In watching episodes from all forty-six seasons of Saturday Night Live, I’ve come up with the theory that there are multiple shows with that title airing in that time slot. The original cast (1975-80) was the first show; from 1980-86, there were constant attempts to retool the program. Finally, in 1986, the show was rebooted and stayed in that form until around 1995. Then from 1995 to possibly the present day, we’ve had a very consistent, though increasingly bland network brand under the name Saturday Night Live. These eras are so distinct in tone and style that it’s hard to say they are the same show.
Here are the episodes I watched based on user ratings on IMDb:
Season 21 – Jim Carrey
Season 22 – Kevin Spacey
Season 23 – Sylvester Stallone
Season 24 – Lucy Lawless
Season 25 – Christopher Walken
Only a few people carried over from the previous season of SNL into season 21. Those were Molly Shannon, Mark McKinney, Tim Meadows, and David Spade. Spade would leave before the season was over. Added to the main cast were Jim Breuer, Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, David Koechner, Norm MacDonald, Cheri Oteri, and Nancy Walls. In March, three featured players were added: Chris Kattan, Colin Quinn, and Fred Wolf. I had drifted away from SNL in the latter part of the Sandler/Farley era, and it was near the end of season 21 that I found my way back to the show.
The Jim Carrey season finale was a pretty good endnote for this new era of SNL. The comedian was promoting his summer movie The Cable Guy and hadn’t quite gotten to his current bizarre mental state. Some memorable pieces were deleted, like a Night at the Roxbury skit (of course due to music). This one has many classics: the hot tub lifeguard and Jimmy Tango’s Fat Busters (Ride the snake). There is also a dreadful Joe Pesci Show sketch reminding me why I hate Jim Breuer. Norm MacDonald’s Weekend Update is the expected dry style of delivery that I personally enjoy. This episode was okay; like many SNL episodes of this era, it’s a mix of highs and lows. I don’t think Will Ferrell’s style of comedy has aged remarkably well, though.
Much like the era that preceded it, not much changed in the cast line-up in the following season. Year 22 added Ana Gasteyer and Tracy Morgan. Nancy Walls and David Koechner didn’t return after one season. Colin Quinn remained as a featured player, with Fred Wolf only showing up for one episode. It was gross having to watch child predator Kevin Spacey host this episode. When it originally aired, I was incredibly impressed and thought he made great impressions. Sexual predation aside, his impressions really don’t hold up, maybe other than Christopher Walken. Of course, the Star Wars screen test sketch is cut because of IP, and that was one I remembered fondly from seeing it as a kid.
There’s a strange inclusion of Michael Palin and John Cleese in this episode, and I can’t quite pin down why. They do a cold open about the newly instituted TV ratings system in the United States. It’s a fair bit but nothing hilarious. They show up later in the episode and perform the famous Monty Python parrot sketch, and I just didn’t find it amusing in the least. Finally, there’s a sketch about legalized medical marijuana in California where Spacey plays a doctor whose patients keep showing up for more prescriptions.
I really did not enjoy the Janet Reno Dance Party sketch as most of the bit relies on laughing at how masculine Reno was perceived to be. I did appreciate the part where she is haunted by her role in the deaths of the people in Waco, Texas. But this sketch has aged like milk. Reminding us that God hates us, we get a Mr. Peepers sketch with Chris Kattan showing us his particular brand of “comedy.” There’s a Joe Pesci Show bit where the joke is how Dennis Rodman is bad for “looking weird,” and he gets beaten with baseball bats by Pesci and Al Pacino. The only sketch I found myself liking was one at the end where Ana Gasteyer is a wealthy woman that keeps droning on to a repairman until he snaps. Overall, a lot of weird homophobic/transphobic vibes from this episode.
Season 23 saw the departure of Mark McKinney and the addition of Colin Quinn to the main cast, primarily as Norm MacDonald’s replacement on Weekend Update in January. MacDonald was still on the show, but controversy led to Lorne demoting him from the desk. MacDonald would leave in March before the season was over. The season kicks off with a pretty damn good episode hosted by Sylvester Stallone. Stallone plays himself in three of the sketches, but every single one displays what a great sense of humor he seems to have about himself. My favorite sketch and one of the funniest during this whole watch-through is the car accident bit where Stallone rushes over to be with a couple who have just been in an accident. While waiting for the police, the man (played by MacDonald) fights through his pain to talk about all the bad movies Stallone has made.
