Saturday Night Live entered 2017 with good ratings, millions of viral shares, and more momentum than it has had in years. Much of this upshot was due to the political climate–and the country’s need for the humorous angle of what often seems like dark times. SNL did an admirable job in 2016 of getting political and not backing down under criticism–and it did an admirable job in 2017 of staying political, but also establishing balance between offering political commentary and offering an escape from the real world.
A good number of the best moments from this year were straight-up political, but others, like “Papyrus” and “Pizza Town,” were resplendent in their non-politicalness. And that is where SNL has found its happy spot in the middle this year: offering commentary and criticism, but also offering us a place to play. Here are our favorite moments from 2017.
“Come Back, Barack” (November 18th)
There were a few great SNL music videos this year, including December’s “Welcome to Hell,” but “Come Back, Barack” by the delightful R&B trio De-Von-Tré (Chance the Rapper, Kenan Thompson, and Chris Redd) truly captured the deep, deep sadness of Barack Obama leaving the White House. While so much political humor has been focused on ridiculing Trump, this focuses instead on what we lost, and how much it feels like a painful breakup. Of course, they still get in a few digs at the current president, too. Trump doesn’t even have a dog, man.
“Girl at a Bar” (March 4th)
Just as SNL hasn’t shied away from criticizing the administration, it has also used its voice to add to other national conversations, including the #MeToo movement. In “Girl at a Bar,” Michelle, played by Cecily Strong, is just waiting for her girlfriend at the bar. But, as so many women have experienced, she’s quickly approached by a parade of guys who seem completely nice, right up to the moment they’re rejected, when they transform into misogynistic nightmares. It even seems like the more woke they seem at first, the worse they are. This is basically “Cat Person” before “Cat Person” was published, and it’s funnier.
“Pizza Town” (January 21st)
How about having a standoff between police and hardened criminals that gets repeatedly interrupted by an animatronic pizza band? The result is “Pizza Town,” a weird but joyous sketch that shined brightly in a year where it felt like humor was working pretty hard. With Aziz Ansari leading the band and “crusting a move,” the sketch offers four minutes of absurd fun in serious times–the truth is, life can be hard and sometimes everyone needs to stop and watch the pizza band. We also fully admit that the song is catchy. We love that pizza pizza! We love that pizza pie!
“Trump People’s Court” (February 11th)
Season 42 of SNL was, like much of the country, focused deeply on politics, and at the center of it all was Alec Baldwin playing Donald Trump. His standout sketch of the year aired in February, when the SNL writing staff asked a simple, horrible question: What would Trump act like on People’s Court? Pitted against three judges who struck down his detestable travel ban, he is quickly shut down by a non-nonsense television judge, who is more reasonable and straight-talking than basically anyone in the real government. Throw in a cameo by a shirtless Putin, and you have the recipe for some top-shelf political satire.
“Angel” (November 4th)
Voice actress and Groundlings alumn Heidi Gardner was one of three new cast members to join the show in season 43–and she is SNL’s most exciting new hire in years. In “Angel,” a Weekend Update segment, she gets the spotlight playing “every boxer’s girlfriend from every boxing movie ever,” and she kills it. With a shaking voice and furrowed brow, she explains that she’s worked in a lotta bars in her life, but she deserves to be happy–and if you’re looking for her during the big fight this evening, she’ll be at her sister’s. It’s the lovely marriage of really sharp writing and on-the-spot character work by Gardner that secure “Angel” a spot on this list.
“Sports Announcer” (November 18th)
Chance the Rapper was a first-time host this fall, and the rising rap star killed it with his playfulness, enthusiasm, and surprising acting chops. Nothing was funnier than when he played Lazlo Holmes, a basketball sports announcer filling in for his colleague on paternity leave and covering the hockey game. It’s a very simple joke–he doesn’t understand hockey on any level–but it’s executed just perfectly. Chance goes back and forth between mentioning he’s VERY COLD and just being baffled about why people are on skates chasing a puck. This could have been a mediocre moment about sports stereotypes, but here it’s elevated by really nice writing and character work.
“Papyrus” (September 30th)
Well, this is just silly. In this sketch written by Julio Torres, Ryan Gosling plays Stephen, a man who cannot live a normal life knowing that Avatar (“The movie from nine years ago?” his therapist asks) used Papyrus as the font for its title. Gosling is perfect for the coffee table-flipping melodrama needed here, and the urgent piano and strings in the background finish everything off. The best moment might be Gosling listing other places you find the Papyrus font – “hookah bars, Shakira merch, off-brand teas” – you can just hear the seething hatred in his voice.
“Another Close Encounter” (September 30th)
In 2015, the “Close Encounter” sketch made a lot of the year-end lists, and honestly, this year’s “Another Close Encounter” has all of the same characters and follows almost exactly the same structure. But it is just so funny. Again. Kate McKinnon steals the show and cements her place as the cast’s biggest star with her chain-smoking Ms. Rafferty character for whom, she explains, “the cookie crumbles a little bit differently.” As Ms. Rafferty tells the tale of her second alien abduction, one of the greatest joys is watching Ryan Gosling struggle and fail to keep character and a straight face. When we watch this sketch, we are all Ryan Gosling. There is no way not to laugh.
“World’s Most Evil Invention” (May 20th)
Leave it to SNL to write a sketch about the true definition of evil–and have it be one of the funniest of the year. In it, newly-minted five-timer Dwayne Johnson unveiled his bid for most evil invention: a child-molesting robot, which can, for pennies on the dollar, molest twice as many children in half the time of a human molester. This was the finale of season 42, and many of the sketches from that spring were either about politics or so unrelated to politics that it was sometimes hard to focus. But this one delivered beautifully–it was somehow refreshing to have someone talk so openly about their evil plans, with succinct candor.
Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer (Multiple)
On July 21, Sean Spicer announced his resignation as White House Press Secretary, ending his six-month stint as a the guy who had to answer to the media about President Donald Trump’s actions. By far the worst aspect of his resignation was knowing that Melissa McCarthy would no longer have the chance to play him on SNL.
Over four sketches, McCarthy went after both the big, obvious “Spicey” bloopers (his penchant for eating gum, his Easter bunny costume, his bush-hiding) as well as the little things (his slowly accelerating anxiety displayed through anger, his odd combination of big ego and shame). But what every line she uttered captured was the absolute absurdity of what was happening inside the White House, told through the filter of someone who was obviously past the very end of his rope. Some critics think that SNL got too political in 2017, but the Spicey sketches are proof that their political commentary was not only needed, not only effective, not only therapeutic, but also absolutely hilarious.
Ten More Great SNL Moments of 2017:
“Totinos” (Feburary 4th)
“Welcome Video” (February 4th)
“Amazon Echo” (May 13th)
“The Last Fry” (October 7th)
“Kellywise” (October 14th)
“Claire From HR” (November 11th)
Whiskers R We with Tiffany Haddish (November 11th)
“Welcome to Hell” (December 2nd)
“Spelling Bee” (December 9th)
Eric and Donald Trump Jr. (Multiple)
Photo by Allison Hale/NBC.
Sarah Aswell is a freelance writer and standup who lives in Missoula, Montana. You can read her stuff at places like The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, National Lampoon, and The Hairpin. She’s also a contributing writer at Reductress. If you want her in your daily life, you can follow her on Twitter.