on comedy

Every SNL Opening Monologue This Season, Ranked by How Funny the Backing Band Thinks It Is

The band welcomes Tiffany Haddish.

As a weekend Vulture employee, Sunday mornings have become ritualistic when it comes to writing about daily news: I start my day by watching new Saturday Night Live clips on YouTube and subsequently write up the sketches that seem most amusing or buzzworthy. (Which results in such silly headlines such as this, this, and sometimes even this.) But in recent months, I’ve taken a decisively different approach when it comes to watching the host’s monologues, in that I don’t really care about their mannerisms or how they actually look while spewing out cue-card quips. Rather, I just look at how funny the backing band thinks it is.

In all episodes, band leader and saxophone icon Lenny Pickett is always visible onscreen next to a mélange of instrumentalists, which usually includes a few guitarists and a drummer. Comedy is subjective, and these guys know it — sometimes they laugh, sometimes they smile, and sometimes, they all sit together in harmonious stone-cold silence. It’s great, and it’s all unfolding in real time, which makes it all the more high stakes. So, as SNL’s 43rd season has now ended, I thought it would be fun to look back at all 21 monologues from the past few months, ranking them solely on how funny Pickett and the gang think they are.

My criteria is simple, albeit a bit more math-centric than I would’ve liked: Every time a respective band member genuinely emotes a laugh — not a smile — the monologist gets a point, and it’s then combined with two contributing factors, which are the total length of the monologue and how many band members are actually visible. The final tally equates to the average number of laughs per minute per band member. (Wow, maybe tenth-grade algebra was actually helpful.) All right, enough math. Let’s get to the comedy, baby!

21. Gal Gadot

Gadot takes on a sincere, Anyone can be Wonder Woman! angle for her monologue, and while lovely, most of the comedy heavy lifting instead comes from Leslie Jones crashing the stage in full superhero garb. (The sole smile from the band pit went to a Jones quip.) Their banter is fun — “I have a lasso that makes people tell you the truth” / “Bitch, I got vodka” — but relatively tame.

Monologue length: 3:56
Band members visible in frame: 4
Total laughs: 1

0.06 laughs per band member per minute.

20. Saoirse Ronan

The idea of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Ronan waxing poetic about how difficult it is for people to correctly pronounce her name is amusing in theory but wholly unoriginal by the time the monologue aired — and judging by the band’s stoic faces, they knew it, too. It didn’t help that they also had to be chained to their instruments when she broke into song. Still, she’s so cute!

Monologue length: 4:01
Band members visible in frame: 3
Total laughs: 1

0.08 laughs per band member per minute.

19. Jessica Chastain

In a way, Chastain’s monologue doesn’t really play for laughs. After some banter about her penchant for playing strong female characters — all she really wants to play is a nagging girlfriend who shouts fun things like, David!!! — she and some SNL female players break out into a show-tune-y song about women’s rights. The band loves this feminist energy! But more in an admiring way, and not in a funny way.

Monologue length: 3:23
Band members visible in frame: 3
Total laughs: 1

0.1 laughs per band member per minute.

18. Sam Rockwell

The majority of Rockwell’s monologue is spent parading around Studio 5H in an Elvis Presley–inspired song-and-dance routine. (He even goes for full-on spectacle by riding a camera-boom arm. Impressive!) Still, his “Did I just go from actor to big-ass deal?” train of thought — brought on by the success of Three Billboards — doesn’t seem to be the band’s idea of a fun time.

Monologue length: 3:53
Band members visible in frame: 5
Total laughs: 3

0.15 laughs per band member per minute.

17. Natalie Portman

The format for Portman’s monologue is pretty unique in that most of the time is spent having sports “commentators” critique what’s going on with her in real time, telestrations and all. (Hey, it’s Winter Olympics season on NBC, baby!) Likely owing to not being able to see the full spectacle of it all, the band doesn’t react much, but we do get to see Lenny Pickett involved — and swiping through Tinder, no less. Give us more band cameos!

Monologue length: 4:05
Band members visible in frame: 3
Total laughs: 2

0.16 laughs per band member per minute.

16. Chance the Rapper

Chance’s quest to become the Mariah Carey of Thanksgiving songs results in a peppy song-and-dance number about how terrible the holiday can be with your family, and since the band members, you know, have to play their instruments for the song to take shape, they’re generally out of commission for most of the monologue. They’re amused enough by his boyish charms in the beginning, though: “I’ve been here before as a musical guest, but this is first time I’ve had to talk and stuff!”

