously kept track of every on-air appearance and calculated — weighting major roles more than quick walk-ons — each cast member's relative "share" of screen time. And as if that wasn't enough of a huge, nerdy waste of time, I made a pie chart:

A few important things to note here. As usual, I did not include Seth Meyers or Colin Jost — as head writers, their appearances never fluctuated beyond hosting Weekend Update, which made their shares negligible. (I did, however, include Cecily Strong, who still appears to be as much in the running for sketch roles as any other cast member.) Sasheer Zamata, of course, has only been on the show since January, making her seemingly small share actually pretty reasonable. Compared with last season, the shares are less evenly distributed, with most returning cast members seeing a significant increase — especially Aidy Bryant, who went from being the least frequently seen to the seventh. One major exception was Bobby Moynihan, who went from being the second most visible cast member to the sixth. Finally, to give a sense of the still-settling plates on SNL, the screen time distribution among the returning cast members doesn't at all reflect seniority, with elder cast members Kenan Thompson, Bobby Moynihan, and Nasim Pedrad landing all over the chart.

Let's look at each cast member with a little more detail.

Taran Killam (11.15%)

Taran Killam was without a doubt the most valuable player of the Season 39 cast. After paying his dues as the previous three seasons' often overlooked workhorse, the former Groundling finally got the opportunity to put his well-rounded skillset to use with popular new characters like Jebidiah Atkinson, impressions of Matthew McConaughey, John Boehner, and Piers Morgan, and pretty much any type of role the show needs him to do: starring in pretaped videos, holding down cold opens, showing off his impressive singing voice, dancing wildly in "Les Jeunes de Paris," or any number of simple walk-ons. Killam is one of the few cast members who actually seems to be enjoying himself, which is probably the reason sketches seem to improve when he's attached to them. As SNL's load-bearing leading male, it's hard to imagine what the show would do without him right now.

Cecily Strong (10.55%)

Right up there with Taran Killam in terms of value to the cast is Cecily Strong, who, after one hell of a first season, joined Seth Meyers as co-host of Weekend Update. While Strong has filled in so nicely as news anchor that it seems surprising she's only been doing the job for one season, she hasn't managed to produce any chemistry whatsoever with Colin Jost since he replaced Seth Meyers in March… which, of course, isn't necessarily her fault. Strong behind the desk also meant we didn't get to see any of her wonderful Update characters, like "Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started A Conversation With At A Party," depriving her of a substantial way to contribute to the cast. (I still wonder whether Vanessa Bayer might be a better fit, considering her dry delivery and the fact that her Jacob bit has run its course.) Still, Strong has been a dominant performer in sketches, with "Girlfriends Talk Show" and "Pornstar Commercial" each getting numerous runs, and her impressive precision as a live performer has resulted in some of the funniest moments this season.

Kenan Thompson (10.22%)

As the now-senior-most cast member, Kenan Thompson has become the go-to utility player for the writers, who have entrusted him with the roles of game show hosts and cold open leads that Bill Hader handled in previous seasons. Thompson took quite a bit of heat this season for his comments to TV Guide that producers "never seem to find [black women] who are ready," which even respectable journalists recklessly misquoted as, "black women aren't funny." One thing his comments did indicate is how much of an SNL insider Thompson has become during his 11 years on the show, which may be part of the reason hardcore fans have never really embraced him. He was a former child actor who more or less walked right onto SNL, unlike other cast members, who had to crawl to the top of the stand-up/improv/sketch dogpiles to get noticed. Thompson never had to sweat in front of a hostile crowd, which is evident by how little edge be brings to the show, despite speaking the language well enough to kill it during cold opens and Weekend Update. But with SNL likely not looking to lose any more experienced players — or to become any less diverse — it appears Thompson's spot on the show is pretty safe.

Kate McKinnon (8.97%)

Kate McKinnon has emerged as a cast favorite, proving to be a powerhouse performer who was clearly born to be on SNL. With hugely popular impressions of Ellen Degeneres, Justin Bieber, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, McKinnon has shown how much fun the show can be when the performers themselves are having fun — an attitude that helps the actress win over the crowd the moment she enters the frame. Her third season saw McKinnon settle into her characters, appearing less driven to get a laugh on every line and instead taking her time to build up to it. It's difficult to think of a role that McKinnon didn't nail this season, and with a highlight reel consisting of Olya Povlatsky and "Dyke and Fats," it's just a matter of time before she reaches the star status that Kristen Wiig had.

