The Best of ‘SNL’ Season 37

Now that Season 37 of Saturday Night Live has come to a close, let’s talk about some of the highlights from the past 22 episodes.

What struck me most about this season was the apparent hunger for new hit sketches. While the show’s tendency to recycle worn sketch premises lives on, Seth Meyers and his writing staff have eased back a bit from tentpoling the lineup with pieces from seasons past, occasionally striking gold with a new premise, and hustling to bring it back as soon as possible. J Pop America Fun Time Now, Drunk Uncle, Lord Wyndemere, Bein’ Quirky with Zooey Deschanel, Piers Morgan Tonight, and The Californians — children of Season 37 — were all reprised within a few episodes of their first appearances.

With the departure of Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer at the end of last season, the digital short, after enjoying five years as SNL’s most popular segment, fell to a sporadic hit-or-miss status. In its ashes arose a crop of fresh live sketches, often with dark, bizarre premises, which have crept up from the final (often cut) 10-to-1 timeslot into the front half of the show. Sketches like Les Jeunes de Paris, Brutus the sexually abused monkey, and Slow Motion Hallway let their freak flags fly more than typical SNL sketches.

Those pieces, along with other sketches that targeted specific subcultures — Bein’ Quirky, You Can Do Anything, The Californians — contributed to a rawer, more risk-taking energy that found its way into the show. SNL expanded its mockery of cable news into a full-on assault of cable television for its lowest-common-denominator programming, most notably the E! network (Kardashian Divorce Special), Bravo (Watch What Happens Live), and Spike (Downton Abbey on Spike).

When it came to the hosts, SNL was blessed with relatively few duds (the uncooperative Ben Stiller and the full-out disaster Lindsay Lohan) and several amazing first-time hosts — Melissa McCarthy, Charlie Day, Jason Segel, Channing Tatum, Zooey Deschanel, Sofia Vergara… not to mention “virgin” hosts Jimmy Fallon and Maya Rudolph. A special shout-out to the females of the pack, who, Lohan excluded, typically helmed the better episodes.

It’s been a great year. Lorne Michaels, Seth Meyers, the cast, the writing staff, and the entire crew have much to be proud of. Below I have listed my picks for the highlights of Season 37:

Cold Open. The GOP primary-themed cold opens struggled with finding their footing this season, largely due to the overwhelming blandness of Mitt Romney. I always enjoyed when the writers removed the podiums and placed the candidates in new contexts, such as Newt Gingrich: Space President and last weekend’s wonderful Biden and Bush. For me, the most memorable of the season was the GOP Green Day Song, in which each of the candidates joined presumptive nominee Romney for a drink while looking back at the wild campaign season, singing a version of Green Day’s “Time of Your Life.” It drew more blood than all of this season’s political cold opens combined, bashing Romney’s sexism and Michelle Bachmann’s partying hubby.

Monologue. Leave it to former SNL stars Jimmy Fallon and Maya Rudolph to show the other hosts how to kick the night off correctly: big, hilarious musical numbers through the 8H hallways. I loved Maya’s, but something truly magical happens when you get Jimmy Fallon behind a guitar. Finally fessing up for laughing through Cowbell and Debbie Downer didn’t hurt, either.

Commercial Parody. SNL has always been merciless when it comes to parodying popular ad campaigns. This season’s victims included the Clint Eastwood Superbowl Chrystler Ad (featuring an awesome impression by Bill Hader) and not-delivery Dijornio Pizza (with not-pizza Almost Pizza). Many viewers loved the recent Amazon Mothers Day ad, but I’m old enough to remember its even more hilarious male version, Kemper Pedic Bed, from the Jason Segel episode earlier this season.

Live Sketch. Season 37 saw a return to form when it came to live, sitcom-style sketches. Fred Armisen benefitted from this transition with two of the season’s best live sketches: Brutus, a talking monkey who reveals his scientist’s aggressive bestiality; and Cosby Obama, which is exactly what it sounds like. But I can’t think of a more beautiful moment of live television this year than Melissa McCarthy’s ranch dressing face-shot.

Talk Show. Talk show sketches tend to annoy frequent SNL viewers because they come across as easy and uninspired. What bothers me is their passivity — characters sit the whole time, sometimes saying funny things, but not really doing anything worth watching. A few talk show sketches broke that mold this season, and leading the way was Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer’s colorful J Pop America Fun Time Now, where hyperactive white college students get Japanese culture so, so wrong.

Game Show. Game show sketches face similar criticism as talk show sketches, except with prolific forefathers of Celebrity Jeopardy, and more recent manifestations in the overplayed Secret Word pieces, people tend to tune out. With Bill Hader as a reliable go-to host, a few gems have made it through, such as the Lifetime Game Show in the Anna Farris episode, and the hilarious Who’s On Top? from the Alec Baldwin season premiere.

Promo. In recent years, SNL has discovered a new target in cable television, which often takes the form of promos for real or fake shows on various networks. Memorable from this season was Downton Abbey on Spike and a behind the scenes look at Game of Thrones (neither of which you’ll find online due to clearance issues). Perhaps the only good thing to come out of the Lindsay Lohan episode was this Real Housewives of Disney, where Disney princesses claw and backstab each other.

Digital Short. As I’ve mentioned before, this was a weak season for digital shorts. However, with rumors of Andy Samberg leaving the show, the last few episodes began to churn them out like a boss. Samberg teamed up with Steven Spielberg for an epic Laser Cats conclusion and with Chris Parnell for a sequel to Lazy Sunday in the season finale. But perhaps the stand-out was the 100th Digital Short, an over-the-top celebration in true Lonely Island style, with cameos by Justin Bieber, Jon Hamm, Michael Bolton, and foul mouthed Natalie Portman.

