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. READ MORE


The 'Cut for Time' Sketches of 'SNL' Season 40

snlloveactuallyWith 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. Here, we discuss a collection of some of the best sketches SNL made this season — the ones that were cut.

Despite the agenda we assume drives Saturday Night Live, its creative process is actually more chaotic than we realize. An episode really is created from scratch in six days: pitch meeting with the host on Monday; all-night writing sessions on Tuesday; table-read on Wednesday; rewrites, rehearsals, and shoots on Thursday and Friday; dress rehearsal and live show on Saturday. At no point in the process does Lorne Michaels declare: "There will be exactly three video sketches, one talk show sketch, one sketch that will offend people, and one dumb song about apples." (Legend has it that late head writer Michael O'Donoghue did at one point spray paint the word "danger" on the wall, but that's pretty vague as far as directives go.) We can watch an episode and infer that the writers wanted to push the envelope or pull punches, but they would claim no agenda other than to throw shit against the wall, see what sticks, and start over again on Monday.

Proof of this chaos are the "cut for time" sketches. These are the sketches that survive the Thunderdome of cuts to the 12-or-so finalists that run during the dress rehearsal, just to be mercilessly dropped last minute. Perhaps they didn't get as big laughs as they did at table read, or they would create too complicated of a wardrobe transition, or the host didn't feel comfortable in them, or "Peripheral Vision Man" ran too long and Lorne made the call halfway through the live broadcast. In the past, these comedy corpses could only reach the light of day via the tales of nostalgic staffers, bonus features on Best-Of DVDs, re-animation in the future by late night hosts, or adaptation into the best sitcom of all time. But now, thanks to the internet, SNL will routinely post online the cut sketches alongside the others (under the less victimizing header "digital exclusive"), immortalizing them for comedy nerds and sites like this one.

The cut sketches from season 40 are a mixed bag — some are brilliant videos that were too long for the lineup, while others are silly character sketches that their episodes were probably better off without. Taken together, these rejects make for an amazing fantasy episode of SNL, like a night of leftovers that tastes even better the second time around. READ MORE


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? READ MORE


The 25 Best Sketches of 'SNL' Season 40

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. Here, we list some of our favorite sketches from this season — both videos and live sketches.

Though many still criticize SNL of being in a creative slump, with sagging ratings and various anniversary specials reminding viewers how great the show used to be, the sketches we've seen on the show recently tell a different story. Yes, there are fewer stock characters fans can immediately identify with the show — the familiar personas we've seen from Cecily Strong or Taran Killam aren't yet on par with the beloved icons created by Kristen Wiig or Bill Hader — and hardly any moments have possessed the viral potency of the Lonely Island. But the unspoken truth is that the film unit's production quality has actually upped its game, with directors Rhys Thomas, Matt & Oz, and Dave McCary doing amazing work. This season's live sketches have also seen improvement, with an increase in original material (recurring sketches are down to 20% from 25%), and at least a handful of truly inspired concepts routinely making their way into the lineup. And this season's biggest success story has been Weekend Update, with hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che making a night-to-day transition into a pairing we now look forward to seeing. Critics tend to praise newer "underdog" sketch shows like Inside Amy Schumer and Portlandia, ignoring a hit-to-miss ratio that's roughly equivalent to the easy-to-kick network TV goliath that's in no danger of cancellation. But as hip as it may be to claim otherwise, some of the sharpest, cleverest, gutsiest sketch comedy we've seen in the past year has come from the same place it has for the past 40 years.

