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SNL returns for its 40th season this Saturday, with host Chris Pratt, musical guest Ariana Grande, and pretty much the same cast — minus a handful of people we rarely saw in sketches anyway. Following a lackluster season, Lorne Michaels is now sticking with the tools he's got, replacing five departing cast members with only one newcomer — standup Pete Davidson — and promoting writer Michael Che to co-host Weekend Update. Meanwhile, Colin Jost will remain at the desk after taking on the job last February. It's a conservative approach, compared to last year's throw-everything-against-the-wall casting strategy, which resulted in a cast so overpopulated that some remained literal faces in the crowd at the season's end.
Counting its blessings isn't the worst move for SNL right now. Viewers warmed up to returning cast members during last year's transitional season, with Taran Killam, Cecily Strong, and (Emmy-nominated) Kate McKinnon emerging as bankable scene-carriers. Meanwhile, the show has been on a hot streak of video content — which now makes up a full third of SNL's sketches. With Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett staying on board, and the third Good Neighbor alum Nick Rutherford now joining them as a writer, producers appear to be doubling down on this transition. The rotation of Michael Che and Cecily Strong reflects a show carefully evaluating its strengths and how best to use them.
Word has come down this week that SNL cast members Noël Wells, John Milhiser, and Brooks Wheelan have been let go from the show after one season, with Nasim Pedrad also leaving to work as a regular on Mulaney (a move that has long been anticipated) and Mike O'Brien's status currently in talks. Their departures don't come as too huge a shock — as we recapped at the end of last season, the three saw little screen time and had few memorable moments during the season. And while it must come as a disappointment to those actors and their fans, let's not forget that at least a third of everyone who has ever appeared in the SNL cast has done so for only one season, putting the three of them in the company of one-and-done cast members turned comedy stars like Ben Stiller, Sarah Silverman, Damon Wayans, Rob Riggle, Jenny Slate, and Iron Man. Considering Season 39 saw the largest cast SNL ever had, and first-year cast members are always on the chopping block, it's not surprising that a few cast members would get axed. We look forward to seeing what they do with a year of SNL exposure under their belts.
This casting change takes place well into SNL's transitional era, which began when Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg left in 2012, followed by Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, and Fred Armisen in 2013, followed by Seth Meyers in 2014. At the start of last season, the three (possibly four) recent cuts joined the cast along with Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, and, later in the season, Sasheer Zamata and Colin Jost, making it one of the largest cast increases ever. Mooney, Bennett, and Zamata each had average first seasons, occasionally providing the show with the spark it hopes for from its newcomers, even if they didn't immediately capture viewers' adoration like Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon did in their early episodes. However, the fact that SNL is firing half of the new talent it intended to replace its departed stars indicates that Lorne Michaels is still figuring out what the show's future will be. In other words, the "rebuilding year" enters Year Three. READ MORE
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: READ MORE
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 show's shifting tone on race over the arc of this season.
This has not been an easy year for SNL to talk about race. From the moment the show announced its six new cast members — the largest turnover in more than a decade — and viewers noticed that not one of them was a person of color, SNL once again became a target of progressive viewers calling for the cast to diversify. We've had a black president for 5 years now, they argued, so why, still, does SNL have no one to play the First Lady? While this argument wasn't new, two other developments were. For one, the show was in the midst of a rebuilding year with plenty of uncertainties about its future. Critics of all kinds sniffed the blood in the water and amassed collective pressure to force the show to explain why that future seemed so stubbornly white. The second shift was that SNL responded. Jay Pharoah said the show needed to "pay attention," while Kenan Thompson (now the senior-most cast member) stood by SNL, saying producers "just never find [black women] who are ready."
Suddenly, SNL's diversity problem became a national headline, with news outlets and former cast members alike weighing in. Splitsider did a write-up on the issue, in which we examined the show's long history of racial controversies and pointed out that its recruitment pools are even more whitewashed. The criticism became so loud that SNL made the out-of-character move of addressing it in a cold open with Kerry Washington. While funny, the piece did little to temper the criticism, which finally seemed to subside in January, when the show announced its hiring of a black female cast member, Sasheer Zamata, and two black female writers, Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes.
