Breaking Down Each Cast Member’s Contribution to ‘SNL’ Season 40

SNL Season 40 CastWith SNL‘s 40th season wrapped up, we’re taking a look back at the past year to recall the highs, lows, and other memorable moments as the show ended its fourth decade on the air. In this final post, we discuss the cast members on the show.

Being in the cast of SNL for season 40 was a blessing and a curse. More of a blessing, obviously. For comedians Leslie Jones and Pete Davidson, it was a dream come true: they began 2014 as relative unknowns and ended it with reserved seats in history, joining the ranks of a legendary comedy institution right as it celebrated a significant milestone. The two of them even received a special distinction during the anniversary special, introducing the best part of the night: archive footage of cast members’ audition tapes. But in many ways, this heightened nostalgia has made their task even more difficult — this season’s cast had to overcome four decades’ worth of expectations and impress viewers that are increasingly quick to judge. Arguably no cast member in the show’s history had to endure the level of harassment Leslie Jones sees on Twitter every Sunday morning.

A judgmental viewership wasn’t the only struggle for the season 40 cast. Despite having slimmed down to a more manageable size from last season, the current lineup still lacks the star power the show needs to command the respect of viewers and critics. Historically, that X-factor has taken the form of a single cast member — Chevy Chase, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell — or an endearing chemistry between team players — Bill Murray and Gilda Radner, Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks, the Lonely Island. There have been flashes of greatness within the 2014-2015 crew — Taran Killam, Cecily Strong, and Kate McKinnon often rise to the occasion, and the bromance between Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney has tightened since their Good Neighbor days — but many viewers continue to shrug off this cast as still in transition.

However, if we could stop comparing them to past generations and appreciate them solely for their work, suddenly this cast looks like one we shouldn’t shrug off. Taran, Cecily, Kate, Kenan, and Bobby have become some of the most dynamic sketch comedians the show has ever seen, and Vanessa and Aidy have continued to be indispensable in sketches. Beck and Kyle have transitioned from rookies who only shined in their own off-beat shorts to dominant actors in live sketches. Jay and Sasheer remain expert impersonators that the show doesn’t use often enough. And Leslie and Pete provided SNL with a breath of fresh air that the show seemed unable to locate last season.

Of course, it’s hard to use words to accurately depict the state of affairs in the SNL cast, which is why we also use numbers. Creating a pie chart to depict SNL cast member screen time (which we did in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and below) is a huge, nerdy waste of time, but it also gives us a reasonable quantification of how much value the show’s writers and producers place on each actor. Sure, it may seem cruel to reduce a comedian’s hard work over nine months to a percentage and a tiny sliver of a pie chart, but this is the internet, and geeking out over TV shows is how we enjoy them. Also, we have way too much time on our hands.

SNL Season 40

As always, estimations were used (we aren’t insane enough to start and stop a timer when the camera cuts to Kenan), weighing lead roles in sketches and Weekend Update bits more heavily than smaller supporting roles and quick walk-ons, as well as any cameos made in the 40th anniversary special. Colin Jost, Michael Che, and Mike O’Brien have been excluded — Weekend Update and rare cameos in shorts have made their screen time share negligible by comparison.

Let’s look at each cast member with more detail.

Taran Killam (11.47%)

Taran Killam may not be praised as an SNL star yet, but he’s certainly the show’s MVP. Every cast needs a cohesive jack-of-all-trades who holds the show together: Dan Aykroyd, Phil Hartman, Bill Hader… and in 2015, it’s clearly Taran Killam. His vaudevillian skill set this season has widened to include slight of hand and a Sam Smith that sings almost as well as the source. (Kate and Jay tend to receive more credit for their impressions, but Taran’s a more versatile mimic — just check out his homage to Batman and Beetlejuice in the Michael Keaton episode.) More importantly, Taran has proven he can create chemistry with anyone: bouncing off the ladies in character sketches, mugging it up with Bobby and Kenan in monologues, channeling teenage angst with the boys, loosening up Weekend Update, and playing liaison to Jim Carrey and Dakota Johnson. Taran may be the prototypical SNL white dude that commenters don’t feel the need to hype, but he’s also the cast member the show can least afford to lose.