So below are 25 sketches — 13 videos and 12 traditional live bits, in order of appearance — that suggest SNL in 2014-2015 could be as funny as it ever was. As has been the case in recent years, pre-taped segments appear to have the comedic edge over live bits. That seems to be an industry-wide trend: it has become more practical for writers aiming for a polished product that can translate to YouTube to edit it with the best takes and perfectly-timed cuts, rather than letting actors read it from cue cards in front of an audience of tourists. That said, there have also been plenty of raw, visceral performances that have continued to make Saturday Night Live a show best watched live. READ MORE


'SNL' Review: Louis C.K. Gets Ballsy for the Season 40 Finale

SNLLouisCK2015As we've seen throughout SNL's 40th season, standup comedian hosts bring with them strong points of view that dictate the temperament of their episodes. Sarah Silverman launched her night with her signature irreverence, followed by sketches that made light of Ebola, white privilege, and the late Joan Rivers. Chris Rock aimed to ease audiences' discomfort over topics like the Boston Marathon bombing and 9/11, with his sketches (including confusing twists on ISIS and old age) largely overthinking themselves. Kevin Hart was, as usual, a burst of energy, with his sketches trying to keep up with his manic speed. And last weekend, Louis C.K. opened the show with 8 minutes about how life was different in the 1970s — including casual takes on racism, the Middle East, and child molestation — just to follow it up with sketches about domination fetishes and workplace racism.

Although Louis C.K. didn't mention it, Saturday Night Live too has changed since the 1970s. In those early formative years, the show made its name with sketches that were way racier than what you'd see on the show today, from Michael O'Donoghue pretending to shove needles in his eyes as "Mr. Mike," to Chevy Chase shouting the N-word at Richard Pryor. It was a more extreme time with very different rules about what could be shown on television — while networks have eased back on profanity and sex, they are far more calculated with their shows' handling of offensive subject matter. Louis C.K. not only grew up in that decade, his comedic philosophy still embraces its devilish abandon. His sets have unapologetically used the N-word (more specifically, why he hates us using the term "the N-word") and described his daughters' genitalia with vivid detail. We allow Louis C.K. to joke about these things because he has proven himself as a master comic without coming off as too mean-spirited, and we trust that he's working towards a broader statement beyond the laugh. I'm not sure we'd be OK with any other SNL host this season talking like an angry black woman or shitting on elves for sexual pleasure.

As thrilling as it was to see Louis C.K. turn his third time hosting the show into a series of off-beat, "10-to-1" style sketches, as a season finale of a historic year, the episode fell a little short. The night's back stretch failed to pay off the promise of its exciting first half, with hardly any of the fireworks we've come to expect in season finales. (I'm less impressed by random star cameos, and I had my fill during the anniversary special, but I'm sure the show could've wrangled someone to drop in other than on-site announcer Darrell Hammond.) Still, despite not being much of a closer, the season finale gave us one of the stronger, edgier nights of comedy we've seen on SNL this year. READ MORE


'SNL' Review: Mother's Day with Reese Witherspoon

reesewitherspoonsnlDespite having only hosted SNL once before last weekend, Reese Witherspoon occupies a significant footnote in the show's history: she hosted the first post-9/11 episode. It was a pivotal moment in modern American comedy that historians remember less for Witherspoon than for the cold open, in which Paul Simon performed a moving tribute to the city's policemen and firemen, followed by Lorne Michaels asking Rudy Giuliani if the show was allowed to be funny, to which the mayor responded: "Why start now?" After that crucial icebreaker, Witherspoon joined the cast in crowd-pleasing sketches like "Celebrity Jeopardy" and "Wake Up Wakefield," — an episode that Will Ferrell considered "benign," but important for having occurred at all.

Longtime SNL producer and talent-booker Marci Klein offered this insight on Witherspoon, who was 23 at the time, in the oral history Live from New York:

I'll never forget how remarkable Reese wound up being as host. She just did a terrific job and never let the pressure get to her. Reese was a total pro. She showed up with her baby and worked really hard. Everybody was impressed. I will always be grateful for the way she acted. It was such a difficult time for everybody, maybe the most difficult time ever in the history of the show.

