The Best of ‘SNL’ Season 38

It snuck up on us, didn’t it? The end of SNL Season 38 brought along with it key staff changes, among them the upcoming departure of head writer Seth Meyers and the immediate departures of cast members Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and (unofficially) Jason Sudeikis. Few people have shaped SNL over the past 8 years more than these men — Meyers with his leadership in the writers room and charm as Weekend Update host, and Hader, Armisen and Sudeikis as the cast’s workhorses and loadbearing performers. Indeed, many pegged Season 38 as a “transitional year” in the wake of Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg leaving the show a year ago, and one of the most fascinating things to watch this season has been SNL’s attempt to reconfigure itself during this phase: new cast members to nurture into reliable regulars, new types of video sketches to fill the “digital short” void, and a redistribution of roles as supporting cast members step out from the fringe and into the limelight.

We’ll look more at each cast member and his or her contributions in greater detail in tomorrow’s piece, but for right now let’s reflect upon some of our favorite moments from this past season, including our top political sketches (a limited selection for an election year) and top hosts (also a limited selection for a year full of A-listers, Oscar nominees and SNL regulars), as well as a few random categories like end-of-night sketches and sketches cut after dress rehearsal. We even threw our favorite musical guest in there, just to prove we comedy nerds didn’t fast forward through every musical act… just most of them.

Cold Open. Perhaps we can blame a lackluster election season for the mostly uninspired political cold opens that kicked off the episodes of the first half of the season, which often took the form of overlong debate parodies or low energy press conferences. The second half of the season opened the door for some more inventive concepts, like President Obama being visited by MLK’s ghost or Elton John (Justin Timberlake) singing at Hugo Chavez’s funeral. But the writers truly found their groove with this open to the Kevin Hart episode, which balanced Jay Pharoah’s much improved take on Obama with a full cast exploration of the effects of the budget sequester.

Monologue. This season ran the monologue musical number trope into the ground. Louis CK’s stand-up anecdote about escorting an old woman through an airport was a breath of fresh air, but Justin Timberlake’s cameo-packed induction into the Five Timer’s Club takes the cake as a season highlight.

Commercial. SNL has been as much a powerhouse for classic fake commercials as it has always been, churning out an awesome new fake ad nearly every episode of Season 38 – Rosetta Stone, Your Hometown Vacation, New Balance Shoes – without relying on the annoying habit of re-airing old ones. My vote goes to Z-Shirt, which was an on-the-nose parody of 90s ads targeted at children and gave us a hilarious callback at the end of the episode.

Political Sketch. As with cold opens, we didn’t see too many clever political sketches this season, and outside of Seth Meyers’ jokes in Weekend Update, SNL didn’t make any good points about the election that we didn’t hear from Jon Stewart of Stephen Colbert. There was one exception, however: a mock political ad targeted not at a candidate or Washington, but at ourselves – the idiot uninformed voters whom the media tolerates far more than they should.

Film Short. Andy Samberg’s departure from SNL at the end of last season freed up an extensive film crew to utilize week to week, which gave us some beautifully composed film shorts to provide episodes with some variety and texture. While few of these went “viral” the way many of Samberg’s did, Sad Mouse and Cool Drones were two of the most creative things we’ve seen on the show in recent seasons. However, there was no comparison to Louis CK’s brilliant parody of his FX show, with the comedian playing a jaded, frustrated 16th president.

Weekend Update Segment. I love a Big Bird cameo as much as the next guy, but really, is there any debate here?

Host-Specific Sketch. Some of the best SNL moments occur when the writers challenge themselves to write material specifically for whoever is hosting that week – it allows the host to poke some fun at himself and gives the show a fresh, written-this-week taste. Last weekend’s Bengo F— Yourself allowed Ben Affleck to poke fun at his film and Oscar acceptance speech, and the Bieber Body Doubles sketch gave that episode some of its only laughs. But the Pandora Intern sketch from the Bruno Mars episode allowed the singer to show off his vocal chameleon skills and resulted in one of my favorite moments from the season.

Celebrity Impression. When it came to new impressions on SNL this season, Jay Pharoah’s taking over the role of Barack Obama from Fred Armisen has had more words written about it than any other. While I remain doubtful that Pharoah will ever truly fit in with the cast, his Obama is actually quite good – not just an improvement from Armisen’s, but an improvement on his own, growing increasingly precise and humorous each time we see it. Unfortunately, Pharoah has as of yet been unable to truly encapsulate the president’s “character” and form his own comedic hook on the man, which probably says more about Obama’s ambiguous poker face than about Pharoah’s talent, but remains a problem nonetheless. Meanwhile, Kate McKinnon, who was added to the cast late last season and has divided some viewers with her broad delivery, has been three-for-three with her Ellen Degeneres, even getting the opportunity to do that dumb “real Ellen vs. fake Ellen” schtick on Degeneres’ show.

New Character. With Kristen Wiig gone from the cast and Bill Hader taking on more of a supportive role this season, as well as what seems to be a general shift away from character sketches to more concept based sketches, we’ve seen fewer new characters this season. Of course, any of the 20 great characters Melissa McCarthy played during her episode made up for it, but as for the cast, it has been a season that has for the most part gotten extra mileage out of Stefon and Drunk Uncle. That said, newcomer Cecily Strong has truly hit the ground running, pumping out hit character after hit character, with her Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With being the most popular new character to emerge this season.