But the controversy didn't end there. Despite a larger representation of black actors and writers on the show than ever, SNL couldn't even talk about race without a flood of angry tweets calling the show bigoted. Writer (and soon to be Daily Show correspondent) Michael Che, who has penned most of the show's race-related material, has butted heads on Twitter with viewers furious over bits like "Black Jeopardy" or Leslie Jones' Weekend Update appearance. Lucas Hazlett wrote a wonderful piece for Splitsider on Jones' routine and the misplaced outrage it incited, which has gotten so vicious it seems the only acceptable way for SNL to address race is to make fun of white people.
Dave Chappelle ended his Comedy Central show partially because he grew concerned that audiences were drawing the wrong conclusions from his racy material. SNL's live studio audience presents the same problem. When a sketch like "Black Jeopardy" airs, how do we know if the crowd is laughing at the sketch's commentary about the disconnect between black and white culture, or if they're only laughing at the black stereotypes the sketch uses to make that commentary? Unlike Key & Peele – whose pretaped, laugh-track-less sketches allow them to make it very clear via timing and reaction shots exactly what idea they're trying to convey — SNL race sketches often leave us wondering whether any groups have been unfairly exploited. As a result, for many, the discussion over whether or not a joke is offensive drowns out whether or not it is funny. (And yes, a joke can be both.)
Below, we look back upon 11 moments race came to the forefront this season, and how the piece reflected SNL's gradually shifting tone as more diverse voices entered the mix. READ MORE
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 each episode as a whole, ranking them in order of overall success and positive resonance with viewers.
Obviously comedy is subjective, and everyone watches SNL looking for different things — this list is just one of many you can find online. As far as we're concerned, things like musical guests, surprise cameos, and drama surrounding the show are less important than the plain-and-simple comedy aspects of an episode: How many sketches had clear, clever premises versus how many followed the same, predictable pattern we've seen dozens of times? And of the good material, how strong and memorable was it compared to the highlights from other episodes? Did the host blend in seamlessly and appropriately complement the cast, or did he/she stick out like a sore thumb and come off as distracting or diva-ish? How well did the writers structure the episode around the host's talents — did they effectively navigate the host's strengths and weaknesses, or did they use him/her as little as possible? And simply, does the average viewer remember anything about this episode?
With those criteria in mind, here is our ranking of the 21 episodes of SNL Season 39. READ MORE
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 recall some of our favorite sketches from the season — both live sketches and videos.
Season 39 of SNL certainly hasn't been the most popular among viewers, with its first half bogged down with criticism over the lack of diversity in the cast, and its second half attacked (often unfairly) for uneven writing under new head writer Colin Jost. Even though the show hired Sasheer Zamata (along with two black female writers), and the script quality under Jost has more or less remained on par with Seth Meyers' room, viewers remain underwhelmed, with ratings down 18% from last season, and an ugly backlash after Leslie Jones' routine. The truth is, after such a massive cast turnover, Season 39 was always going to be a rebuilding year, no matter what safeguards SNL tried to take. Just as it's taking time for fans to fall in love with new cast members, so it takes time for writers to acclimate themselves within the new behind-the-scenes pecking order, which is why that playful chemistry between actors and writers that defined past seasons seems so rare right now.
As we compile this season's best sketches — 12 pretaped videos and 12 live scenes, in chronological order — the videos' superiority becomes pretty obvious. As I mentioned in my article about the show's "live problem," SNL's impressive team of directors and editors (led by Rhys Thomas) has been the only consistent element throughout this transitional season, producing weekly short films that display a comedic precision the increasingly safe and sluggish live sketches have struggled to keep pace with. Indeed, while choosing the 12 best videos left nearly as many honorable mentions, the second list reads more like "the 12 good live sketches" from this season.
That said, anyone who has been watching regularly knows there have still been plenty of hilarious moments from Season 39. And while they may not have reached the heights of last season's "Louie Lincoln" or "Darrell's House," they're at least proof that the show can still make us laugh. READ MORE
SNL transforms when a former cast member returns to host. The regular format is stretched to make room for a massive SNL reunion, with classic bits and endless cameos by other past stars of the show. Usually this homecoming makes for an exciting night of television, with Lorne Michaels trotting out one of his prized horses to remind us of the joy this show has brought us over the years.