Fourteen years later, the stakes were far lower for Witherspoon, who has since starred in several box office hits and won an Oscar. But in a season of SNL that has seen some female hosts overshadowed by the powerhouse ladies of the cast, the Legally Blonde star showed up to play with the same poise she possessed in 2001. Like Amy Adams and Scarlett Johansson, Witherspoon rarely stole the spotlight, opting instead to share it (wisely) in duo and ensemble bits that have proven to get laughs in the past. The result was a sweet Mother's Day episode with a lot of familiar laughs, but enough dark turns to make the host's return a little less benign. READ MORE


'SNL' Review: Pulling Punches with Scarlett Johansson

scarlettjohanssonsnlSNL may have lost the revolutionary spirit fans claim it embraced in the 1970s, but this season has proven the show can still pack a punch of satire when it wants to. From a father tearfully handing off his teenage daughter to ISIS, to a Fault in our Stars parody that infected the characters with Ebola, to a gutsy takedown of Scientology, many of Season 40's more resonant moments have witnessed SNL reconnecting with its counter-cultural roots. This episode's "Blazer" sketch, which featured an old-school supercop targeting black men, was one of the more boldly retro forms of comedy we've seen on the show in a while.

But these rare glimmers of lawlessness come at odds with the overall trend of satire on SNL, where a big tent mindset has made it difficult for the writers to take a stand on any issue. Too often in recent seasons has the joke of a sketch been, "Isn't it hard to avoid offending people these days?" — a somewhat pandering refrain that makes for interesting comedy ("The Dudleys," "Asian American Doll"), but one that puts the show on the defensive, rather than lashing out at the absurdities of the world. To be fair, the show was dealt a tricky hand this week, with uncomfortable news events like the Baltimore riots, and many viewers lured away by a titanic Mayweather-Pacquiao fight that SNL wouldn't know the results of until nearly the end of the broadcast. But rather than embracing these challenges, the episode often hid behind political correctness and half-measures of satire… a safe approach foretold by a full 60 seconds of excuses that scrolled at the top of the episode.

That's not to say the episode wasn't funny. Scarlett Johansson showed a far broader comedic range than her unmemorable 2010 appearance led us to believe, and Taran Killam was in top form, along with a not-seen-enough Jay Pharoah. When it comes down to it, SNL doesn't need to completely eviscerate the Baltimore police or Marvel studio execs. With people like John Oliver around to fight the good fight, SNL in 2015 just wants to make us laugh. And sometimes that means pulling its punches. READ MORE


'SNL' Review: Taraji P. Henson Almost Saves the Day

tarajiphensonsnlDespite all the criticisms I've made about SNL, I should say that I love this show. And not just what I considered the glory years of the series — the late 90s that I grew up with, or the late 70s that my parents grew up with, or the late 80s I discovered in college, or the late 2000s that inspired me to start reviewing it online — I've loved it even during the not-as-great seasons 39 and 40. Even at its worst, SNL remains a fascinating experiment in live TV sketch comedy, and if I'm going to spend a chunk of my week doing something, I want it to be a positive experience. I've never understood the hate-watchers, who tune in expecting a train wreck and tweet cruel insults to its cast members. Objectivity be damned… when SNL's funny, we all win.

So last weekend, as Taraji P. Henson's episode began, I crossed my fingers that this would be the night season 40 finally hit its stride. SNL has walked tall this spring with strong showings from Chris Hemsworth, Dwayne Johnson, and Michael Keaton (whose episode deserves more praise than I initially gave it), and Empire's multi-talented scene-stealer seemed like a safe bet. Sure enough, the first block came out guns blazing — a hilarious Hillary Clinton cold open, an impressive performance by Henson in the monologue, an amusing fake commercial. This was the SNL I tune in for! Curse broken!

