“Saturday Night Live”: 40 Years of Nights

A year ago at this time, I wrote a blog post addressing Saturday Night Live‘s frustrating lack of commitment to diversity, exemplified by a sketch in which Kerry Washington played several prominent black female celebrities capped off by a title card backhandedly apologizing for the show’s dearth of nonwhite performers.

During the season finale and throughout this anniversary season, the story was different. Perfect? Of course not. But diverse voices in front of and behind the camera were one of the factors that made this season of SNL a significant improvement on the last few.

The hasty decision to hire Sasheer Zamata proved to be secondary to the smart decision to bring on Leslie Jones first as a writer, then an occasional Weekend Update guest and finally (within the first three episodes of this season) as a full-time cast member. Jones’ sky-high energy, raspy delivery and brash perspective make for a pleasing contrast to the white-bread (in more ways than one) of her Update sparring partner Colin Jost, and Jones has more than held her own in sketches as well. (A rare stumble on finale night during the Sprint sketch was an impressively rare reminder that she hasn’t even been on the show for a full season of episodes yet.)

And the presence of more nonwhite cast members in the cast gave the show license to do sketches that simply couldn’t have been done with Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah as the lone nonwhite cast members.

Diversity wasn’t the only triumph of this anniversary season for America’s most resilient show. After a crowded season with 16 regular cast members and four or five obvious weak links, Lorne Michaels and the producers pared down, adding only two new cast members (Jones and fellow breakout star Pete Davidson) and one new Update host (Michael Che). Cast continuity from the previous season is important, and fewer cast members meant more opportunities to become attached to regulars like Kate McKinnon, Taran Killam, Aidy Bryant and Vanessa Bayer.

Even more impressively, the show pulled off dazzling episodes and classic sketches in the midst of planning a sprawling anniversary special that pulled in monstrous ratings on a Sunday night in February. In past years, nostalgia has crept into the show itself, with former cast members like Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig cropping up every week like the high school senior who refuses to accept that he’s graduated already. Aside from a few obligatory appearances like that this year (mostly during the Bill Hader-hosted episode, which makes sense) the show restricted most celebratory cameos to the anniversary special, allowing the new cast more opportunities to establish its own identity.

And establish they did. McKinnon blossomed into the unstoppable force she’s been threatening to become since she joined the show, proving equally adept at random celebrity impressions and deeply weird concepts.

Davidson burst onto the scene with a rebellious youthful vibe that seems like a harbinger of stardom to come. Even Sasheer Zamata, relegated to the margins in the first half of the season, started to come into her own in the season’s final stretch.

The biggest remaining kink to iron out is Weekend Update, and even that’s on an upward trajectory. Michael Che and Colin Jost haven’t perfected their double act yet. Individually they have their moments, and they’ve had some memorable interactions, but the core personality of this Update iteration has yet to fully materialize. The last few weeks improved on the rest of the season, and there’s hope that these two will gel. But that’s a first-world problem, by SNL standards.

This has happened before. The show recovered from disaster years like 1995 and gap years like 2003. Forty years in, the appeal of Saturday Night Live remains remarkably similar to its original appeal. Here are ten to fifteen funny people trying very hard to make you laugh for 90 minutes with commercials and musical interludes. This season, SNL succeeded more often than not. America’s most reliable comedy star factory and weekend goodnight ritual is alive and well.

End-of-Season Awards:

Best Episode: Martin Freeman/Charli XCX

     -Runner-Up: Kevin Hart/Sia

Best Host: Michael Keaton

    -Runner-Up: Dwayne Johnson

Best Monologue: Reese Witherspoon, her mother, the cast, their mothers

   -Runner-Up: Michael Keaton, Taran Killam, Bobby Moynihan, Jay Pharoah

Best Musical Performance: Kendrick Lamar, “i”

    -Runner-Up: D’Angelo, “The Charade”

    -Second Runner-Up: Carly Rae Jepsen, “All That”

Best Animal: The Chicken

    -Runner-Up: The Cats

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