Saturday Night Live changed in some subtle cosmetic ways, but it didn’t really do much in terms of content. You had the same recurring character sketches and one-off bits, with those often tucked away in the show’s latter half. Commercial parodies would usually be played after the host’s opening monologue with a digital short after a musical guest. Weekend Update came in the middle of the show, and this is just the formula the show continues to this day. Season 31 was the first year the feed was changed from video to digital, leading to the show being presented in a widescreen format.
Per IMDB user ratings, I watched these episodes:
Season 31 – Natalie Portman
Season 32 – Justin Timberlake
Season 33 – Tina Fey
Season 34 – Justin Timberlake
Season 35 – Zach Galifinakis
Season 31’s31’s cast was composed of Fred Armisen, Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Will Forte, Darrell Hammond, Seth Meyers, Finesse Mitchell, Chris Parnell, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Horatio Sanz, and Kenan Thompson. The featured were future all-stars, Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, and Kristen Wiig. When Samberg was hired, his Lonely Island partners Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer were also brought onto the show as writers who definitely helped shape this era’s tone.
The Natalie Portman episode from this season has a cold open where George W. Bush (Forte) and it seems just like an overview of how terrible this president was. It didn’t seem to be centered around any specific event that happened at the time but just the culmination of an avalanche of incompetence. As much as I love Forte, I found his Bush impression to not be that great, and he has even said in interviews he was never wholly comfortable playing the character. It should also be noted that the episode has been edited down to 20 minutes on Peacock. So this cold open is 5 minutes and 40 seconds long, and the opening credits are not in this one, a first. Portman’s opening monologue is a series of Star Wars jokes, which is pretty funny. The episode is halfway over by the end of that monologue, though.
We get a sketch called The Needlers about “the couple that should be divorced” as they visit a fertility clinic. I get extreme The Whiners vibes from this, one of the worst things Joe Piscopo brought to the show. It’s two grating people at the center of a bit for five minutes, and there’s nothing enjoyable here. Next, we get an edited Weekend Update which is just Kenan Thompson doing a bit where he’s selling plus-size clothing for Black male actors making fun of Tyler Perry’s Medea and the history of Black men playing women in the media. Then we get the heavily memed Natalie Portman hardcore rap digital short. And that it’s an episode made pretty lackluster due to so much being cut.
Season 32 started what you could call the Timberlake years, as we will be seeing a lot of him and Jimmy Fallon in this post and the next one. The cast was pruned down with no featured players. Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Finesse Mitchell, Chris Parnell, and Horatio Sanz departed the show. Hader, Samberg, Sudeikis, and Wiig were all promoted to the main cast. The cold open has Poehler, Rudolph, and Wiig singing a 1960s girl group-style song about Santa being their boyfriend. It’s not particularly funny, just amusing. There’sThere’s a bit where Will Forte plays a street corner Santa raising money for charity while guest host Timberlake is Cup O’Soup mascot encroaching on the first man’s territory. Kristin Wiig is playing the Target Lady, one of those recurring characters that were funny the first time but really grinds itself into the ground.
The digital short is another heavily memed one, Dick in a Box. It’s okay, once again, a sketch that has lost some of its humor over time. Then we get heavy sigh The Barry Gibb Talk Show with Jimmy Fallon guest starring. God, I hate this skit, and they do it over and over and over. Next, Weekend Update is hosted by Poehler and Meyers following Fey’sFey’s exit. Hammond guests as Lou Dobbs, and it’s reasonably funny; Dobbs is a ridiculous asshole. Armisen and Hader pop in as The Gay Couple from New Jersey as that state had legalized gay marriage. They are basically playing characters from The Sopranos but gay, and it’s pretty good. These two are a fantastic pair. Next, we get Hip Hop Kids, a tv series parody about a troupe of Hip Hop dancers, and in this episode, they are trapped in a mineshaft. I think it’s one of the better sketches in this very terrible episode. Finally, Amy Poehler plays, Nancy Grace is an incredibly ill-conceived sketch about the rape allegations on the Duke lacrosse team, which is really shitty about people making sexual assault accusations. It’s the final sketch of the episode, and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Season 32 was only 12 episodes long due to a writer’s strike. The main cast is exactly the same, with Casey Wilson added as a featured player. The cold open for the Tina Fey-hosted episode is a Democratic Primary debate from 2008. This was during the time when SNL was still having white people play BIPOC. In this one, you have Fred Armisen playing Obama despite him not being Black. In the same sketch, Will Forte is cast as Univision’s Jorge Ramos. Tina Fey’s opening monologue has Steve Martin showing up to help her adapt to being the host and not a writer/performer on the show. Next, a commercial parody for a new birth control called Annuale allows women to skip their period all year except for one insane period. It’s a pretty good sketch and continues to provide evidence that the pre-recorded bits are often some of the better things on SNL. Then we have a digital short, a commercial parody about a service that puts elderly people’s grandkids in the movies to explain what is going on. It’s pretty well done and made me laugh.
