And so we come to the finale. This chunk of Saturday Night Live where they lost me. I’d watched at varying levels since I was a teenager, but by season 41, I just didn’t find it remarkably funny anymore. It certainly got worse when Trump became president, and the show pivoted into the most shallow critique of him, not on policy ever but instead on what a meanie he was or mocking his hair. Those sort of pointless jokes signals a lack of perspective, in my opinion, a writing staff that has been declawed or never had any, to begin with. All the while, the show made sure to hold up people like Jeff Bezos as heroic and pen jokes for Update criticizing citizen-led protests against Amazon warehouses. SNL affirmed its place as a comedy for the bourgeoisie.
Reviewed for the latter half of the 2010s are these episodes, the highest rated by users on IMDb:
Season 41 – Larry David
Season 42 – Dave Chapelle
Season 43 – Bill Hader
Season 44 – Adam Sandler
In Season 41, the cast was pretty stable. The leading players were Vanessa Bayer, Beck Bennett, Aidy Bryant, Colin Jost, Taran Killam, Kate McKinnon, Kyle Mooney, Bobby Moynihan, Jay Pharoah, Cecily Strong, Kenan Thompson, and Sasheer Zamata. The featured cast was Michael Che, Pete Davidson, Leslie Jones, and Jon Rudnitsky. The cold open for the Larry David hosted episode is Ted Cruz (Killiam) as a campaign ad parody. I’m all for mocking Cruz, but this one just hits the same notes you might find in online discourse, nothing particularly clever. It also shows SNL as missing the actual danger, having Trump on as a host this season, something they should never be allowed to move past.
The first skit of the episode has David playing Kevin Roberts, a lifelike dummy in an FBI shooting range. It feels like it’s desperately trying to recapture the viral effect of David Pumpkins from earlier but just doesn’t have the same pull, feeling highly derivative. A digital short “Bern Your Enthusiasm” works with David’s look and comedic strengths. It’s a pretty funny sketch, but once again, you can predict the jokes before they come. There’s a sketch about the Titanic where David plays what is essentially his Curb persona as a member of the crew questioning the women & children first policy. Next, we get a commercial parody for Totino’s Pizza Rolls, which I suspect was a paid promotion as they name and show the product. The sketch goes into a creepy horror direction, and I really like that about it.
During Update, we have Kate McKinnon as Sturdy Barbie, a new version of the doll that is a very masculine portrayal. I just think McKinnon’s Update characters are carbon copies of each other in the same way Adam Sandler just did the same voice for a host of recurring characters. Next, Ben Stiller & Owen Wilson show up as Zoolander & Hansel to promote the sequel to that franchise. Does anybody remember that one? Benedict Cumberbatch played a non-binary person whose gender was the butt of every joke about them? This is followed by a sketch about an adult learning annex class for songwriting. David is the oddball character. These sketches are where the show does its best work when they can figure out how to mine the basic concept and not rely on a recurring character & catchphrases. Then we get a Sheila Sovage sketch (McKinnon) where she plays a drunk woman at last call who hooks up with David’s weirdo character. This has become one of those recurring bits that just make the same joke every time it happens.
Season 42 brought a structural change to the show. It was announced that there would be 30% fewer commercials during the broadcast. Well, the diminishment of advertising is always a good thing, right? Wrong; instead of having blatant advertisements, would create “pods,” a fancy name for ads disguised as sketches. That’s even worse than just having commercial breaks. So now the ads have become part of the show. Michael Che, Pete Davidson, and Leslie Jones were all upgraded to main cast members. Featured cast members were Mikey Day, Alex Moffatt, and Melissa Villasenor. The main cast ballooned as no one left this year. And things began their turn for the unbearable with the Dave Chappelle episode, the first show since Trump won the 2016 election.
Likely cut due to copyright issues is the episode’s cold open, a cringey & embarrassing performance of “Hallelujah” by Kate McKinnon in her Hillary outfit. The absurdity of this, mourning someone who was awful because another awful person won the election just baffles my mind. This inclination to form para-social relationships with politicians is part of the rotting of America. I supported Bernie in 2016 and 2020, yet I have no compunction criticizing the hell out of him. I didn’t shed tears when he dropped out; I acknowledge now that I have grown beyond anything he inspired in me. My beliefs are not tied to individual personalities, but SNL is so vapid in its coverage of politics that it was inevitable that something like this would happen.
We get Chappelle’s lame neoliberal “give Trump a chance” monologue. That aged like spoiled milk. I enjoyed the following sketch that charts the mood of white people and their Black friends watching the election results. The Black characters aren’t surprised in the least that Trump won while the white people lose their minds, and I love that. Weekend Update comes early in the episode, and with it another embarrassing moment for McKinnon, who shows up as Ruth Bader Ginsberg. RBG talks about how she’ll never step down (though she was encouraged during the Obama admin) and that she is going to make sure she stays healthy. Another wonderfully aged moment in pop culture.