There’s a cold open with Oprah (Meadows) interviewing Marv Albert (MacDonald), which only really serves to remind us how long it would be until a Black woman would be a cast member again. Next, we get a Rita Delvecchio sketch, so depending on how you feel about Cheri Oteri, your mileage may vary. Next, on Update, Cinder Calhoun (Gasteyer) stops by giving her Lilith Fair brand stand-up comedy. I seriously think Gasteyer is one of the underrated members of the cast. She had really great characters that were more than a look and a catchphrase. Finally, Jim Breuer manages to make his obnoxiousness work in a sketch with Stallone being stopped by fans at a Planet Hollywood restaurant. I would say of everything I watched to this point, this was the closest to being a wholly satisfying episode.
God finally blessed us by having Jim Breuer not on the show anymore, and no one was added to the main cast. In the featured cast, there were some people you may have heard of: Jimmy Fallon, Chris Parnell, and Horatio Sanz. The Lucy Lawless episode has what might be the best cold open political sketch I have ever seen on SNL, one that actually doesn’t pull its punches. This episode came out just before the 1998 midterms, where the Republicans realized their bid to impeach Bill Clinton was not gaining them the numbers they had hoped. So the leadership of the GOP (played by Hammond, Ferrell, Oteri) goes about hypnotizing the viewers into forgetting all of this. They even comment that after years of defunding schools, it’s not like people can learn history anyway. I was honestly shocked at how perfect this sketch was, and I suspect Adam McKay may have had a hand in it.
We get a Judge Judy sketch (Oteri) which is pretty meh. Next, there’s a sketch making fun of MSNBC talking heads fawning over Bill Clinton like they are middle school girls at a slumber party, which still rings true when the media fawns over neoliberals. Then there is the utterly bizarre Antonio Banderas Show (Kattan) that I just do not understand. It’s not a good impression and relies entirely on Kattan’s schtick of flailing his body around and being sexually creepy. Chucky appears on Weekend Update, and Colin Quinn stumbles through his job. Finally, there’s the homeless life drawing class sketch which as a kid was funny but now just feels like punching down on homeless people. The show wraps up with a Goth Talk bit which I don’t think is terrible. It’s one of the few sketches where Kattan works for me, and Molly Shannon is always great.
Season 25 found SNL in the middle of another election season, with this one beginning to set the standard of show commenting on those in a certain way. However, it wouldn’t be until 2008 that it really became a signature of the program. Jimmy Fallon, Horatio Sanz, and Chris Parnell were upgraded to the main cast with no one leaving. Added to featuring were two future SNL stars: Rachel Dratch and Maya Rudolph. Dratch is one of the most underappreciated cast members, and she was hilarious from day one.
The Christopher Walken episode in Season 25 opens with a sketch about George W. Bush (Ferrell) being given advice by his dad, played by Dana Carvey, making a guest appearance. It’s alright and definitely touches on W being utterly unqualified for the position he was seeking. There’s a Broadway musical parody about Elian Gonzalez (Dratch), the Cuban refugee that created a few weeks of chaos between the United States and Cuba. It’s a pretty good silly sketch and got a few laughs out of me. This is another episode butchered to hell, clocking in at only 27 minutes on Peacock, which means Update is the third sketch of the show. Ferrell plays Jacob Silge, a talking head there, to pontificate about the Microsoft antitrust case, but it becomes about how the character cannot control the tone or volume of his voice. It’s decently funny. Then you have the Walken/Meadows census sketch, which is still one of the funniest things. It’s just Walken being perfectly absurd about everything. And then the episode is over, with huge chunks cut out. This was the episode with the legendary cowbell sketch, and that is gone because of the music rights. You have to wonder why even host these fragments online when you don’t really experience the episode.