In this case, it reminded us how atypical of a cast member Andy Samberg was. His monologue joke that he appeared in "100 digital shorts and six live sketches" had a ring of truth: unlike all-star alums Will Ferrell or Jimmy Fallon, Samberg was largely a wildcard player, making his mark in videos or the occasional impression (where the joke was often how off the impression was). As much as I enjoy him as Jake Peralta on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I'm not sure what SNL would have looked like with Samberg as the leading man, without Bill Hader or Kristen Wiig to do the heavy lifting while he danced on the fringes.
Producers must have shared that doubt, with an apparent gameplan to make Andy Samberg shine by recreating the exact conditions of his time on the show. Samberg appeared in two Digital Shorts, reveled in old setups like "Get in the Cage," "The Vogelchecks," and "Blizzard Man," and shared the stage with several of his former co-stars: Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Fred Armisen, as well as cameos by Paul Rudd, Martin Short, and Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer of The Lonely Island. Of course, there's nothing wrong with turning back the clock to an era when the cast was particularly stacked, and the trip down memory lane gave us several hilarious moments.
However, the fact that Samberg didn't quite hit it off with the current cast points to one of two somewhat concerning conclusions. It may be a case where Samberg was a circumstantial sensation on SNL, and the rich afterlife of hosting appearances by Will Ferrell, Jimmy Fallon, and Tina Fey may just not be in the cards for him. But the more likely — and more alarming — explanation is that the present situation on SNL right now is so dire that the only way producers can guarantee fans a satisfying season finale is to call in the old guard to save the day.
That latter conclusion will certainly be on producers' minds as SNL's embattled 39th season limps across the finish line. READ MORE
Well, that was quite a turnaround.
To everyone who commented on last week's tirade against Andrew Garfield's lackluster episode that it was about time I gave up on SNL: this episode right here is why I still love this show, and why I will never give up on it. The 90 minutes was about as solid as it gets, with a low-expectations host Charlize Theron blending in seamlessly with the cast, the writers performing on overdrive, and even a few head-turning live-TV moments. We haven't seen this level of consistency since Kerry Washington hosted in November — an episode with which this one shared a few interesting parallels, which we'll get to later.
Other than the uncharacteristically high quality of material (for this season, at least), what interested me the most about this episode was how much it showcased the women of the cast. Granted, SNL typically uses its Mother's Day episode to celebrate the ladies, which was certainly the case in past seasons with Kristen Wiig, Tina Fey, and Betty White (even Will Ferrell's episode in 2012 seemed geared towards the fairer sex). But what makes this season different is how much of a female-driven show SNL already seems, with Cecily Strong anchoring Weekend Update and Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant often running circles around their male counterparts in sketches. Fey and Wiig, along with Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and a number of others before them, paved the way for an era of SNL in which women running the show isn't too out of the ordinary. And despite some viewers' ire towards Leslie Jones' set during Update last week — which, offensive or not, was pretty damn funny and exactly the kind of thing SNL should be doing more often — it speaks volumes about the show's progressivism that its black women, who initially seemed like obligatory hires in January, are voices Lorne Michaels actually intends on putting front and center.
I wouldn't go as far as saying this episode was a success directly because it was a ladies night, but it's definitely a better sign that these days, SNL can have a ladies night without it being newsworthy. READ MORE
Last year, in his third time hosting SNL, Zach Galifianakis gave us a wonderful sketch called "Darrell's House." The sketch came in two parts. The first part was an odd piece that aired live early in the episode, with Galifianakis playing a public access TV show host who barked at an off-screen director to make various specific edits in post: remove a fight with his wife, insert a shot of a laughing crowd at the Apollo, etc. But it was the second part that was the true marvel. At the end of the night, SNL aired a recut version of the sketch with exactly all of the edits Galifianakis called for, including a surreal split-screen with Jon Hamm. The feat was pulled off by Oz Rodriguez of SNL's video crew, who apparently worked feverishly in an editing bay as soon as Part 1 ended to make all the little changes before Part 2 would need to air. On the night it aired, Mike Birbiglia tweeted: "sketch comedians will study 'Darrell's House' for years to come."