But as the night wore on, SNL fell into the same traps the show always seems to suffer at the end of these three-week runs. The material lacked inspiration, clearly written by people who haven't slept in weeks: lots of celebrity impressions, less-funny versions of premises we've seen before, topical bits that didn't quite hit. Henson revealed herself as an energetic, dynamic host, but one prone to misreading a scene's comedic point of view (which, in fairness to the actress, often wasn't nailed down in the script to begin with). The night saw exciting cameos from alums Darrell Hammond and Billy Crystal, a killer performance by Kate McKinnon, and some pointed satire its back half, but everything in between struggled to stand out. SNL may be on more solid footing as Season 40 approaches its end, but this episode wasn't evidence of it… as much as superfans like me wanted it to be. READ MORE


'SNL' Review: Happy Easter, Michael Keaton!

snlmichaelkeatonThough they may look like natural sketch comedians, character actors give us peculiar episodes of SNL.

At least once per season in recent years comes an episode hosted by a thespian known less for his red-carpet appeal than for his eclectic body of work: Steve BuscemiEd Norton, and now, Michael Keaton. That seems like an ideal situation — fewer flavor-of-the-week celebrities, more actors with real talent — but more often than not, the combination of these artists' creative independence and SNL's hand-holding formula results in a bit of a disconnect. Norton was fun to watch in that epic Wes Anderson parody, and Buscemi was enjoyable as a creepy-looking football coach. But aside from those highlights, their episodes left us scratching our heads, with the hosts swinging hard with characters that (to borrow from JK Simmons, another beloved actor the show misfired with recently) weren't quite SNL's tempo.

That's not to say men like Michael Keaton can't be funny on the show — he was, very much so. SNL craves actors who can actually act. Alec Baldwin and Christopher Walken are SNL legends (though in Walken's case, much of the humor comes from watching the icon put his own goofy spin on the lines), and oddballs like Christoph Waltz and Jim Parsons proved nice fits for the show. But often, a classically trained actor is either a master of subtlety who plays to a camera inches away from his face, or a playhouse dynamo who draws hundreds of eyes in his direction — in other words, the reverse of what actors do on SNL, which requires them to slavishly hit their marks in a rigid multi-cam setup. SNL works best when the host isn't overthinking it… just ask those eggheads Thor and The Rock.

Michael Keaton is a truly gifted comedic actor, and that was clear last weekend. But he got his biggest laughs with the exact same "holiday weirdo" setup the writers handed to Ed Norton and Steve Buscemi at the ends of their episodes. Add that to the fact that the night contained an unusual shortage of material (8 sketches compared to last week's 11), along with Keaton's absence from the night's funniest sketch, and this episode was nowhere near the showcase of the chameleonic star of Batman, Beetlejuice, and Birdman that it should have been. READ MORE


'SNL' Review: Dwayne Johnson, Man for the Job

snldwaynejohnsonHere's a question I never thought I'd ask: does SNL need more men?

Of course not, right? Only recently has SNL begun to shake off its "boys club" reputation, with a cast of seven men and six women (not counting the two male Weekend Update hosts), and a writers room still predominantly male. The current female lineup is more stacked and well-rounded than ever — there are few roles that Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, Leslie Jones, Sasheer Zamata, or Vanessa Bayer can't handle, and I hope that deep field of female talent is here to stay. Considering how pathetic the gender ratio is throughout the late night landscape, and the way Hollywood reacted to a Ghostbusters reboot starring SNL ladies, true gender equality in the comedy world is still a long way off.

However, a new development has emerged in SNL's gender balance, in that many of this season's stronger episodes have featured a "guy's guy" host (Chris Pratt, Woody Harrelson, Chris Hemsworth, and now, Dwayne Johnson), while suitably funny female hosts (Sarah Silverman, Amy Adams, and Dakota Johnson) have struggled to stand out. While it's easy — and usually correct — to accuse viewers and critics of holding women to a tougher standard, in this case I wonder if the cast's masculinity shortage may help set the table for traditional alpha-males to steal the show. Of the men in the cast, only Taran Killam seems capable of playing the leading man, but even he tends to subvert that stereotype by going low status (see: "Brother 2 Brother," "Big Joe"). Kenan Thompson, Bobby Moynihan, and Jay Pharoah stick mostly to oddball roles and impressions, while Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, and Pete Davidson skew toward high-school and college-aged boys. The current guys all play to their strengths effectively, but SNL seemed less reliant on musclebound heroes like Starlord, Thor, and The Rock when it possessed everymen like Jason Sudeikis, Jimmy Fallon, or Will Ferrell.

