Breaking Down Each Cast Member’s Contribution to ‘SNL’ Season 38

As mentioned in yesterday’s post listing our favorite moments from this season of SNL, Season 38 has been dubbed a “transitional year” by many followers of the show. After a few years of relative stability among the core cast members, stars Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg left a year ago, followed by Abby Elliott later in the summer. With the start of the new season, three performers from Chicago’s improv and sketch community joined the cast: Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson, and Cecily Strong. In the wake of Wiig’s dominating presence on the show, two freshman females in particular have emerged as go-to’s: Kate McKinnon, who joined the cast late in Season 37, and Cecily Strong, who has had one of the strongest starts of any SNL cast member in recent memory. Meanwhile, two male up-and-comers, Bobby Moynihan and Taran Killam, saw a huge increase in airtime with some of the older male cast members preparing for their exits.

And the transition is clearly still under way. The past few weeks have dealt SNL what will likely be its most dramatic shifts: the departures of cast members Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and (possibly) Jason Sudeikis, as well as this December’s departure of head writer Seth Meyers. With Meyers setting the tone in the writers room and Hader, Armisen and Sudeikis carrying the burden of the sketch roles in the cast, their combined absence will undoubtedly have a massive impact on the show’s future seasons.

But in the midst of all the cast shakeups, let’s take a look at the cast from this past season. Who appeared the most in sketches? What kinds of roles did each cast member fall into? Who filled the voids left by Wiig and Samberg? What were some of the more memorable characters and impressions each cast member played? And who are we betting will rejoin the cast in Season 39?

As I did for Season 36 in 2011 and Season 37 in 2012, I have been keeping a running tally of how often each cast member has appeared in sketches, weighing starring roles and Update desk characters greater than one-liners and walk-ons. I displayed it all in this nifty pie chart to give us a sense of each cast member’s total “share” of screen time this season:

(Again, I have excluded Seth Meyers from this graph, because his on-screen role is limited to host of Weekend Update and is therefore negligible in the fluctuating cast lineup each week.)

The share of screen time in Season 38 differs distinctively from previous seasons. For one, the amount of roles appeared to be spread more evenly. If all the sketch roles were distributed equally, each cast member would receive 7.69%, so the fact that no cast member received double or half the statistical average suggests that this season was more of a team effort, with fewer obvious stars the way Kristen Wiig was. Also, the break down doesn’t stick to cast member seniority – over half of the cast members were outranked by performers with less experience on the show. Finally, it deserves special mention how big of seasons this was for Bobby Moynihan, Taran Killam, and Cecily Strong, all three of whom received a huge amount of exposure compared to previous seasons (or in Strong’s case, compared to other first-year cast members). Let’s look at each cast member a little more closely:

Bill Hader (10.77%)

Bill Hader has been near the top of the leader board for the past few seasons, and it’s no mystery why. Since joining the cast in 2005, he has gradually earned his spot at the heart of the cast by playing nearly every role SNL required of him – background support, straight man, impersonator, character actor, voice over, game show host, and eventually, star. Few SNL cast members have been capable of sustaining a single recurring character for so long – especially one plagued by breaking – before gassing out under viewer fatigue, yet Hader consistently made his soft spoken tour guide of New York’s seedy club scene Stefon one of the most hilarious moments of any given episode. And let’s not forget Hader’s seemingly endless cache of pitch-perfect impressions (Al Pacino, Alan Alda, Clint Eastwood, Vincent Price, James Carville, Julian Assange, Christopher Walken, John Malkovich, James Mason, Shepard Smith, Keith Morrison, Lindsay Buckingham). Lorne Michaels has compared Hader to Dan Aykroyd, and while there does indeed exist a similarity between the two actors’ precision and work ethic, a more apt doppleganger might be Phil Hartman, a beloved sketch comedy Renaissance man who held the show together during his long run. Bill Hader was one of the most talented performers SNL has ever seen, and I suspect that only when he is gone will it sink in how much we’ve been taking him for granted.

Bobby Moynihan (10.57%)

Bobby Moynihan has had an explosive year on SNL, jumping from 7th most featured last season to 2nd this season. Interestingly enough, however, Moynihan hasn’t had many new star characters – Drunk Uncle, Anthony Crispino, Guy Fieri, Snooki, Brian Kilmeade, and Chris Christie were all characters he played last season. Rather, his ascension can be explained by the fact that he appeared in pretty much every sketch, playing utility roles such as a one-joke walk-on or a low-status straight man. SNL uses Moynihan the way it used Andy Samberg, as a reliably funny wild card that can guarantee to a laugh with delivery alone. With two years left on his contract, hopefully Moynihan will return next season as the new leader the cast needs.