Monologue length: 4:55
Band members visible in frame: 4
Total laughs: 4

0.20 laughs per band member per minute.

15. Ryan Gosling

Gosling spends most of his allotted time pontificating on a piano about saving jazz in La La Land — “It’s like music in motion, the notes are talking to each other and giving each other little kisses!” — and he rationalizes that his saviorship may soon be seen in cities like Nerlins, NYC City, and Chicagi. The band is amused, but hey, how amused can they get as actual virtuosic jazz musicians? Kudos to Gosling for giving them the spotlight to jam, silliness and all: “I just jazzed really good with the guys.”

Monologue length: 5:48
Band members visible in frame: 4
Total laughs: 5

0.22 laughs per band member per minute.

14. Donald Glover

We have to skew the numbers a bit here because Glover only remains onstage for about a minute and half before embarking on an I can do anything! quest to one-up the SNL players around the studio, but his insistence on reminiscing about his two failed auditions for the show — “That’s not a joke, I’m still pissed” — packs in a solid amount of laughs. That, and he and the band clearly form a kinship when he requests a “180 tempo, something jazzy in the key of D” as walking music.

Monologue length: 4:38
Band members visible in frame: 5
Total laughs: 5

0.22 laughs per band member per minute.

13. James Franco

Audience Q&A monologues are a bit tough to gauge, owing to cameras roving around the studio to capture the inevitable celebrity surprise appearances — Steve Martin! Seth Rogen! Jonah Hill! — but the band seems thrilled by the guests, particularly Martin being a curmudgeon in the cheap seats. (“Do I look hot?!?!”) We should note that Franco himself doesn’t get any laughs, just his pals.

Monologue length: 4:50
Band members visible in frame: 4
Total laughs: 5

0.26 laughs per band member per minute.

12. Tina Fey

Ah yes, another Q&A monologue. This one has more of a bona fide A-list edge compared to Franco’s — well, hello there, Jerry Seinfeld, Robert De Niro, Chris Rock, and Benedict Cumberbatch — and frankly, it’s hard not to smile at the irony of Seinfeld complaining about the show having “too many celebrity cameos these days” and “the cast isn’t getting a chance to grow” because of it. The band sure likes irony!

Monologue length: 6:43
Band members visible in frame: 4
Total laughs: 8

0.30 laughs per band member per minute.

11. Bill Hader

For someone who admits, literally in his monologue, that he purposely wants to keep his monologue as short as possible for the sake of segueing into the next sketch — “The Californians,” complete with a fourth-wall-breaking costume change! — Hader’s dumbfounded discoveries about the inner workings of SNL delight the band. “Another thing I never realized is, you know when someone does an impression of a celebrity and then the real celebrity sneaks up behind and goes, ‘Tap tap, I caught you’?” Hader explains. “That’s planned! From the get-go!”

Monologue length: 2:59
Band members visible in frame: 4
Total laughs: 4

0.34 laughs per band member per minute.

10. Will Ferrell

You gotta hand it to Ferrell — he’s only onstage for a minute and a half before parading around the audience to perform his “heavily concussed” song, and yet his brief, delirious insistence that this is his first-ever SNL appearance has the band as engrossed as ever. Maybe it’s because of the super-realistic blood oozing from his head. Who can say for sure?

Monologue length: 3:53
Band members visible in frame: 4
Total laughs: 6

0.39 laughs per band member per minute.

9. Amy Schumer

Clocking in as the longest monologue of the season, Schumer’s raunchy, sex-positive comedic style is a mixed bag for the mostly male band. One one hand, her past about being a six-time Long Island bridesmaid hoping that she doesn’t “have the biggest arm” among other women transcends gender. (“You’re, like, doing an arm workout while doing a tricep press.”) But on the other, they can’t really understand the full extent of the “What’s the circumference of your vagina hole?” punch line. If only men had to use tampons, they’d get it, ya know?

Monologue length: 8:28
Band members visible in frame: 3
Total laughs: 10

0.39 laughs per band member per minute.