Whatever the reason, Dwayne Johnson became the latest action star this season to hoist the show on his freakish shoulders and carry it across the finish line. In his fourth time hosting the show, Johnson once again leaned on his macho toughness, showing off a trademark bravado that kept the laughs coming with few lulls. While it rarely packed the satirical punch some of this season's finer hours have, this episode gave us the kind of raw, fast, and physical entertainment we love to see from the pro-wrestling and Furious 7 superstar. READ MORE


'SNL' Review: Walking Tall with Chris Hemsworth

snlchrishemsworthOne of the bigger frustrations for those of us following SNL's 40th season is that, despite the show's ongoing ups and downs, this current version of SNL is one we want to get behind. Kate McKinnon, Taran Killam, and Cecily Strong are as fun to watch and dominant in sketches as previous eras' stars were (regardless how rosey nostalgia has tinted alums like Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg), and the video segments are as sharply executed as they've ever been. What SNL has been lacking are an overall confidence in its assets and a consistent understanding of how to deploy them effectively.

The stronger episodes this season have featured east cast member putting his or her best foot forward. For example, JK Simmons' episode last month showcased Vanessa Bayer in a darkly nuanced commercial parody, Kate McKinnon as a skittish Ingrid Bergman, Bobby Moynihan as a dancing pushpin, and Taran Killam and Cecily Strong holding down Weekend Update with fan-favorite bits — a well-balanced use of each of their skill sets. By comparison, Dakota Johnson's recent episode seemed much more muddled, with the cast sweating through occasionally amusing but largely unmemorable setups — Cecily as Cathy Anne, Kyle as a Fifty Shades-obsessed child, Aidy with her arms in casts (again), Kenan as a Trekkie doctor — while the pre-taped videos stole the show. That's not to say producers can't afford to mix things up, but with fans still making up their minds on SNL in 2015, we need to see a cast that's comfortable in its own skin.

Perhaps that explains why I found last weekend's Chris Hemsworth episode so satisfying, despite a number of dud sketches on par with other weeks. A little Aussie swagger was just what SNL needed right now, with Kate, Taran, Cecily, and hell, even the Weekend Update guys, proving they can walk tall in a season too many have prematurely tuned out of. READ MORE


'SNL's Uneasy Relationship with Twitter and Online Critics

thedudleysLast November, SNL aired a mock promo for a hacky, whitewashed family sitcom called "The Dudleys." In the sketch, a voiceover explains the various lengths the show has gone to satisfy complaints on Twitter — "You tweeted, 'It's 2014, why can't any of The Dudleys be gay?' Well, we heard you loud and clear!" — with Woody Harrelson playing at various degrees of homosexuality before dialing it back up to a "gay 5." "The Dudleys" was a clever piece of satire in a great episode, but it also reflected a truth SNL's current cast and writers have been coming to terms with: they can't win on Twitter.

In some ways, social media has been more blessing than curse for SNL, allowing for instant mass sharing of episode highlights, with clips like "The Dudleys" potentially reaching millions more viewers the following day. Even the finger-wagging online campaigns have resulted in net gains for show. In 2009, Betty White was asked to host an episode after a Facebook group called "Betty White to Host SNL (please?)!" reached nearly 500,000 members. Four years later, the show's "diversity crisis" eventually led to the show hiring three black women and — indirectly, perhaps — its promotion of writer Michael Che to Weekend Update host. READ MORE


'SNL' Review: Business as Usual with Dakota Johnson

Two weeks ago, SNL's 40th anniversary reminded us what we love about this show. The routine scrutiny fell silent at the images that once captured each generation: the classic setups like "Celebrity Jeopardy," "Nick the Lounge Singer," and "Wayne's World"; the tongue-in-cheek smugness of regulars like Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin; the moments when endearing nobodies became stars before our eyes. We can complain that SNL lacks originality, but our hearts long for the familiarity we used to have, for the days when we'd pray for Chris Farley to crash into a scene or the TV Funhouse dog to drag the show away or Tina Fey to do the news.