What impressed me most about the sketch was that it was something that only worked within a live broadcast. If SNL was pretaped like any other sketch or late-night show on television, every sketch would pass through an editing bay, with plenty of time to tinker around with it, and the before-and-after effect of "Darrell's House" would have lost its punch. It was seeing those same shots from the live portion of the sketch, which we all saw recorded barely half an hour an earlier, that made the edited portion so exciting to watch. It was dangerous. And not Hader-breaking-as-Stefon dangerous, or Farley's-pants-falling-down dangerous, but a bold, creative risk that the show challenged itself with just to mix things up. It reminded me of the early years of the show, when the writers made NBC censors sweat with that Richard Pryor "Word Association" piece, or when Belushi accidentally cut Buck Henry's head with a samurai sword and the rest of the cast began wearing bandages throughout the night in solidarity. READ MORE
When I started reviewing SNL three years ago, I was proud to consider myself a defender of the show. Of course, not that the mainstream pop culture institution needed any defending. My frustration was with the show's cynical viewers — online critics, comedy nerds, pretty much everyone in my hometown — who had jumped on the hip bandwagon of dismissing SNL as "not as funny as it used to be." It didn't matter to them that the show is broadcasted live, with each episode written and produced in less than six days. Even if SNL managed to pull off a handful of good sketches week after week, that wasn't good enough.
Critics were too blinded by SNL's tenure to give it the fair assessment they gave fresher sketch shows like Key & Peele and Portlandia. Even worse, they were far too quick to slap grades and scores to sketches without having any practical understanding of sketch structure or game. SNL is staffed with some of the sharpest comedy minds in the business, and the product of their labors deserves better-thought-out analysis than "I laughed so hard," or "I didn't get it."
But man, after three years of trying to be fair — even doing away with my "what hit" and "what missed" breakdowns for being overly reductive — an episode like this one makes me want to join the haters, give SNL a big thumbs-down, and leave it at that.
Any other week I'd be able to make an educated guess as to why some sketches worked and others didn't; how inspired concepts fell victim to poor execution; how a host's charisma magically brought an episode together. But after all the theorizing I've done about Lorne Michaels' mythical thought-process, while watching this episode, I can humbly resign that I just didn't get it. I didn't get how the writers could return after a three-week break without any better ideas than "Celebrity Family Feud" or "Spider-Man and Emma Stone don't know how to kiss." I didn't get how a dynamic host like Andrew Garfield could be limited to such stale premises, or why the episode contained an abnormally low amount of sketches to begin with. I didn't get how SNL could take a golden goose of a news story like Donald Sterling and come back with a cold open that was perhaps the laziest possible take on it. I didn't get why the show would take its two of its most popular characters and run them into the ground within the same five minutes.
I thought I got Leslie Jones' Weekend Update bit, but a lot of people on Twitter apparently did not.
I still love this show. I want it to have good episodes — partially so I can rub it in the haters' faces, but mostly because even after all these years, I think there's still something novel about a 90-minute live broadcast of comedy sketches written a few days in advance, and the TV-lover in me wants to see SNL defy the odds and succeed, as they have done time and time again.
This week… not so much.
While watching Seth Rogen host SNL for the third time last weekend, I was reminded of two other three-peat hosts from earlier this season: Paul Rudd in December and Jonah Hill in January. Rudd's episode felt like extended promo for Anchorman 2, with the host failing to capture that lightning in the bottle with cast members that made his previous stints so memorable. Hill, however, seemed to enjoy himself every bit as much as he did his first two appearances.
Seth Rogen, Paul Rudd, and Jonah Hill are, of course, hugely successful alumni from Team Judd Apatow, but their careers have taken diverging trajectories. Rogen and Rudd have stuck closely to studio comedies and rom-coms, while Hill has attempted to carve out a larger niche for himself, pursuing meatier roles in Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street, and earning Oscar nominations in the process. I have to wonder if Hill's breaking from the pack gave him an edge in his return to SNL; he possessed the calm under pressure of an actor accustomed to playing opposite heavyweights like Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Meanwhile, Rudd and Rogen both looked like dudes wondering what happened to their old frat buddies – Hader, Samberg, Wiig… you know, the guys! — struggling to recreate the magic with the new cast and clinging to A-list guest stars whenever possible. Rudd and Rogen's pack mentality does them little good if they don't yet accept the new SNL kids as part of that pack.