Vanessa Bayer (8.05%)

As one of the most dependable cast members in SNL's roster, Vanessa Bayer has gotten a ton of play by sticking with what works — recurring bits like "Pornstar Commercial" and "Fox & Friends," and the return of characters like Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy, Miss Meadows, and her Miley Cyrus impression — all of which she's gotten as much juice out of as she's probably going to get. As Bayer finishes her fourth season on the show, her position seems to be as secure as fellow 2010 classmates Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah — maybe even more so considering she was given the role of Hillary Clinton late this season, which could be a pretty nice insurance policy for Bayer if Clinton decides to run in 2016.

Bobby Moynihan (7.88%)

One of the more surprising victims of SNL's overcrowding this season was Bobby Moynihan, who went from being the second-most-seen cast member last season to the sixth this season, which can only be explained by there being five new white guys in the cast to play the generic supporting man roles he used to play. It was a pretty big news year for embattled figures like Chris Christie, Rob Ford, and Donald Sterling, and Moynihan's lovable charm has been useful to offset these unlikable personas — a tactic he similarly relies on when he spews bigoted remarks as always-hilarious Drunk Uncle. (He also used it twice last spring as Kim Jong-Un, but I doubt SNL was very inclined to put a white actor in yellowface this season.) With six seasons under his belt, Moynihan has the second-most experience in the cast and possesses more potential than the show has let him showcase recently. But hopefully as the show figures out its lineup for next season, he will be able to continue in the cast as a wildcard figure, like Will Forte was able to do.

Aidy Bryant (7.50%)

Aidy Bryant is a star on the rise at SNL, jumping up from the least-featured cast member her first season to right in the middle of the pack this year, thanks to recurring segments like "Girlfriends Talk Show" and memorable one-off bits like "Slumber Party" and "Dyke and Fats" – which many viewers have expressed interest in seeing as a regular bit, if not a spinoff movie. In particular, Bryant has a strength for playing emotionally vulnerable characters and inappropriately aroused ones, making her especially effective in quick bursts to help punch up a scene. Now that SNL seems to have realized the gem they have with Bryant, there's probably a good chance we'll be seeing her next season.

Jay Pharoah (7.50%)

Another cast member who seems to be improving more and more with every appearance is Jay Pharoah, who has transitioned from a hit-or-miss impersonator to a reliable supporting player. Like Kenan Thompson, he came under the media spotlight last fall for his blunt remarks to the press that SNL needed to "pay attention" and follow up on their promise to hire a black woman, followed by his appearance as President Obama in the much buzzed about Michelle Obama cold open starring Kerry Washington. While Pharoah himself has succeeded in diversifying the show's appearance with characters and impressions (which this season included Shaquille O'Neal, Kanye West, Katt Williams, and Stephen A. Smith, as well as his recurring original character Principal Frye), any race-themed content the show has done has usually been thanks to writer Michael Che. But with Pharoah's impersonation skills becoming even more refined — both his Obama and his Jay-Z have made huge strides — as well as his frequent starring roles in music videos — What Does My Girl Say, Resolution Revolution28 ReasonsSNL seems to really value his contribution.

Beck Bennett (5.66%)

Clearly the most successful newcomer to the show has been Beck Bennett, who came to the show from LA-based online sketch group Good Neighbor with Kyle Mooney, and who most viewers knew as the guy sitting at a tiny kids table in those AT&T commercials. Bennett has managed to win over fans both in the pretaped GN-style videos that air late in the night, as well as in live sketches, where his character work was particularly memorable in bits like his all-business CEO who has the body of a baby. With Bennett able to play so many types and mix so seamlessly with other cast members, his return next season seems like a pretty logical choice for SNL.

Nasim Pedrad (5.49%)

Nasim Pedrad spent another season on SNL barely getting enough airtime to be considered part of the main cast, between taping episodes of Mulaney in Los Angeles and watching supporting roles go to the seven desperate featured players. However, compared to the forgettable roles she played last season, Pedrad's recurring characters this season have been quite memorable — from the troublemaking student Shallon to the motivational speaker Heshi — and her Kim Kardashian impression was often the best part of "Waking Up with Kimye." With Fox extending Mulaney's season order to 16 episodes, the sitcom becoming a hit would be a best-case scenario for the often overlooked cast member, whose return next season seems very uncertain.

Kyle Mooney (4.89%)

Besides Beck Bennett, the new cast member most effective at distinguishing himself from the pack has been Kyle Mooney, whose end-of-night videos have given him a nice off-beat niche on the show. Mooney has proven himself a master of subtlety, playing raw, mumble-y characters straight out of his Good Neighbor days ("Inside SoCal," "420") as well as original concepts of a more short film variety ("Ice Cream," "Flirty"). His Andy Kauffman-esque vulnerability has yet to consistently translate to the live portions of the show, but his recent return as hack New York comedian Bruce Chandling got Mooney the hardiest laughs he's heard in front of a crowd all season, which made the performance all the more impressive when he suddenly turned dark and introspective in the second half of the routine. Definitely a good impression to leave with viewers as the show breaks for summer.