Jason Sudeikis (9.55%)

It appears as if Jason Sudeikis is trying to make a quiet exit from SNL – rumors circulated that he would leave the show with Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg last year, then that he would leave after the November election, and now that he will be leaving along with Bill Hader and Fred Armisen, but nothing official has been yet announced. It’s a shame too, because Jason Sudeikis deserves every bit a farewell as those other four. He has had an amazing run on the show, banking on a Midwestern everyman charm to make dislikable characters likable: the Devil, one of the Two A-Holes, Mitt Romney, Ricky Gervais, Pete Twinkle (the ESPN host with Will Forte), etc. Other than carrying the political sketches in the fall, Sudeikis has largely faded into the role of the “jokey moderator” this season – a role he pulls off effortlessly for sure, but not one that showcases his full potential. With a busy movie production schedule late this summer and fall, Sudeikis’ return looks less and less likely, but given the track record for departing SNL cast members, it won’t be long before he comes back.

Taran Killam (9.15%)

Another cast member making strides this season was Taran Killam, who hustled his way into being one of the busiest members of the cast. Viewers who haven’t warmed up to Bobby Moynihan yet ought to at least have taken notice of Killam, whose Groundlings-honed character chops and aggressive physicality make him a reliable go-to in sketches. Killam also appears to have what it takes when it comes to impressions as well, showing off celebrities (Piers Morgan, Brad Pitt, Michael Cera) and uptight Republican politicians (Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul), which may have cemented his position on the show for the next four years, at least. In the past, I’ve compared Taran Killam’s skillset to that of Will Ferrell, especially in his early years on the show. While Killam has yet to settle into the patience and vulnerability that defined Ferrell’s stardom, he certainly has what it takes to be the next big name to come from SNL.

Kenan Thompson (8.60%)

With Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and Jason Sudeikis departing the show, Kenan Thompson is set to become the most senior cast member, going into his 10th season on the show. (Other factoids about Kenan Thompson: he was the first SNL cast member to be born after the show premiered in 1975, and he joins Taran Killam as the cast’s two former child actors from Nickelodeon sketch shows.) While several viewers remain on the fence about Thompson, he really won me over at several points this season with hilarious Weekend Update cameos (The One Black Guy In Every Commercial, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Lewis). However, his reliance on the talk show format (Al Sharpton, Steve Harvey) remains frustrating, especially when his most popular recurring sketch (What Up With That?) makes fun of that very format. Overall, Kenan Thompson deserves credit for transitioning from a fringe performer who plays like he’s still on All That to a core cast member… who still kind of kind of plays like he’s on All That.

Fred Armisen (8.27%)

Season 38 began with a cold open in which Fred Armisen “introduced” the President of the United States, who would now be played by Jay Pharoah. It was a symbolic, passing-of-the-torch gesture, one that marked the beginning of the end for Armisen on SNL. We should be thankful that Armisen was able to play Obama for four seasons; otherwise he might not have lasted on the show so long, and SNL never would have had some of its most delightful oddball characters, like Nuni Schoener, Nicholas Fehn, Mahmoud Ahmadenejad, a junkie from A Taste of New York, Zac Efron’s MOTHERRRR. Of course, there’s always Portlandia for that now, and even some of Armisen’s SNL work paralleled storylines on his own show (see SNL’s One Man Show versus Portlandia’s One Man Show). Armisen’s signature obscure musical parody sketches took a backseat this season to his more common role: trying to make fellow cast members laugh in The Californians, Regine, Slow Term Memory Loss Theater, and Garth & Kat. However, he scored big as British punk rocker Ian Rubbish, who had a soft spot for Margaret Thatcher and later provided Armisen with an emotional goodbye.

Cecily Strong (7.52%)

As the cast’s most featured female performer, freshman cast member Cecily Strong has made a remarkable debut on SNL, folding in seamlessly with her fellow cast members and blowing up with a boatload of hilarious characters – Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With, Pornstar Commercial, Girlfriends Talk Show, Lydia Callis, etc. Sure, so far many of her characters are defined by their gender, but I think what has made Strong so successful is her ability to play familiar, authentic female roles without falling into stereotype. But Strong’s greatest strength might be her camaraderie with Vanessa Bayer and Aidy Bryant – the three performed together at iO and Second City in Chicago, and should all three return next season, we could have on our hands a second Chicago funny lady triumvirate, reminiscent of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Rachel Dratch 10 years ago.

