Another season of Saturday Night Live concluded on May 17 with a returning sketch in which Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong play retired porn stars advertising a luxury item for a quick buck. The sketch played, in some ways, as a microcosm of season 39. It was intermittently hilarious with an arguably unnecessary cameo appearance and a sense that these characters came back out of obligation rather than inspiration. It was SNL in a nutshell.
It’s not criticism to point out that Saturday Night Live is an inconsistent show. Some episodes are better than others, but few are uniformly perfect. Some sketches work, others don’t. Some cast members jell immediately, others take time, and still others never find their corner. Some recurring bits remain funny with repetition, others fall flat as they grow older. The appeal of Saturday Night Live is in the pursuit, not the attainment, of perfection. I watch each episode looking for the moments that I’ll remember in five to ten years, even while I’m fully aware that I’ll forget most of the show within a few weeks.
Watching this show on a weekly basis provides an excuse to marvel at the technical feats that the cast and crew pull of on a regular basis, even when the comedy is lackluster. By all accounts, the logistics for producing an episode of Saturday Night Live appear almost entirely antithetical to successful comedy or even diverting entertainment. With so many moving parts, conflicting emotions, clashing egos and ticking clocks, it’s a miracle that Saturday Night Live ever goes live at all.
Those caveats aside, this season of Saturday Night Live had its problems. In the first half of the season, the show’s decision to hire six new cast members without a single non-white addition generated considerable controversy. After a tin-eared and immature response during the otherwise fun Kerry Washington episode, executive producer Lorne Michaels commissioned a talent search and hired Sasheer Zamata, as well as two new black female writers. This hiring was handled well and largely had the desired effect. The show never called attention to Zamata’s position as the only black female cast member, nor did it pretend that it had “solved” the diversity issue by casting her. The number of sketches that dealt directly and perceptively with black people and issues of race in general jumped significantly in the second half of the season, with highlights including “Black Jeopardy,” “28 Reasons” and the Jay-Z/Solange number that opened Saturday’s finale.
Nonetheless, it’s unfortunate that the show found itself in a position to receive criticism for lack of diversity in the first place. As one of the foremost breeding grounds for A-list comedy talent in the American entertainment industry, Saturday Night Live has a built-in responsibility to provide equal opportunities for comedians of all shapes and sizes, in an attempt to reflect the diversity of perspectives in the United States. Zamata’s presence doesn’t negate the fact that the show doesn’t have any Hispanic performers, its only Asian-American performer is likely leaving for John Mulaney’s fall sitcom on Fox, and the gender balance continues to be lopsided.
In addition to charges of institutionalized racism, the show dealt with much transition this season, not always smoothly. The six new hires took a long time to distinguish themselves, and by the end of the season, John Milhiser and Brooks Wheelan still haven’t. Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett appear to be occupying the pre-produced sketch slots vacated by Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone a few years ago, and Mike O’Brien’s quirky writer’s perspective led to some of the season’s most eccentric and delightful sketches. But Michaels and the crew never managed to make a convincing case that these six comedians were necessary to hire, especially at the expense of comedians who didn’t fit into the same molds the show has already explored countless times.
The absence of Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis and Fred Armisen in the live sketches was keenly felt (except when Hader and Armisen returned several times throughout the season), but none of the changes was more noticeable and initially detrimental than the loss of Seth Meyers to Late Night. Having anchored Weekend Update solo or with a partner for almost ten years, Meyers and his wide smile were the show’s beating heart. His replacement, current co-head writer Colin Jost, has been polished but stiff in his first handful of appearances, though he’s loosened up considerably as he’s settled into the job. With the Jost-Strong team likely to return for the show’s big anniversary season in September, one hopes that this Update team will find its voice far away from “watered down Seth Meyers.” Strong found hers quickly in the fall with Meyers. There’s hope for Jost yet.
Saturday Night Liveis going into its fortieth season on a mission. The cameo-laden season finale demonstrated that the show is still tied to its 2009 self, but this cast is strong and deep enough that it ought to carve out its own niche and legacy. Nostalgia is fine, but the true test of the show’s longevity has always been its ability to refresh the bench with new generations of talent. Consistency is beside the point.
And now, some Season 39 Awards:
Best Live Sketches:
Killer jokes that build to a spectacular punchline are theoretically the foundation upon which most effective comedy sketches rest, but few execute that formula as well as this one. Subsequent installments have been fun but not quite as pleasantly surprising.
The live highlight of Kerry Washington’s episode, and a rare sketch exclusively populated by black performers. Plus, it’s really funny and fairly biting by the tame standards of recent SNL politics.
The show’s strongest retort to charges of institutionalized racism, a sketch that hinges upon the socially enforced distinctions between white and black culture. Also, C.K.’s character’s name is Mark. I’m not sure whether I should be flattered or ashamed by the comparison.
John Milhiser’s standout sketch in his debut season, and proof that the best comedy comes from restraint. We never actually see the young girl’s embarrassing dance moves, but we don’t need to.
Given that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is actually a pretty sinister song, this sketch was all the more impressive for finding something sweet in a wintry duet.
Best Pre-Recorded Sketches:
“The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders”
I can imagine Wes Anderson releasing a movie with this title, premise and aesthetic trappings. I think that means this sketch is a winner.
Details like the floating Croods cutout elevate this melancholy stunner from great to classic.
“Do It In My Twin Bed”
A standout moment from the Jimmy Fallon-hosted Christmas special, and a prime showcase for the show’s massively talented female cast members.
This spot-on TV commercial parody ends in surprisingly poignant, progressive fashion. Smart stuff from Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant, who are quickly becoming the show’s go-to dynamic duo.
With stellar production values, a genuinely amusing cross-network cameo and an idea (nearly) everyone can relate to, this sketch was the highlight of the season’s home stretch.
She was unfortunately saddled with the responsibility of responding to the diversity questions plaguing the show in the fall, but she shone in all of her appearances, particularly with the killer line “Respect my ability to assess a bucket!” in the debut appearance by Nasim Pedrad’s polarizing Heshy.
Watch the “Doctor Appointment” sketch here
He provided the perfect counterpoint to his black co-stars in the excellent “Black Jeopardy” cast, and his presence seemed to encourage the writers to come up with more ambitious, weirder material from the monologue to the curtain call.
Watch the “Little Mermaid” sketch here
She sang, she danced, she rapped, she delivered every punchline right on time and she barely looked at the cue cards. Give her an Emmy nomination now!
Best Host in a Weak Episode:
The sketches rarely lived up to Aubrey Graham’s infectious energy and impressive command of silly mustaches and spot-on impressions of Katt Williams and Alex Rodriguez.
Melissa McCarthy fights it out with Bobby Moynihan in an unusually physical opening
Anna Kendrick puts on a show and the cast shows off its surprisingly killer vocal chops
Louis C.K. performs nearly ten minutes of his stand-up act, eschewing all of the conventions of the traditional SNL monologue
Best Musical Performances:
Sam Smith, “Stay With Me”
Janelle Monae, “Electric Lady”
St. Vincent, “Digital Witness”
Best Cameo Appearances: Liam Neeson threatens Vladimir Putin during the Lena Dunham cold open; Leonardo DiCaprio does “the pose” during Jonah Hill’s monologue