To be fair, Seth Rogen's episode was a vast improvement from Rudd's, falling right in between that and Jonah Hill's. Yes, Rogen was too often cast as the passive, flustered straight man SNL relegates to weaker hosts, but the episode also gave us one of the most interesting lineups we've seen in a while, with some creatively daring premises, fiery performances, and a few pleasant reminders that Nasim Pedrad and Cecily Strong can still take care of business in sketches. Then again, only half of those daring premises actually paid off, resulting in an episode that felt — forgive me — a little half-baked. READ MORE
Whenever SNL producers book a host who seems inexperienced in live comedy, they fall back on a kind of playbook. Stick to popular recurring bits and pretaped videos to take the burden off the host. Give her small, easy stuff that plays to her strengths, then get her out of there. If she can sing, let her sing. The goal is to Bodyguard-cradle the host, letting her enjoy herself while hiding her from the real dangers of the scary sketch comedy world.
Given how little we saw of Anna Kendrick this episode, you'd think Lorne was standing nearby off stage, ready to dive in and take a bullet.
I can't really fault SNL for being so cautious, especially when you consider how often the playbook works. Earlier this season, Josh Hutcherson made it through the night looking like a pro without doing all that much, and the Lady Gaga episode succeeded after the writers protected Gaga from the sketches — and the sketches from Gaga. Anna Kendrick was the latest beneficiary: the Pitch Perfect star shined by singing/dancing in five of her eight appearances, while playing two different Disney princesses. Forget Kendrick's extensive musical theater training — any teenage girl who sings karaoke showtunes probably could have played her part this episode.
But was the playbook necessary? In the three sketches Anna Kendrick had to deliver actual jokes, she surely hit her mark. A month ago, Lena Dunham carried a much heavier burden despite being a first-time host and a far less-experienced performer than Kendrick. Of course, we'll never know what goes on behind the scenes during the week at SNL — some hosts may be less willing to try more demanding material. Whatever the reason, this episode cast Anna Kendrick as an old-school Disney princess: a pretty smile, a lovely voice, but ultimately, never the hero. READ MORE
When Louis C.K. last hosted SNL in November 2012, there was magic in the air. A week after Superstorm Sandy walloped New York, with huge parts of the city still without power, it just felt appropriate to see a comedian so emblematic of the New York spirit, with its gritty nature and heartfelt sincerity, serve as the face of the show that week. And to see him kill it as he did, with a hilarious parody of his FX show Louie starring Abraham Lincoln, was a magical moment for comedy nerds, like watching Conan O'Brien hosting the Emmys in 2006 or witnessing Joss Whedon's The Avengers win over both critics and worldwide audiences. Sooner or later, all of America will love our ginger cult comedy heroes as much as we do, and to see them crowned as megastars provides a sense of justice rarely felt in the comedy world.
I knew I wouldn't be able to say the same for this week's episode. C.K.'s past success hosting SNL was largely circumstantial — though he's a master of uncomfortable tension and honest straight-manning, the comedian stays safely within his comfort zone. (With Lena Dunham and Jim Parsons before, we haven't seen an SNL host successfully play an off-type character since Melissa McCarthy, two months ago.) Moreover, this season's "rebuilding year" jitters seemed to have gotten in the heads of the writers and actors, with the only risk-taking happening with ambitious pre-recorded video sketches. Unless the editing bay turned out another gem like "Louie Lincoln," this episode was going to feel like a slight step down from last season.
And while on the whole the spark wasn't there, when one looks past the overall episode at the sketches individually, one finds few missteps. Nothing from this episode will likely make anyone's "best of Season 39" lists, and the cold open and news segment felt uncharacteristically sloppy, but the sketches this week proved effective, with Louis C.K. mixing nicely with the cast and forming an even stronger chemistry with the SNL folks than his first time hosting.
When Nick Kroll's sketch series on Comedy Central returned for its second season in January, it was clear that he had set his sights firmly on the pseudo-celebrity culture of reality television, with a lineup of characters inspired by the most despicable monsters that crawled out of the Jersey Shore and Real Housewives muck: the Guido womanizer Bobby Bottleservice, the psychopathic publicists of "PubLIZity," the man-child toilet-baby C-Czar, the self-destructively vain Rich Dicks, etc. But if the first season served to introduce the freakshow, the second season unleashed them out into the world… and onto each other. The result was a series of interweaving narratives within a rich, ever-expanding alternative reality TV universe, for which Kroll offered a term when he last spoke with us:
There’s a term that Seth Meyers coined when he did an interview with us, half-jokingly, but I think is very good, which is “sketch-uational comedy.” It sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s actually a really good way, I think, to describe what we’re doing with the show, which is sketch but it’s really more narrative and long-form storytelling.