The Best of SNL Season 36

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Now that Season 36 of SNL has come to a close, it’s time for us to look back upon this season’s 22 episodes and reflect. Reactions have been mixed — critics and audiences finally began to turn on Kristen Wiig’s screen-hogging characters (she officially retired Penelope and Gilly), while others seemed to hold the show accountable for lacking a clear comedic point of view during the midterm disaster. Some berated the show whenever a host wasn’t used enough (Bryan Cranston, Jane Lynch, Ed Helms).

At the same time, there are plenty of reasons to celebrate. For one, the cast right now is fantastic. Bill Murray told Howard Stern last February that the current cast is the best since the first one, and I might have to agree with him. It now boasts at least four legitimate stars (Hader, Samberg, Sudeikis, and Wiig), a more ensemble effort compared to the “Amy Poehler Show” and the “Will Ferrell Show” of previous eras. The show now features the strongest arsenal of characters we’ve seen in years (Stefon, Garth and Kat, Judy Grimes, Anthony Crispino, Herb Welch, Bedilia… not to mention celebrity-characters James Carville, Gov. David Patterson, Nic Cage, Miley Cyrus, and Jimmy MacMillan).

And let’s not forget the writers. Seth Meyers has truly hit his stride both behind the Weekend Update desk and in the writers room, which shares a stronger chemistry with the cast now than in previous seasons. Characters that were previously mere silly voices and gestures are now rounded out with mysterious backstories, specific points of view, and rich details. Notice how much more complete Bill Hader’s Stefon and Andy Samberg’s Nic Cage seem compared to Kristen Wiig’s Target Lady or Fred Armisen’s Larry King (nothing against Wiig or Armisen, of course). With fresh new voices in the writers room like John Mulaney and Simon Rich, many of the sketches have a sharper, more refined points of view.

So with so much to be proud of, I thought it would be nice to recognize a few specific moments from the past season that stood out from all the rest. Here is your Best of SNL Season 36:

Cold Open. This wasn’t a good season for traditionally politically themed cold opens. You can blame Fred Armisen’s unimpressive Obama, but in reality, the midterm elections were such a clusterfuck of emotions — anxiety over unemployment, anger about health care, conspiracies about Obama, that Christine O’Donnell lady… it was hard for comedians to make sense of it all. Jon Stewart’s answer was that rally, which was known for its poignancy more than its humor. SNL’s cold opens were mostly weak, with this notable exception, which cleverly twisted the Julian Assange controversy into Wikileaks: TMZ.

Monologue. While a few hosts flatlined during their opening monologues (Scarlett Johansson, Miley Cyrus, Ed Helms), a few soared to new heights. Hosts who took musical risks saw the biggest rewards: Tina Fey, Dana Carvey, and of course, Justin Timberlake. While it seems like highway robbery to not give it to JT here, I’m a little partial to Zach Galifianakis’ hilarious opener.

Political Ad. While CNN and Fox News chose the Christine O’Donnell “I’m Not a Witch” piece for their Sunday morning banter, the strongest mock political ad wasn’t revealed to be one until the very end – an ad proposing the “ground zero mosque” as a Wedding Venue for your gay wedding, and other radically liberal activity.

PSA. SNL was never more relevant this season than during this Message from TSA (at the height of their holiday travel season unpopularity).

Commercial. SNL’s long-honored tradition of fake commercials thrived in Season 36, featuring both absurd products and services (a sleep machine that produces “black noise,” a personal injury lawyer for those injured during the Spider-man musical, a photo studio for men taking cell phone pictures of their penises) and, in some cases, pathetic salesmen. My favorite was an infomercial for a product called El Shrinko, in which two self-conscious teenage boys cleverly try to justify their small packages.

Live Sketch. I was amazed by the number of risks the writers room took this season, with live sketches featuring kids on Mr. Wizard getting each other off during a static electricity experiment, a young boy hosting a morning talk show at his breakfast table with the men his mother brought home the night before, and the British royal couple transforming into crass Cockney punks. The most ridiculous, and most fun, however, had to be newcomer Taran Killam’s wordless dance party Les Jeunes De Paris.