Weekend Update Segment. With Seth Meyers at the desk, two-liners from writers Alex Baze and John Mulaney, and visits from people like Nic Cage, Stefon, and Drunk Uncle, Weekend Update has rarely been so consistently amazing. Momentarily putting aside all the wonderful characters who call the Update desk their home, it was such a joy to see the past four Weekend Update hosts unite for the Weekend Update Joke-Off.

Fake Product. Some of the darkest (or broadest) sketches in SNL’s history take the form of fake products or services. This season had its own little stocking stuffers, such as the “Just Friends” Shorts and Chantix, a drug that gives you homicidal tendencies. But none could top Lil’ Poundcake, a doll that sticks oblivious little girls with an HPV vaccine.

10-to-1. The last sketch of the night, nicknamed the “10-to-1” sketch because it airs 10 minutes before 1 am, is a place near and dear to my heart, because it’s typically where the weirdest and riskiest sketch runs. Some of the best 10-to-1’s this season were meta musical pieces in which the cast seemed more interested in celebrating than anything else — the Blue Jean Committee from the Jason Segel episode, Coolio Orchestra (in which Jonah Hill led the cast into the studio audience), and of course, last episode’s emotional farewell to Kristen Wiig. But for me, the quintessential SNL night capper was One Magical Evening, in which Katy Perry and Bobby Moynihan executed a cute premise with near perfect timing.

Revival. With so many former castmembers and repeat hosts every year, it’s worth recognizing the return of a sketch from a previous SNL generation. I was impressed at the updated versions of the Boston Teens and the Culps, but Maya Rudolph and Amy Poehler’s Bronx Beat was one of the strongest-written sketches of the season, with great joke after great joke, and a wonderful cameo by Justin Timberlake.

Breaking. Few things make studio audiences positively hornier than seeing a talented castmember crack up in the middle of a scene — something that happens more frequently nowadays when Bill Hader is walking into Stefon pieces with the cue cards changed on him last minute. Fred Armisen has been known to get under Kristen Wiig and Hader’s skin, as he did in the first run of The Californians. But Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph might as well have been on The Carol Burnette Show the way the Super Showcase sketch imploded.

Celebrity Impression. You know impersonation is a valued skill when even the writers are asked to do them for their auditions. Andy Samberg’s Nic Cage became crazier and more entertaining with each new appearance, and Bill Hader has been cleaning up as usual with Alan Alda and Clint Eastwood, to name a few. For a true impression that was new to Season 37, I have to go with Abby Elliott’s Zooey Deschanel, whose Bein’ Quirky sketches have always been entertaining, thanks also to Taran Killam’s Michael Cera and Kristen Wiig’s Bjork.

New Character. Bill Hader’s Stefon is still leading the pack when it comes to characters, but a few other castmembers have made strong grabs at the reigns. Paul Brittain’s Lord Wyndemere was such a whimsical addition to the cache, but it wasn’t enough to save him from getting let go, unfortunately. Kristen Wiig’s Flirting Expert, Jay Pharoah’s Principal Frye, and Taran Killam and Vanessa Bayer’s J Pop hosts were all great, but when the smoke cleared, it was Bobby Moynihan’s Drunk Uncle who staggered out on top, mumbling about immigrants and using Netflix as a verb.

MVP. Jason Sudeikis and Bill Hader have been valuable leading men — Sudeikis manning the cold opens with an increasingly nuanced Mitt Romney and Hader filling in the cracks with his incredible impersonation skills, game-show host persona, and voice over work for a number of sketches. But when you think about value in terms of talent and pure star power, Kristen Wiig wins this category, hands-down. Her decision to return for one last season after her huge success over the summer with Bridesmaids demonstrated her devotion for SNL. She throws everything she has into her characters and leaves it all on the stage. She will be missed… that is, until she returns at some point next season to play Kathy Lee Gifford or Vice President Elect Michelle Bachmann.

Host. Most people associate a good host with a good episode, and vice versa. But for me, the two categories aren’t necessarily intertwined: good hosts can host mediocre episodes (Anna Faris), and mediocre hosts can host strong episodes (Charles Barkley). The top three hosts this season were, unsurprisingly, the three with the most sketch comedy experience. Jimmy Fallon’s triumphant return to SNL as a first-time host was his final step of redemption after gaining so many haters during his years on the show. Maya Rudolph led the way with her multiple talents, inspiring the whole cast to perform at the top of their game. But I must give this to Melissa McCarthy, who, despite never having done a single episode of SNL in her life, commanded the stage with Groundlings-honed fearlessness, bringing a kind of controlled chaos the show hadn’t seen since Chris Farley was in the cast.

Episode. If Melissa McCarthy was the season’s best host, Maya Rudolph produced the season’s best episode. Rudolph was a rising tide that lifted all ships — fellow castmembers, writers, crew… even guest stars Justin Timberlake and Amy Poehler. The episode contained all the components that make an SNL episode great: a strong cold open that mocked the “Linsanity” craze, a showstopping monologue, a long-awaited revival of a classic sketch, a well-executed full-cast impersonation sketch, a hilarious prank show parody with Maya Angelou, a breaking sketch for the books, and the funniest Obama sketch of the season. Rudolph’s return to the show was 90 minutes of fine television, reminding all of us what SNL is all about.

Make sure to read the second half of my SNL Season 37 review, in which I’ll discuss the cast and break down each castmember’s contribution over the course of the season.

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He performs with his improv team The Cartel at the iO West Theater. 

The Best of ‘SNL’ Season 37