Noël Wells (3.92%)

At the start of the season, Noël Wells stood out by being the only female of the six newcomers, and fans recognized her impersonation skills immediately in the season premiere's excellent parody of Girls. However, other than a few other impressions — Emma Stone, Nancy Grace — Wells has had trouble getting any original characters on the show, playing supporting roles in big-cast sketches while writers seemed more focused on generating material for the cast's more established females. With any luck, SNL will give the UCB-LA performer a chance to further showcase her talents next season.

Mike O'Brien (3.81%)

When SNL rotated Tim Robinson to the writers room, he swapped places with fellow Chicagoan Mike O'Brien, a well-liked writer since 2009 who penned last season's wonderful "Puppet Class" and "Sad Mouse," and host of the popular web series "7 Minutes in Heaven." Like Robinson, O'Brien struggled to get many memorable roles on the air during the first half of the season, but since January, he has blown up with all kinds of interesting bits — "Bird Bible," "Elevator," "Monster Pals," "Dragon Babies" — channeling the comedic energy of Robinson (his writing partner) and gradually acclimating viewers with his specific, almost Fred Armisen-esque style, of which Bill Hader is a fan. I've always been curious to see how O'Brien would fare behind the Weekend Update desk — his joke delivery would make him an exciting choice, especially when paired with fellow Second City/iO alum Cecily Strong, with whom he might produce some actual chemistry. (I mean, the are dating, after all.) Hopefully O'Brien's ties with the writers and recent hot streak will keep him attached to the show next season.

Brooks Wheelan (3.37%)

LA comedian Brooks Wheelan initially joined SNL as a writer in August, but he was promoted last minute to featured cast member — a move that struck me as a "throw everything against the wall and see what sticks" approach by the show. Unfortunately, Wheelan hasn't been able to distinguish himself outside of two appearances during Weekend Update, riffing on his embarrassing tattoos and a confusing prank he once suffered. Wheelan is certainly a solid comedian, but he's a stand-up in a world of improv and sketch performers, and unless he can start bringing more characters, impressions, or video ideas to the table, it's difficult to imagine what his future role in the SNL cast will be.

Sasheer Zamata (2.61%)

While Sasheer Zamata comes in at the bottom of this list, the fact that she's only had half as much time as her fellow cast members to amass this much screen time is pretty impressive. Hired in January after SNL's diversity crisis, the UCB-NY performer's appearances have been limited to her impressions of Kerry Washington's Olivia Pope, Michelle Obama, and Solange Knowles, as well as occasional supporting roles and videos. But in just her small time on the show, Zamata has demonstrated sharp delivery and strong timing (I'm thinking specifically of "Black Jeopardy"), which hopefully we'll get to see in some original characters at some point. Zamata's spot on the show should be secure for talent reasons alone, but realistically speaking, I doubt SNL would want to incite the controversy that firing its only black woman would cause, especially after she had such a promising start.

John Milhiser (2.61%)

After having a few decent cameos in the first half of the season, with his Jon Cryer impression and his fun bit as a dancing parent with Lady Gaga, John Milhiser has seemed virtually absent from the show over the past few months, with the closest sketch starring him to get on the show ("Viper") getting cut last minute. The UCB-LA performer may have found himself in a Paul Brittain situation — a talented guy who was just stuck on the sidelines for most of his first season.

Colin Jost

Finally, a few words on Colin Jost, who took over for Seth Meyers in March as head writer and co-host of Weekend Update. (Again, I didn't include Jost in the pie chart above, because he wasn't in any sketches outside of the news segment.) After eight episodes co-hosting Weekend Update (a relatively short amount of time, to be fair), Jost hasn't yet been able to connect with viewers — who have called his delivery stilted and smug — or with co-host Cecily Strong, which is a more essential relationship for him to develop if he wants the news anchor gig for the long haul. It's definitely too soon to judge how effective Jost is as a head writer; we'll have to wait until he has some time with a writer's room he had some say in choosing. For now, it's safe to say his room has been roughly on par with Seth Meyers', which makes sense considering it's pretty much the same room. However, SNL's tradition to put its head writer behind the Update desk isn't a sacred one — you never saw Adam McKay or Jim Downey do the news — and it probably would have been wiser to give the gig to someone viewers were already familiar with, rather than further expand its already overpopulated cast.

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 Theater.

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