8. Tiffany Haddish

The story behind Haddish’s beloved, expensive Alexander McQueen dress — which she insists she’ll be wearing for every important event in her life going forward, because “it’s a $4,000 dress, real talk, you may see this dress in two sketches tonight” — draws the most laughs. Maybe the band expected a Groupon swamp-tour story reprise or they would’ve laughed even more.

Monologue length: 6:22
Band members visible in frame: 4
Total laughs: 12

0.47 laughs per band member per minute.

7. Charles Barkley

Barkley’s thoughtful insights about black athletes are peppered with his usual self-deprecating sense of humor, and the band particularly enjoys his awe at still being able to swing by Studio 8H to host every so often, especially since Barkley’s not entirely sure why he’s there: “I’ve been saying whatever the hell I want for 30 years, and I’m doing great. I’m hosting SNL for fourth time for no reason. Maybe Lorne Michaels just wanted to talk to somebody about Black Panther.”

Monologue length: 3:50
Band members visible in frame: 4
Total laughs: 9

0.59 laughs per band member per minute.

6. John Mulaney

Mulaney decides to pick some of his most popular jokes from his recent Kid Gorgeous special for this monologue, jokes which range in pure, unadulterated silliness from “doing white people stuff” in Connecticut to the overwhelming dependence on captchas for security purposes on computers. (“The passwords have passed, you’ve correctly guessed, but now it’s time for the robot test!” he singsongs.) The result is the most consistent string of laughs from the band all season, who, in particular, go nuts for his thoughts about gazebos.

Monologue length: 7:33
Band members visible in frame: 4
Total laughs: 18

0.60 laughs per band member per minute.

5. Chadwick Boseman

Boseman has the pleasure of meeting Kenan Thompson’s Panthro from Thundercats, who crashes the stage to entice him to “hook a brother up” with a Black Panther 2 appearance. Their witticisms are infectious — “Is this another one of the bad ideas the writers had that I’m in right now?” Boseman hopes — and the band gets to end the monologue by playing him off with some funky James Brown beats. They also seem to love his snazzy jacket.

Monologue length: 4:51
Band members visible in frame: 5
Total laughs: 15

0.62 laughs per band member per minute.

4. Kevin Hart

Maybe the band could relate to Hart’s musings about the ups and downs of being a father. Maybe they couldn’t. Regardless, it was pretty much a nonstop chucklefest as he vented his frustrations about modern-day parenthood — everything from “All you do is repeat yourself all day to a 2-year-old child” to “I don’t like these younger women who are making these older men make babies.” (Spoiler alert: Older men treat their infants like “a loose basketball at a playground.”)

Monologue length: 6:43
Band members visible in frame: 4
Total laughs: 22

0.82 laughs per band member per minute.

3. Larry David

The initial, incredibly vast momentum David receives for his take on the #MeToo movement — “I couldn’t help but notice a disturbing pattern emerging, which is many of the predators, not all, but many, are Jews … I know I consistently strive to be a good Jewish representative!” — is undercut near the end due to his divisive comments on the dating scene in concentration camps. (Jokes of which he kind of apologized for.) You can think his comments are funny, but the band sure as hell didn’t.

Monologue length: 7:15
Band members visible in frame: 4
Total laughs: 25

0.86 laughs per band member per minute.

2. Sterling K. Brown

The slow burn of Brown spiraling into an emotional abyss à la This Is Us not only gets some of the biggest laughs of the season, but something else that we don’t see much from our pals in the band: long, toothy grins, which come out to play when Brown tries to pump himself up with cute phrases such as “C’mon Brown, c’mon baby!” and “Get it together Sterling Kathleen!” The epitome of short and sweet, truly.

Monologue length: 3:46
Band members visible in frame: 3
Total laughs: 10

0.88 laughs per band member per minute.

1. Kumail Nanjiani

Embracing a stand-up format, Nanjiani’s bitingly witty musings about everything from Islamophobia (“It’s kind of like Will and Grace — it was huge awhile ago and we thought it was gone and done, and now it’s back and bigger than ever”) to racism (“An informed racist is a better racist!”) rarely approached the 30-second mark without some big ol’ belly laughs. Or even the most valuable currency one can give to an SNL monologist: clapping.

Monologue length: 7:43
Band members visible in frame: 3
Total laughs: 21

0.91 laughs per band member per minute.

Every SNL Opening Monologue This Season, Ranked by the Band