10-to-1. The “10-to-1” slot, or the sketch that airs at the end of the night, is normally the part of the show that Lorne places a sketch that runs the biggest risk of bombing. In previous seasons, this slot was home to some of Fred Armisen’s weird musical parodies, but in this season, the writers have gotten some different uses out of the final sketch of the night, such as with two excellent Last Call sketches (with Louis CK and Vince Vaughn) and a near perfectly executed Coroner sketch with Jeremy Renner. But if you’ve been following my recaps you’ll remember how smitten I was with Zach Galifianakis’ Darrell’s House stunt, which spent an awkward few minutes of setup earlier on in the night to give the episode a spectacular finale.

Musical Guest. I don’t consider myself qualified to review the musicians who appear on SNL, unless they make the mistake of appearing in sketches. I’ll say this much: Bruno Mars and Justin Timberlake were fun as hell, and Kanye West scared the crap out of me… but the Alabama Shakes absolutely killed it.

Cut from Dress. Since a large number of you watch SNL sketches on Hulu anyways, it’s probably worth mentioning the dress rehearsal sketches that for whatever reason didn’t make it into the live broadcast. Bill Hader and Fred Armisen cracking each other up as doormen Renaldo and Alexei was a lot of fun, and Martin Short got plenty of laughs in Malibu High, but Zach Galifianakis’ Kanish, a 70s detective show with a closing-credits gag, was the cut that seemed the most unfair.

Best Sketches. Excluding ones already mentioned above, below are five sketches that I particularly loved this season:

Host. We’ve seen greater polarity in terms of host quality this season – either they’ve been very good, like Seth MacFarlane, Anne Hathaway, Martin Short, Christoph Waltz, Melissa McCarthy, Zach Galifianakis, and Ben Affleck, or very bad, like Daniel Craig, Jeremy Renner, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Lawrence, Adam Levine, and Justin Bieber. There were a few surprises in there, with Louis CK, Bruno Mars, and Kevin Hart proving to be better than expected, and highly anticipated hosts like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Justin Timberlake, Kristen Wiig performing admirably but presiding over less-than-stellar episodes. Christoph Waltz, in particular, impressed me with his showmanship, while Melissa McCarthy delivered yet another powerhouse performance. But no host played the SNL instrument so deftly as Seth MacFarlane, who silenced the haters with Baldwin-esque range and killer timing, resulting in one of the finest season premieres SNL has ever seen.

Rookie of the Year. After the show picked up no new cast members between seasons 36 and 37, Season 38 premiered with three newbies from Chicago’s improv and sketch scene – Aidy Bryant, Tim Robinson, and Cecily Strong – as well as one holdover from the end of the previous season, Kate McKinnon, who came to SNL by way of UCB-NY and Logo’s Big Gay Sketch Show. Of those four, McKinnon and Strong have received the most attention for their character work, while Bryant and Robinson have struggled to make an impression (which is often the case for first-year cast members). And while Kate McKinnon has won over audiences with her wide-eyed, all-in style, Cecily Strong has stood out as a true utility player in the cast, capable of teaming up with other cast members (Girlfriends Talk Show, Pornstar Commercial), playing supportive roles (deaf translator Lydia Callis, Rachel Maddow), and carrying bits on her own (Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With, Mimi Morales). And in Strong’s variety of roles, she has rarely missed, giving her one of the strongest first seasons we’ve seen on SNL in years.

MVP. Of course, it’s easy to make a case here for Bill Hader, who received the most amount of screen time of the cast members by playing all sorts of roles: political figures like John Boehner and James Carville, celebrities like Al Pacino and Clint Eastwood, eerily dark game show hosts, and pretty much any character the writers needed him to play any given week. And that’s not to mention Stefon, who is perhaps the only recurring character in SNL history to never truly gas out. Jason Sudeikis deserves credit as well: his dual roles as Mitt Romney and Joe Biden pretty much carried the season’s political sketches, especially when Jay Pharoah’s Obama wasn’t panning out as we hoped. However, my vote goes to Bobby Moynihan, who jumped from 7th place last season to 2nd place this season in overall screen time, and, with his Drunk Uncle, Chris Christie, Anthony Crispino, and Guy Fieri, seemed to make the most aggressive shift to star status this season. And now that the cast’s stars are moving on to bigger and better things, the show needs a star more than anything else right now.

Episode. I prefer to separate the episode category from host, simply because a great host doesn’t always result in a great episode. Seth MacFarlane’s season premiere gave us the season’s funniest live sketch (Puppet Class), a great Weekend Update segment (Ryan Lochte), and a hilarious 10-to-1 (Amish Spoons). Meanwhile Christoph Waltz’s episode featured one of the season’s best cold opens (Carnival Cruise), a hilarious movie parody (Djesus Uncrossed), and the Alabama Shakes. But those two episodes were far from perfect, each with a few duds that kept them from true greatness. I loved Martin Short’s Christmas special, but with so many musical numbers by Paul McCartney, we didn’t really get to see Short in enough sketches. Ben Affleck’s season finale was golden, but I imagine much of its strength relied on its emotional farewells to Bill Hader and Fred Armisen. That leaves us with Melissa McCarthy’s April 7 episode – a 90-minute character gauntlet by McCarthy, with equally stellar performances by the rest of the cast, giving us no true misses (I still stand by my claim that Million Dollar Wheel would have been a hit in any other episode this season) and a few season highlights: Coach Kelly, Pizza Business, Ham Contest. I know going with an episode carried by a host seems counter-intuitive to my “great host doesn’t always equal great episode” philosophy, but to see a scene-stealer like McCarthy host an episode that still managed to showcase the cast is truly impressive.

What do you think? Any picks you disagree with or sketches I forgot to mention? Which episodes/hosts were your favorites? If you want a more in-depth analysis of each cast member’s contribution this season, check Splitsider tomorrow for my cast break down.

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.

The Best of ‘SNL’ Season 38