Cecily Strong (10.52%)

It’s easy to forget that this was only Cecily Strong’s third season. Seems like she’s been on the show longer, right? It’s indeed remarkable how quickly Cecily positioned herself as the cast’s leading lady, leveraging her replacement at Weekend Update (a gig she was good at, but one that limited her) into even more freedom to explore new characters, like the One Dimensional Female Character from a Male-Driven Comedy, British amateur pop singer Jemma, and Atlanta morning show host Marybeth Chisholm, as well as old crowd favorites like the Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party, Kira from “Girlfriends Talk Show,” and the unnamed ex-pornstar from those sleazy infomercials. With rising starpower from hosting the White House Correspondents Dinner, Cecily possesses noticeable sway on SNL, frequently appearing in the coveted post-monologue sketch, even when it resulted in a misfire. (We’ve never understood the appeal of Kathy Ann, for example.) But Cecily’s talent is undeniable — one of many powerhouse actresses the show is lucky to have.

Kate McKinnon (10.22%)

Perhaps the fastest rising star on the show is Kate McKinnon, who joined the cast at the end of season 37 to help replace Kristen Wiig, and has since become an SNL darling with an Emmy nomination and a spot in the new female Ghostbusters movie, alongside Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Leslie Jones. Although she’s enjoyable to watch in pretty much every role she plays, from the distressed Russian peasant Olya Povlatsky to the unnerving music videos “Wishin’ Boot” and “Neurotology,” Kate seems most at home when sharing the screen with “Dyke & Fats” partner Aidy Bryant. But with hugely popular impressions of Justin Bieber, Ellen Degeneres, and now, 2016 frontrunner Hillary Clinton — the purely funniest presidential caricature since Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush — Kate has become one of the more recognizable faces in the cast with a promising future ahead of her.

Kenan Thompson (10.02%)

With a whopping 12 seasons under his belt, Kenan Thompson is the senior member of the cast, and as such, many view him as the face of the show. He’s the go-to guy for talk show appearances and promo spots, and his success on SNL is a result of his longevity and loyalty. Writers have gone on record singing his praises as a reliable sketch pro, even if many viewers remain hesitant to embrace the once-teen star. (This season has made hilarious references to Good Burger and D2: The Mighty Ducks.) Whatever your opinions on him are, Kenan has spent decades performing sketch comedy on television, and few people are as good at finding a laugh as he is, whether it’s a Bud Abbott take on Charles Barkley with Jay Pharoah’s dummy Shaq, or as Willie, the optimist trying to ignore his misfortune with specific-to-him expressions. Despite rumors that this season would be Kenan’s last — which seemed to justify the number of odd one-off bits the show let him do late in the season, like a Shawshank Redemption cannibal or a Trekkie surgeon — the actor confirmed he will be returning for season 41. That means Superdude is here to stay.

Bobby Moynihan (8.47%)

The second most senior cast member is Bobby Moynihan, also seen by many as a cast favorite. Unlike the four above, however, Bobby has rarely been considered a lead, hitting peak screen time in 2013 and playing mostly Weekend Update characters and utility roles since. His breakout character this season was Riblet, a high school buddy turned heckler who torments Michael Che and claims to be better than he is at his “jorb.” Among many things, Riblet gave us the opportunity to see Bobby kill with topical jokes — a function that was sadly never in the cards for him. Perhaps Bobby’s most valuable asset to SNL is his inherent likability, which the show exploits by casting him in dark setups, from an molesting employer to a game show contestant who has to draw the Prophet Muhammad. Bobby is finishing his seventh year, which is when the typical cast member contract is up, meaning he could make a clean break from the show if he chooses to. But considering his value to the cast, it would be pretty disappointing (and shocking) to see him go.

