Saturday Night Live is in the middle of a transition. The past two seasons of SNL have seen the departures of Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, and Kristen Wiig. Easily six of the best performers of the past ten years, all-time great cast members, and enormously huge shoes to fill. To use a sports phrase, the 39th season of SNL was clearly a rebuilding year.
Last season, the show hired three new cast members (Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson, Cecily Strong), and before the start of this season another six (Beck Bennett, John Milhiser, Kyle Mooney, Mike O’Brien, Noel Wells, and Brooks Wheelan) were hired along with Sasheer Zamata (the first African-American female cast member since Maya Rudolph left in 2007) joining the cast in January and Colin Jost replacing new Late Night host Meyers at the Weekend Update desk in March.
This past Saturday was the season finale (hosted by Samberg), and as a fan of the show for almost 25 years, it was almost a relief. We can put this season behind us and look ahead to the future. But before we do that, let’s take a look back at the 39th season of SNL with 25 random observations from myself during this season’s 21 episodes.
- Most important cast member: Kate McKinnon. We’re only two seasons removed from Kristen Wiig’s departure, and it’s clear that McKinnon has picked up that torch and is running with it. Similar to Wiig, McKinnon can elicit laughter from something as simple as a look or hand gesture. Her impressions of Justin Beiber, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ellen DeGeneres are some of the best on the show and guaranteed to bring down the house.
- Former Update regular that McKinnon’s Angela Merkel reminds me of: Mike Myers’ Jean Chretien.
- New cast member everyone is talking about: Beck Bennett.
- New cast member everyone should be talking about: Kyle Mooney. While Bennett is more of a “classic” cast member who can shift from goofy college guy to serious businessman, Mooney is quirkier with odd timing and delivery. I will readily admit that it took me almost the whole season to realize how funny Mooney is and to enjoy his work.
- New cast member my wife wishes I would stop talking about: Brooks Wheelan. I may be in the minority, but I really liked Wheelan this season. My favorite Wheelan moment? When he plays himself in a “Celebrity Family Feud” sketch.
- Former cast member my wife really misses: Tim Robinson. I think she’s just sad that he only lasted one season, and was in probably the best sketch of last season.
- New cast member with the smartest material: Mike O’Brien. O’Brien had three pieces that were really great while not being overly funny in “Bugs,” “Monster Pals,” and “Dragon Babies.” Each had heart and a quirkiness that when done well really makes SNL a special show.
- Michigan cast member switcheroo: O’Brien replacing Tim Robinson. O’Brien (native of Blissfield and University of Michigan grad) replaced Robinson (native of Clarkston) at the beginning of this season. Look out for the Bo Schembechler poster in O’Brien’s “Monster Pals” short.
- Something there seemed to be more of this season: Pre-taped segments. A few critics have written about the amount of pre-taped segments included on this season with Mooney and Bennett’s Good Neighbors clips picking up where The Lonely Island guys left off. While the show will never go to completely pre-taped episodes, there is an advantage to taping clips that could be used in a later episode while also eliminating mistakes and performers “breaking” during sketches.
- Favorite pre-taped segment of the year: “Dancing”
- Host who should do all the monologues: Louis C.K.
- Host trend that I really enjoy: Recurring characters. This season we saw the return of Jonah Hill’s Adam “I’m six!” Grossman, and Melissa McCarthy’s Sheila Kelly. My wish is that Tom Hanks will bring back Mr. Short-Term Memory.
- Hot host trend: large gaps between appearances. John Goodman and Charlize Theron both last appeared in Studio 8H in 2000, but Bruce Willis decided to wait 24 years before returning to host this past October. So there’s still hope that Rick Moranis will return.
- The host we need every season: Jon Hamm. Thankfully, he was able to make an appearance during the Lena Dunham episode in the sketch, “What Are You Even Doing? You’re Being Crazy.”
- My favorite musical guest: St. Vincent. Before the season finale performances from St. Vincent, the only other musical guest that didn’t make me mute the TV or grab a snack was Beck. This could just be a sign of my aging.
- Worst episode: Andrew Garfield. The Spider-Man star hosted the worst episode of the season, but this one was on the writers and not Garfield, who tried his best with bad material.
- Most surprising host this season: Edward Norton. This might have been my favorite episode of the season. It was solid from beginning to end with a couple of my favorite sketches in “Critter Control” and “Ruth’s Chris” making this a memorable one.
- Favorite commerical parody of the season: Wes Anderson’s “The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders.”
- Odd trend: Good material not being used on-air. Several sketches appeared online the Sunday after they didn’t make it to air on Saturday night. Oddly enough, two of the better non-aired sketches were for the Andrew Garfield episode which sorely needed something as good as “Touch O’ Heat” or “Wing” to help it out.
- Controversial moment of the season: Leslie Jones on Weekend Update. This was the only controversial moment that I can recall, but it was a reminder that SNL can push buttons and doesn’t always play it safe. To me, Jones’ bit on Update was reminicent of Chris Rock‘s appearances from the early 1990s. There’s a reason SNL airs at 11:30pm on Saturday, and it is for uncomfortable and controversial material.
- Cast member most likely to leave: Nasim Pedrad. Pedrad has secured her place at SNL with impressions of Kim Kardashian and Ariana Huffington along with characters like Heshy and Shallon. The reason Pedrad may not be back for SNL‘s 40th season is her role in the new FOX sitcom, Mulaney, starring former SNL writer John Mulaney. The show does film in New York, so while doable Pedrad may decide to leave SNL after five seasons.
- Classic sketch comedy influence: The Kids in the Hall. Skinny Santa featuring Paul Rudd felt like the hip 40-year-old executive played by Bruce McCulloch, and an unaired sketch featuring John Milhiser and Charlize Theron beared more than a striking resemblance to the fighting couple portrayed by McCulloch and Mark McKinney minus the Cobra references.
- Favorite sketch of the year: “What’s Poppin'”
The 39th season marked the largest cast shake-up since the 21st season in 1995, when nine new members joined the cast. That cast was tabbed to save SNL after a disastrous ending to the Chris Farley/Adam Sandler era of the early 1990s. This new cast entered a much better situation, and somewhat stumbled out of the blocks.
Whether it was the bloated cast (17 performers), or too many new faces fighting for air time, this past season was short on laughs and never found its rhythm. With one season under their belt together, and a mid-term election in November, this cast should be much better when Saturday Night Live returns for its 40th season in September.