Vanessa Bayer (7.45%)

This brings us to Vanessa Bayer, who, after having a promising first season and was largely sidelined during Kristen Wiig’s farewell tour last season, has seen a bit of a second wind with an influx of Chicagoans. Her Miley Cyrus and J-Pop sketches made returns, but her biggest hits this season were her wise-cracking (yet socially inept) Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy and the other half of Cecily Strong’s hilarious ditsy Pornstar duo. Some commentators have floated Bayer’s name around as a potential replacement for Seth Meyers as Weekend Update host – indeed, her frank delivery and strong timing evoke Jane Curtin’s news persona from the early years of SNL. When Meyers departs SNL for Late Night this December, it would be interesting to see Bayer take on that new role.

Jay Pharoah (6.64%)

It was expected to be a huge year for Jay Pharoah, with his long-anticipated takeover of the role of President Obama (which many viewers suspected was a major reason – if not the only reason – for Pharoah being cast), right in the dead heat of an election season, when SNL’s relevancy peaks. Instead, it turned out to be more of the same. Pharoah’s Obama, while far more accurate an impersonation than Fred Armisen’s, still wasn’t much funnier than his predecessor’s. As I’ve said, that speaks more to Barack Obama’s lack of candid moments than to Pharoah’s skills. But when a cast member’s primary niche is parodying a subject matter that offers little ground for direct parody, we have a problem. Yes, Pharoah’s total screen time has gone up this season – thanks to his playing Obama and an appearance or two by Principal Frye (whose gray hairs are multiplying with each appearance) – but since the election, the writers don’t seem interested in writing any material for him, and his roles have slowed to a trickle. Of course, Barack Obama won the election, and unless the show is willing to piss off Pharoah’s loyal Twitter followers and replace him with any of the talented sketch comedians around the country who can mimic the president, we’ll likely be seeing more of him next season.

Kate McKinnon (6.50%)

When Kate McKinnon joined the cast for a few episodes at the end of last season, she seemed to immediately fall under a microscope. She was the first new cast member to the show in almost two years, and as a female performer known for her big characters, the assumption was that she was brought on to replace Kristen Wiig. Whether or not that assumption is true, McKinnon has seen a substantial level of success in her first year, despite facing what seems to be (at least, from the comments on my episode recaps) some reluctance by viewers to warm up to her broad, physical style. I will admit that her characters at times feel one-dimensional, and she relies on her “wide eyes” face a bit too often. However, her character work is nothing short of brilliant (see: Olya Povlatsky, Cecilia Gimenez), and her impressions of Ellen Degeneres, Jodi Foster, and Ann Romney (three roles that seemed inspired from McKinnon’s perspective as SNL’s first lesbian cast member) were some of the finest we saw this season.

Nasim Pedrad (5.83%)

With Cecily Strong, Vanessa Bayer, and Kate McKinnon picking up the bulk of the female roles this season, Nasim Pedrad was unfortunately left on the sidelines. Other than one appearance by her very amusing Arianna Huffington and another by Tippy, a girl who walks in late to every conversation, Nasim’s contributions were largely forgettable and were confined to the roles of girlfriend or translator. That said, Pedrad is the most underrated performer in the cast – she has a particular knack for playing awkward teenage characters – so hopefully the success she had in the relatively few appearances she made this season will earn her spot next season.

Tim Robinson (4.74%)

I expected Tim Robinson to be at the bottom of the list – he is the only cast member not to have a single appearance on Weekend Update. In retrospect, however, he got a surprising amount of face time by playing minor roles, which is the same “paying your dues” gauntlet most first-year performers must suffer through (just look at Bobby Moynihan, Fred Armisen, or Taran Killam’s first seasons). Anyone who has seen Robinson do improv knows he’s one of the funniest live performers in the country, which we’ve seen hints of over the past months – singing crazy lyrics with Jason Sudeikis, as a real estate agent pleading with vandals, and as Carl, the scapegoat to Bobby Moynihan and Cecily Strong’s ranting employees, who was funny enough to make Kevin Hart break. Hopefully Lorne will give Tim Robinson the benefit of the doubt and give him some time to grow on the show.

Aidy Bryant (4.40%)

Newcomer Aidy Bryant received the least amount of screen time, but that’s not to say she didn’t make an impression. On the contrary, Bryant had several memorable roles this season, from CNN correspondent Candy Crowley to the neglected cohost of Girlfriends Talk Show, to a terrified acupuncturist with Kristen Wiig. With each appearance, Bryant gave a winning performance, slowly but surely familiarizing viewers with her characters’ hilarious vulnerability and occasional sass. Bryant has a tremendous amount of potential and, as with fellow newbies Cecily Strong and Tim Robinson, SNL would do right in bringing her back for Season 39.

We’ll keep you updated about any casting news that breaks over the summer, but we likely won’t hear about any new cast members or writers until a week before the season premiere in the fall. Thanks for reading!

Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs improv on the Harold team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.

Breaking Down Each Cast Member’s Contribution to ‘SNL’ […]