Beck Bennett (7.23%)

As the most successful surviving freshman from last season, Beck Bennett has transitioned from the guy from the weird videos who occasionally played his Baby CEO character to the guy in every live sketch whose videos get cut too often. Beck’s bromance with Kyle Mooney remains his strongest asset, joining Good Neighbor collaborators Dave McCary and Nick Rutherford to provide a fresh comedic perspective to a show that often gets muddled with recurring characters. But Beck has also demonstrated impressive acting range this season, from a chillingly perceptive bully in “Grow-A-Guy” to a pathetically in-denial Hallmark employee in “Mr. Westerburg.” With two solid seasons behind him, it’s probably time for Beck to get bumped up to the main cast.

Vanessa Bayer (6.93%)

While she may not stand out from the pack as prominently as Cecily or Kate, Vanessa Bayer became one of the most fascinating — and hilarious — actresses to watch this season. In her first year, she was known mostly for her larger-than-life Miley Cyrus, but she has since honed a more controlled, nuanced delivery that has carried some of the best sketches of the season: “Vitamix,” “Nest-Spresso,” “Asian-American Doll,” “Totinos Super Bowl Ad.” Meanwhile, she has also proven to be a dependable physical performer, scoring laughs with returning characters Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy and Brookie the ex-pornstar, as well as an amazing pratfall during “The Californians” sketch at the 40th anniversary. Outside the spotlight is a hard place to be for an actress on SNL (just ask Nasim Pedrad), so hopefully the show continues to recognize Vanessa’s value.

Kyle Mooney (6.68%)

Along with Beck, Kyle Mooney has transitioned from a nuanced short film actor to a seasoned live sketch performer who’s ready to bring his unique voice to the main cast. In his first season, his mumblecore style sometimes seemed like an awkward fit for the show, but as fans have gotten to know him, he has carved out a niche as a sensitive Andy Kaufman-type who explores the insecurities of his characters, with inevitable emotional confessions driving the laughs. His his popular incarnations have been angsty teens (Teddy in “How 2 Dance with Janelle,” “Bad Boys,” “The Fight”) and hams (“Student Show,” “Improv Show,” and Bruce Chandling — the hack New York comic whose two amazing shorts got cut this season).

Aidy Bryant (6.53%)

Whether intentional or not, Aidy Bryant has become a voice of female empowerment on the show. Her characters are often girl equivalents of Kyle Mooney’s adolescents — sensitive losers who know their limits and express measured doses of confidence: Morgan in “Girlfriends Talk Show,” the drama nerd in “Student Show,” the honest woman in “Brave” — even the tortured wrecks of “Farm Hunk” and “I Can’t Even.” As an actress who leads with her heart, her chemistry with Kate (which we caught glimpses of this season in “Wishin’ Boot,” “Neurotology,” and “Whoops, I Married a Lesbian”) is especially endearing, and something we hope to see more of in the future.

Jay Pharoah (6.33%)

While viewed by many as a heavy hitter in the cast, Jay Pharoah spent much of Season 40 on the bench, with the writers apparently giving up on trying to find a funny angle on President Obama and instead looking ahead to the 2016 election. Jay still manages to get air time in great pre-taped shorts like “Bushwick” and “39 Cents,” and with solid impressions like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar (he missed out on Jay Z to Mike O’Brien), but with his Principal Frye apparently retired, his only recurring bit this season was his hilarious Shaquille O’Neal. Jay is clearly valuable to the show as an impressionist, and his recently cut “Rooftop Party” suggests he’s still capable of original characters. Hopefully he’ll get to show us more of them next season.