As SNL falls back into business as usual, it's clear the show misses this familiarity too. Talented as they are, the current cast rarely produces the thrill we require to build anticipation and stay invested — not because they aren't as good as previous casts, but because they still haven't won over their generation of viewers. No one during the week says to themselves, "I can't wait to see Colin Jost do Weekend Update!" …other than Colin Jost, perhaps. This episode, with Fifty Shades of Grey's Dakota Johnson emceeing, featured several cast members each struggling to break through this apathy in their own ways, to varying degrees of success. And still, none of these live moments reached the comedic heights of the episode's isolated video segments, which are more the product of bold execution by writers and directors than a creatively gelled cast that functions in sync.

This chronic disconnect will be SNL's biggest hurdle as season 40 attempts to top (or at least, not topple) a towering legacy. READ MORE


'SNL 40' Review: The Stars Come Home

After 40 years, Saturday Night Live may be the only remaining "watercooler comedy" that everyone still has something to say about. Whether it's "The first five years were the best," or "Bring back Victoria Jackson!" (just kidding, no one says that), we all have our opinions on what is or isn't funny on the show… not just us nerdy online reviewers. SNL is, after all, one of the only shows we grew up with that's still on the air — those of us under 40 haven't lived in a world without it — and we each have a personal connection to the first incarnation of it that spoke to us. For me, it was Will Ferrell and Darrell Hammond in the "Celebrity Jeopardy" sketches. For others, it was Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin as the "wild and crazy guys!" For at least one of you out there, it was Victoria Jackson's hilarious handstands.

With that nostalgia for our era sometimes comes an indifference to others. I'll sincerely giggle at Stefon losing it at "Sidney Applebaum," but I struggle to whip up anything more than appreciative nods when the Church Lady sighs, "Well, isn't that special?" Don't get me wrong — Dana Carvey is my hero, and as someone who writes about SNL a lot, I understand the comedic greatness of the iconic routines and characters from the show's first two decades. But they didn't belong to me. Wayne Campbell and Buh-Weet were the inside jokes at a party I was too young for. I knew them better as Austin Powers and Professor Klump, and those younger than me know them as Shrek and Donkey. (I know, ugh.) Older viewers exhibit this bias as well, bragging that Richard Pryor's "Word Association" would never air on today's SNL, while bemoaning the show's descent into the mainstream and over-dependence on low-hanging fruit gags to go viral online.

But last night, that generational rivalry disappeared. SNL's 40th anniversary, a three-and-a-half-hour telecast (seriously, has NBC just given Lorne Michaels keys to the building at this point?) showed an extended family united in the tradition they were once part of, celebrating each other on stage, in retrospective footage, and in star-packed revivals of classic sketches. It was an SNL nerd's wet dream, and as Stefon would say, this had everything. "Celebrity Jeopardy." "Wayne's World." Jane, Amy, and Tina hosting Weekend Update. Melissa as "Motivational Speaker Matt Foley." Martin and Maya throwing to "Nick the Lounge Singer" and "Choppin' Broccoli." Eddie returning to a standing ovation.

Sure, everything ran long, the cameos were a bit much, the highlight reels were redundant, and all the jokes were inside baseball. But this wasn't a normal episode of SNL intended to please fair-weather viewers, or fit neatly into our "what hit" and "what missed" watercooler chats. It was a homecoming that we were lucky to peek in on. And as we've seen before on this show, something magical happens when the family comes home to make each other laugh for a change. READ MORE