There’sThere’s a game show sketch for What’s That Bitch Talking About? where contestants try to guess what an irritating-looking woman is complaining about to another person. It has its moments but wasn’t too memorable. Weekend Update has Mike Huckabee on the fucking show once again using their platform to humanize fascists, deeply annoying. Tina Fey does a Women’sWomen’s News segment that feels deeply mean-spirited, making fat jokes and other gross remarks. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve seen that in her work better, and it kind of ruins it. We get a best man’s speech where the speech giver (Sudeikis) is a garish person, and it plays into some of the performer’s strengths but is pretty dull overall. Kristin Wiig has a hot air balloon ride commercial parody that is highly derivative of the Tim & Eric content of the time, awkward performances & outdated video effects. We get I Drink Your Milkshake, which showcases Bill Hader’s parody of Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood. I like the impression, but the whole premise is paper-thin and just doesn’t land. It honestly felt like a MadTV sketch. The final sketch is a tv show parody called Lady Business making fun of the way women in corporate positions were shown on television.
For Season 34, Maya Rudolph has departed with her spot left empty. Meanwhile, the featured cast brings in Abby Elliott, Bobby Moynihan, and Michaela Watkins. Back once again is Justin Timberlake. Yay… The cold open has Will Forte playing The Secretary of the Treasury in a sketch that doesn’t really work. We get a pretty good commercial parody for a service that helps decipher parents who can’t remember the correct names of celebrities. Oh, and what’s this another Kristin Wiig Target lady sketch? Joy. There’s a bit where we meet Justin Timberlake’s Irish ancestor as he arrives in the US, which got a couple chuckles out of me. Weekend Update is only hosted by Seth Meyers now, and he basically shows us the persona he still uses on Late Night.
We get Fred Armisen & Will Forte playing Elliot Spitzer and David Paterson, former governors of New York. They are always a funny pair and do their thing here. Next, Chris Pine & Zachary Quinto pop in to talk about how the new Star Trek film at the time would be faithful to the roots of the original. It’s alright but feels like a promotional bit for the movie more than an organic comedy piece. Oh, and then another episode of the Barry Gibb Talk Show. This will become a thing from here on out. I hate this skit because it is literally a cut & paste every single episode it shows up. And then this episode is over, thankfully.
In season 35, the featured cast loses Darrell Hammond and Amy Poehler. The featured cast is made up of Abby Elliott, Bobby Moynihan, Nasim Pedrad, and Jenny Slate. This episode is helped by having Zach Galifianakis host, but you can still see the cookie-cutter nature of the show shining through. The cold open still has Armisen embarrassingly playing Obama alongside Wiig as Pelosi and Forte as Harry Reid. The bit is all about the whittling away of any movement in a substantial health care bill, so I enjoyed the concept of it. Galifianakis does some of his stand-up in the opening monologue, which is very funny. This is followed by a recurring sketch with a family that kisses each other on the mouth in increasingly exaggerated and intense ways. It’s a bit that doesn’t play well now as it seems to traffic in homophobia as comedy…sort of. There’s a pretty funny bit with Galifianakis & Wiig as a couple looking at an apartment for sale and talking obsessively about the bidet.
There is a fun digital bit where Galifianakis walks through the backgrounds of shows that film in NYC. This leads into a Today Show sketch where Wiig plays her version of Kathie Lee Gifford. It ties into the digital short cleverly. Not necessarily very funny, but smart. Kenan Thompson continues playing female characters, this time in Update as Mo’nique, nominated for an Oscar for the Precious at the time. It’s okay. Will Forte shows up to sing a song about Women’s History Month, playing into his strengths and is a great bit. Then we get What Up With That, a sketch with the identical premise as The Barry Gibb Talk Show just with another host. There’s an odd, out-of-place CNN parody that doesn’t land. We end with a beauty pageant talk show sketch that is alright, mainly because of Galifianakis and Wiig.
It’s evident Saturday Night Live is a well-oiled machine at this moment. The lack of non-white faces is astonishing, though, and a reminder that the casual, quickly dismissed racism white people often discount is very alive and well and can be seen in media like this. I could be reading into what I watched, but I certainly saw discomfort in Fred Armisen as he played Obama. He’s not really an impression comedian, and so having him play this public figure feels dissonant even without delving into the major problems SNL has with blackface.