Sasheer Zamata (5.43%)

It’s frankly a little surprising that Sasheer Zamata’s total screen time wasn’t lower this season — many episodes hardly featured her at all. Her one big character this season was Janelle, the teenage vlogger who’s unaware of her own emerging sexuality. But even Janelle wasn’t much of a showcase of character work — it’s a funny concept that mostly dances around the horror, leaving it to other characters to get the laughs while Sasheer plays dumb. Save for the occasional impression (her Michelle Obama and Rihanna cameos were few and far between) or utility role, the actress remains criminally underused, putting her in a tough spot. Even though she was hired in the midst of SNL‘s “diversity crisis,” Sasheer is no mere “diversity hire.” She’s a perfectly-suited talent who can do great things for SNL… with the right material. Leslie Jones writes a lot of her own bits and has made quite an impression with viewers. It looks like Sasheer will need to do the same to get more exposure.

Pete Davidson (5.38%)

21-year-old comedian Pete Davidson made a stronger first impression than most featured players in recent memory. (It doesn’t hurt that he was the only new guy, and he happens to be a freakishly tall child.) His first episode immediately won him fans, and even though it was a bit he had perfected in his set for years, and topping it has been a challenge, it was a season highlight that signaled a new hope for viewers. In last weekend’s season finale, Pete mused how a non-triple-threat like him ended up on the show, joking that he only shows up behind the Weekend Update desk because he doesn’t wear pants. Sure, he may be more standup than sketch actor, but he’s a likable, funny performer with a strong comedic perspective (often, it’s pro-legalization), and with memorable roles in sketches (“The Group Hopper,” “MLK Cold Open,” “Teacher Trial”), Pete’s probably a safe bet for next season.

Leslie Jones (4.79%)

Leslie Jones may be at the bottom end of the screen time spread for season 40, but her few appearances have left quite an impression on viewers. We applauded SNL for promoting the writer to featured player, symbolically standing behind her polarizing Weekend Update routine last season. Her bits this season have continued to divide viewers — some appreciate the new, vibrant burst of energy Leslie brings to the show, while others complain that sketches too often exploit her race and size (“New Annie,” “Wedding Objections”). Luckily, the criticism only seems to be emboldening Leslie, who has hilariously drawn on her comic persona in numerous Update desk appearances and in pre-taped shorts like “Ghost Chasers” and the unfortunately-cut “Inner White Girl.” As an exciting fresh voice who’s so exciting to see on screen — and a future Ghostbuster — Leslie seems to have earned her place on SNL.

Mike O’Brien

After getting rotated back into the writers room this season, Mike O’Brien now appears to have a dream setup on SNL. He gets to make amazing short films for the show (“Whites,” “Grow-A-Guy,” and “The Jay Z Story” were fantastic highlights), star in them, receive on-screen credit, and not have to sweat the awkward air time hustle like other cast members do. Mike isn’t exactly the broad, Groundlings-style performer who tends to dominate SNL, but he has a smart comedy mind (he was one of the writers behind Bill Hader’s “Puppet Class”) with strong acting chops he honed at the Second City and iO in Chicago. His performance across Michael Keaton in “Prom Date” was one of the strongest we saw on the show this season. With an enviable niche, hopefully Mike will continue to run his in-house operation the way Robert Smigel once did.

Colin Jost and Michael Che

Finally, a word on the Weekend Update hosts. Colin Jost and Michael Che found themselves in a rut halfway through this season — to many, Colin still looked like a smug Seth Meyers-lite who inexplicably held onto the job after the more popular Cecily Strong got replaced, and Michael was an on-the-rise comedian who picked fights on social media. Together, they showed none of chemistry they were rumored to have in the writers room, flatly reading the jokes and doing little to spice up the fake news. But as the weeks went by, the sparks began to fly, and the ice between the hosts and viewers melted. Their joke reads have become looser, more subjective, and more confidently paced, with interactive two-shots becoming more frequent. Of course, it’s hard to tell whether it was really Colin and Michael who have improved, or if it’s just viewers finally accepting them — they certainly have a ways to go before joining the ranks of the greats who held the post in the past. But for now, Colin and Michael have restored Weekend Update as the satisfying mid-episode oasis it needs to be.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs at the iO Theater on the house teams Wheelhouse and It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way.

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