That shifts to our first non-Trump sketch where Mikey Day plays a restaurant employee getting blamed for hair in the food. Then it transitions into a post-game breakdown as if we had watched a sporting event. It’s a reasonably clever bit that surprised me. Once again, this is the stuff the show does best. There’s some excellent meta-critique of SNL sketches in general that hints at some understanding of how shaky they can be in some weeks. There’s a digital short where Abby Jacobson is talking to kids about Trump’s win. I’m not sure what this is meant to be. And then another Sheila Sovage sketch which is just the same joke about how gross she and her potential suitor are towards each other. Then we get a genuinely brilliant digital short about Leslie Jones having trouble finding a partner as if it was a documentary. It’s revealed that she has a relationship with Kyle Mooney, and I love how it plays out. I would watch just this as a weekly show. Once again, meta-commentary is where SNL actually shines. The show concludes with a sketch where Chapelle has his friends over to watch a football game, and it’s revealed that he’s still breastfeeding. That’s the joke; how gross breastfeeding is?
Season 43 saw the departures of Bobby Moynihan, Vanessa Bayer, and Sasheer Zamata. The rest of the main cast stayed the same. The featured players had Heidi Gardner, Luke Null, and Chris Redd added to the ranks. This was also the year Kenan Thompson became the longest-running cast member at 15 years. He’s still there. The cold open of the Bill Hader hosted episode is Anderson Cooper talking to Jeff Sessions (McKinnon). It’s pretty shallow, but that’s standard for SNL politics. Some people show up as other political figures, but it’s not that funny. The cold open transitions into a Californians sketch which pales compared to the original ones. There is a bit of meta-commentary on the accent not really being a California accent which is amusing. Next, we get a dating game show parody called “Kiss Me I’m Irish,” which has cast members showing off Irish accents pretty much and make jokes that Irish people are attracted to their cousins. That’s followed by a sketch where Hader and Cecily Strong play a May-December couple where he’s basically a weirdo, and that’s the joke.
There’s an impression parade with screen tests from Jurassic Park. As always, some impressions are better than others. Weekend Update has McKinnon stopping by as Betsy DeVos, which she plays just like every other character she ever does on Update. She is this era’s Adam Sandler in that regard. Pete Davidson shows up as himself in what seems to be a regular segment of the performer commenting on his own mental health. I like part of this because he’s choosing to be open about that aspect of himself, but it also seems to have become something the show relies on from him. In an already packed Update, Hader reprises his Stefon character (again). This time John Mulaney shows up as Stefon’s legal counsel. This is followed by a sketch at a Southwestern resort where a couple plans to hike up to Sacred Rock. One of the employees (Hader) explains about the strange lights he’s seen up there in a funny accent. There’s a CBC talk show parody about “the Canadian Harvey Weinstein” where the joke is that he hasn’t done anything nearly as terrible as Weinstein did. The show concludes with a pretty good digital short commercial parody about fake office supplies you can poop in. It’s a lovely absurd sketch and more proof the non-live material is often the best.
In Season 44, featured cast members Mikey Day, Alex Moffat, and Melissa Villasenor were bumped up to the main cast. Chris Redd & Heidi Gardner were joined in the featured cast by Ego Nwodim. The Adam Sandler-hosted episode is a Christmas one and kicks off with a cold open is a Family Feud parody putting the cast of Game of Thrones against the cast of Avengers. It’s not very funny. Sandler’s cold open is about getting fired from SNL, as told in a song. He’s joined by Chris Rock. There is a terrible CNN sketch where a reporter in a warzone accidentally uses special filters on the app he is using to broadcast. There’s a digital short music video about clothes just being a collection of holes. Meh. There is a pretty good sketch with Sandler as the owner of a travel service that provides tours of Italy. The ad becomes him imploring customers that going on vacation will not help them if they are unhappy now. I really enjoy this one as it points out the dissatisfaction we feel under capitalism.
There’s a Sandler family reunion bit that is just cast members making their impressions of him. It’s fine. Kristin Wiig and Jimmy Fallon show up at one point. There’s a commercial parody about a new medication for male impotence that turns out to be a butt plug. It’s pretty amusing. In Update, McKinnon shows up again, this time as Elizabeth Warren, and wouldn’t you know it, the fundamental character performance is like everyone else she ever does on the segment. Sandler shows up as Opera Man. I never liked that character before, and I certainly haven’t grown to love him since. Then there is another Sheila Sovage sketch that is…the same damn joke again for the third time. Finally, we get a song tribute from Sandler to Chris Farley, and I’m not sure what I think of this one. It feels like an odd thing to put at the end of the show. I think it would have worked better as part of the monologue.