Weekend Update Segment. While Weekend Update this season was famous for its characters (Stefon, Garth and Kat, Anthony Crispino), the “I Love It!” segment with writer and comedian John Mulaney provided a sincere tone that was a breath of fresh air in the otherwise cynical world of SNL.

Digital Short. This season saw the completed transition for the Lonely Island’s making music videos their top priority. While they played Weekend At Bernie’s with Robert DeNiro and had a great amount of fun with Helen Mirren’s breasts, the more memorable moments saw the boys singing “I Just Had Sex” with Akon on top of a skyscraper and Michael Bolton crooning about Jack Sparrow. The best, of course, came last weekend, with Timberlake and Samberg assuring us, “It’s OK when it’s in a 3-way.”

Trailer. In addition to the plethora of commercials, we’ve seen a spike in the amount of movie trailers, either parodies of actual films (Unstoppable, The Roommate) or in other cases, send-ups of entire film/television genres. The best by far was British Movie, a parody of the British crime thrillers that are as gritty as they are impossible to understand.

10-to-1. The 10-to-1 spot (the nickname for the last sketch of the night, which typically airs 10 minutes before 1am), holds a special place in my heart because it is often occupied by the strangest, riskiest sketch of the episode. Whether that means a sketch in which George Washington is brought to the future and, terrified, immediately kills Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner, or another funky musical piece from Fred Armisen, it’s always makes for the best conversation for how divisive it is. My favorite was A Taste of New York from the Jim Carrey-hosted episode, where a band of junkies beg an audience of tourists, “Can we stay with you?”

Character. As mentioned before, the cast is killing it when it comes to characters, and it’s no question that Bill Hader’s Stefon, a shy hipster who guides us through the freaky, specific nightmare of Manhattan nightlife, is leading the pack. However, I consider Stefon a character from last season, so instead I give the honors to another Hader incarnation: Herb Welch, veteran field reporter, who unlike most recurring characters, has only gotten funnier and more dimensional with every appearance.

Celebrity Impression. This season was a great example of the difference between celebrity impersonation and impression, and how the latter is the key to successfully mocking a subject. Newcomer Jay Pharoah was clearly hired for his impersonation skills (Will Smith, Denzel Washington, etc.), but he rarely found any pattern of behavior deeper than a voice or facial expression. The stand-out impression from this season came from another newcomer — Vanessa Bayer, with her pitch-perfect Miley Cyrus.

Host / Episode. There really is no argument here. Justin Timberlake, in just his fourth time hosting SNL, earned a spot with Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin as all-time best hosts for his natural multi-talents as a live performer and his ability to play supportive roles, rubbing off some of that star power to everyone around him. He was clearly the best host of the season, and he presided over the strongest episode as well.

Rookie of the Year. Before the season started, there was a lot of buzz around Jay Pharoah — not merely for his impersonation skills, but more so for the rumor that he would be replacing Fred Armisen as President Obama. Pharoah quickly turned out to be a disappointment; while certainly talented, his impersonation skills proved to be more limited than expected, and he had a habit of flubbing deliveries. Paul Brittain and Vanessa Bayer quickly overshadowed Pharoah at the start of the season, but at the start of 2011, a new star emerged: Taran Killam. Killam proved himself as both a physical workhorse and a gifted actor. Look out for this guy in future seasons.

MVP. Certainly Bill Hader, with his impish innocence and natural game show host presence, as well as his reliable Stefon, Herb Welch, James Carville, and Jullian Assange, was the heavyweight of this season — he got more overall screen time than any other cast member. Still, I have to give the credit to Seth Meyers, for making Weekend Update such a pleasure every week and nurturing such a potent creative team over the past few years as head writer. He successfully steered SNL out of the stormy waters of the 2000s into what’s looking like another golden age. If anyone can take over SNL after Lorne leaves, it’s Seth Meyers. Here’s hoping he sticks around.

Agree/disagree? What were your favorites?

I’ll be back later this week with another season breakdown — this time looking at how much screen time each cast member received and my predictions of who will be returning next season.

Erik Voss really loves SNL.