The Episodes of ‘SNL’ Season 40, Ranked
With 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. Below, we reexamine the 21 episodes of Season 40.
Like any lineup in showbusiness — whether it’s a summer movie schedule or a season of Saturday Night Live — tentpoles are crucial. An SNL season may feature a plethora of first-time hosts enjoying their moment in the sun, but it never goes too long before bringing in a seasoned veteran host who can guarantee a win. Recent seasons have been tentpoled by the likes of Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, Tina Fey, Justin Timberlake, Jimmy Fallon, and Will Ferrell — tried-and-true SNL hall-of-famers who know how to deliver the goods. That left room for a few duds, as well as wild cards like Jon Hamm, Zach Galifianakis, and Melissa McCarthy to sneak in without expectations and join the ranks of all-time great hosts.
That’s what made Season 40 such an odd case. Rather than structuring the season with several tentpoles, we were given one big one: the 40th Anniversary Special in February, which showcased all of the aforementioned regulars, and then some. The anniversary was a thrilling and emotional climax for the show, but its magnitude cast an inevitable shadow on the season that contained it. SNL watchers always let our nostalgia for past generations blind us from the present, but here was a three-and-a-half hour highlight reel of everything we once loved about the show, with hardly any of those highlights coming from the recent era. There was plenty of retrospect, but little prospect. For example, it’s hard to credit Colin Jost and Michael Che with the undeniable progress they’ve made behind the Weekend Update desk after a parade of greats like Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Dennis Miller, Kevin Nealon, Norm Macdonald, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Seth Meyers. It’s like college basketball player having a solid opening game, with Jordan dunking at halftime.
The star-studded anniversary also dried up the pool of tentpole hosts (with no Five-Timers Club members this year), leaving well-liked but less-proven regulars Bill Hader, Jim Carrey, Dwayne Johnson, and Louis CK to prop up the season. They did… mostly. Between a few pleasant surprises from first-timers (Martin Freeman) and old-timers (Woody Harrelson), the episodes this season rarely left people buzzing in the days that followed.
Below is a ranking of the episodes this season (not including the 40th Anniversary Special, which was less an episode of SNL than an extended circle-jerk). As with last year’s ranking, we measured episode quality by asking ourselves a few questions: What, if anything, was memorable about this episode? Were the sketches clear, funny, unique concepts, or were they the same predictable bits we’re tired of seeing? Did the host complement the cast, with sketches that made good use of his/her skills? And finally, did the episode contain any awful sketches about a bickering old couple waiting for an Uber?
1. Woody Harrelson. The beloved character actor gave us the episode to beat this season, with an enjoyable mix of goofy character pieces that played to his strengths and the sharpest media satire we’ve seen all season. Woody’s was the only episode this season without any weak links (even its cut sketches were better than the best from some episodes), with the sole low-laughs moment — “Apples Song” — still remembered endearingly.
2. Dwayne Johnson. A close second was the raw, physical performance by Dwayne Johnson, whose high-energy episode featured some of the funniest live sketches of the year and strong character work by the Fast & Furious superstar.
3. Bill Hader. The recent SNL alum reminded us just how irreplaceable he was with a night of familiar faces who got even bigger laughs than when he was still a cast member. Original or not, there’s a certain joy to watching someone do what they were put on earth to do.
4. Martin Freeman. The Hobbit star’s December episode was a surprising success for a first-time host, with hilarious video segments and memorable performances by Taran Killam and Cecily Strong.
5. Louis C.K. The comedian’s third time hosting gave us his raciest material yet, with Louis C.K. ending the season with confident performances and a level of danger that SNL needs to embrace more often.
6. Amy Adams. Another great holiday episode came from Amy Adams, who blended in seamlessly with the cast in impressive musical performances and sharply executed pre-taped bits.
7. Michael Keaton. Despite not having enough to do in his episode, the Batman/Beetlejuice/Birdman star brought enough fun moments to satisfy our childhood selves, along with a fierce takedown of Scientology.
8. Reese Witherspoon. This sweet-and-sour Mother’s Day episode paid off with a mix of sentimentality and edge, with Reese Witherspoon smartly teaming up with the ladies in popular bits to score laughs.
9. Sarah Silverman. The racy comedienne (and one-time SNL featured player) gave us one of the most controversial episodes of the season, both in good ways (a Fault in Our Stars parody, a pro-Caucasian PSA) and bad (a misfire Joan Rivers “tribute,” a Tina Turner sketch many accused them of stealing from the Groundlings). But we’ll take an SNL that sparks a conversation over a boring one.
10. Chris Hemsworth. The hunky Avengers star earned more laughs than expected by exploiting his good looks and romantic flair, winning us over with an entertaining episode that featured the debut of Kate McKinnon’s hilarious Hillary Clinton.
11. Chris Pratt. We remember enjoying Chris Pratt’s season premiere, but we can’t remember why exactly. The Parks & Rec and Guardians of the Galaxy star was likable enough, but the best part of his episode was seeing Pete Davidson, Leslie Jones, and Michael Che join the cast.
12. Kevin Hart. Kevin Hart has been one of the funnier people to host SNL in recent seasons (even if his second outing was a step down from his first) with a breakneck pace that carried the night through its rough patches.
13. Blake Shelton. The country star and Voice spinny-chair wrangler isn’t much of a comedy pro, but the writers and cast compensated effectively with bits that embraced his good ol’ boy nature and vocal talents.
14. Scarlett Johansson. The Marvel star without her own Marvel film showed much improvement in her fourth time hosting, often finding her way to laughs in a night that pulled its punches.
15. JK Simmons. Considering the various roles we’ve loved seeing from the Whiplash Oscar-winner over the years, it was surprising that his episode lacked any real standout moments from him. Still, the night contained hilarious videos from writers Chris Kelly, Sarah Schneider, and Mike O’Brien.
16. James Franco. Despite solid past appearances and proven insight to the show, the Interview star’s episode contained too many baffling turns to make up for its few exceptional sketches.
17. Taraji P. Henson. The talented Empire star’s episode had a great start but quickly lost steam, crawling through several poorly conceived sketches until nearly finding its rhythm with fun twists in the back end.
18. Cameron Diaz. Cameron Diaz’s fourth outing as host wasn’t anywhere near the disaster the show is capable of, with a clever cold open and strong videos, but every other sketch looked way too nervous for a host with so much experience.
19. Dakota Johnson. The star of Fifty Shades of Grey seemed by many to be too inexperienced to host SNL, but Dakota Johnson‘s comedy skills (she starred on one season of the sitcom Ben & Kate) proved strong enough to make her effective in sketches. Unfortunately, aside from a surprising ISIS blackout, few of those sketches packed a comedic punch.
20. Jim Carrey. Few people are more exciting to watch on SNL than Jim Carrey — his 1996 appearance is considered one of the best in the show’s history, and his 2011 return was a delight — but his third appearance never took off, with only his (admittedly perfect) Matthew McConaughey impression to show for it.
21. Chris Rock. Perhaps impossibly high expectations led to these two comedy icons landing at the bottom of this list. But Chris Rock, despite otherwise killing it in 2014 with his film Top Five, hosted a pretty lousy episode of SNL, with only his monologue redeeming a lineup of sketches that ranged from so-so to flat-out bad.