Season 45 would prove to be the strangest one as COVID-19 locked down the nation and hit New York City particularly hard due to the poor leadership pretty much everywhere. This resulted in SNL At Home. None of those episodes ranked very high, but the last episode before lockdown, a Christmas one with Eddie Murphy as host, was top-rated for this season. Chris Redd & Heidi Gardner are upgraded to the main cast. Leslie Jones left the show while Chloe Fineman & Bowen Yang joined the featured cast. The cold open is the Democratic Primary debate, which doesn’t make any good points about these people. Rachel Dratch pops in as Amy Klobuchar, Larry David cameos as Bernie Sanders. Jason Sudeikis & Fred Armisen pop in as Biden & Bloomberg, respectively. There’s an annoying bit where Maya Rudolph pops in as Kamala Harris, and the script plays as if everyone is sad she dropped out. I mean, she dropped out because she polled less than 1% with Black voters who see her for the law enforcement establishment supporter she is. I honestly don’t want to ever see a woman or another Black person as president because the very office is designed only to attract the worst possible people in our society. Why would anyone want to condemn a non-white person to that sort of thing?
Eddie Murphy’s cold open sees appearances from Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and Tracy Morgan. I liked seeing them all together, and there were some funny exchanges. Much of the episode is taken up by revisits of Murphy’s former characters. We get Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood commenting on gentrification, Buckwheat as the Masked Singer, Velvet Jones on Black Jeopardy, and Gumby is a guest on Update. There’s a reasonably amusing Holiday Baking Championship parody with the joke being about how ugly the amateur cakes are.
There is a fantastic digital short called Home for the Holidays where Murphy is the patriarch of an extended family gathered at Christmas. As he delivers his toast for their dinner, we cut to moments that contradict the sentiments he is sharing. Pete Davidson swings by Update to do another bit about his mental health that has some good meta-commentary on the show. Cecily Strong appears as Judge Jeanine Pirro. It’s not really close to Pirro; it’s mostly silly. The final sketch is about a fire at Santa’s Workshop being covered by Elf News. It’s not notably funny at all.
Season 46, the most recent season, had zero cast members leave. Ego Nwodim was bumped up to a leading cast member. Despite that, both Cecily Strong & Aidy Bryant were notably absent at the start of the season due to filming commitments on other projects. Joining the featured cast were Andrew Dismukes, Lauren Holt, and Punkie Johnson. That puts the cast at 20 members, and you can feel how crowded it is. The Anya Taylor-Joy episode kicks off with cast members talking about what they remember about the year. It’s not really a comedy bit, but all of them reflect on COVID and NYC deaths. I’m a little annoyed by this because it acts as though COVID-19 is over, yet it rages again at the moment of this writing.
There’s a game show parody of Hollywood Squares, presented as a rerun from the 1990s. The joke here is how much was said by the celebrities that is offensive or what they have done is so terrible that the episode is edited down to just a couple minutes. There is an excellent digital short that has Beck Bennett as a dad trying to jokingly pose with his daughter and her prom date with a shotgun. The dad accidentally shoots himself, and things devolve into chaos. There’s a sketch about the team of angels designing human men and how crazy they are compared to women. There’s another digital short, this one is a song about the LGBTQ cast members being excited for Pride month but things devolving due to their post-COVID trauma and their own insecurities getting in the way.
We get a mild parody of Celtic Women. Feels a little late to be mocked. Guess who is on Update? It’s Pete Davidson talking about anxiety and COVID. I feel like I would love his stand-up more than him in sketches here. Cecily Strong is back as Judge Jeanine Pirro, and it feels like a goodbye sketch; however, Strong leaving hasn’t been confirmed yet. There’s a commercial with Bryant and Taylor-Joy as older women imploring you to come into their Brawr (read Bra) Store for prominently bosomed women. There’s a sketch about NYU hosting a livestream of a fake show, Roommates in the City. The interviewers ask a bizarre range of questions. The show wraps with Vin Diesel (Beck Bennett) advertising the “return of the movies.” It’s funny enough.
So “When was SNL funny?” It was never a perfect show that was consistently funny no matter when you tuned in. Every season had its highs and lows, some more of one than the other. SNL’s biggest problem is that it has never been allowed to really have teeth in its comedy, meaning it will always lack somehow. It’s a show that relies on audience recognition of things, whether that’s in having old cast members & celebrities cameo or using the same characters with the same catchphrases & base jokes over & over again. SNL is at its best when it is making fun of itself; that’s when it really finds its stride.
I found Trump’s bellowing over SNL’s very mild parody of him ridiculous. All his public yammering about the show did was make it seems as if SNL wasn’t a bland, corporate comedy program restrained from ever making cogent political commentary. Hell, he hosted the damn show twice, once while he was running for president. Lorne Michaels is not a rebel figure; he’s a conservative who loves his money, so he’ll never let the show be relevant. The show will be like cotton candy, something that gets old quickly and evaporates so that you forgot it had been there in the first place. Network television and even cable tv will never be the places you find real comedy, the kind that punches up. The owners simply won’t allow it.