What to Look Forward to in ‘SNL’ Season 39

Season 39 of SNL kicks off this Saturday night with Tina Fey, Arcade Fire, and a mouthful of new names for Don Pardo to read off in the opening credits. After several seasons of little turnover, the cast is experiencing a major upheaval, with six – six! – new cast members to replace the departed Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, and Fred Armisen. This is the largest staff hire in 18 years, tying the 1995-1996 season’s addition of Jim Breuer, Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, David Koechner, Cheri Oteri, and Nancy Walls. After the show’s dismal 1994-1995 season, which saw near cancellation and the firing/resignation of 12 cast members, those six were seen as the poster children of SNL’s next era and tasked with bringing the show back from the brink.

Luckily for the 2013 freshmen, the stakes aren’t nearly as high. Recent seasons’ solid ratings, critical acclaim, and evergreen cultural relevancy have provided the new repertory players with breathing room to acclimate themselves with viewers and find their footing without the fear of seeing the death of one of the greatest TV comedy institutions of all time. Yes, they will face the same scrutiny and growing pains suffered by all newcomers, but should any of them fail to assimilate with the show’s notoriously demanding work environment, the only ones they’ll be letting down is themselves. Heck, that ain’t so bad!

An exciting new class, along with Cecily Strong moving to the Weekend Update desk and some interesting additions to the writing and production staff, give us plenty of reasons to look forward to SNL Season 39… even as viewers question what the show will look like in the absence of its three lead males, as well as head writer Seth Meyers, who in December will move on to a dramatically different career of telling desk jokes in a suit in a 30 Rock studio. How will we even recognize him?

New Cast Members. Joining the cast is Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, Noël Wells, John Milhiser, Mike O’Brien, and Brooks Wheelan. O’Brien has been a writer on the show since 2009 and has made several cameos in sketches. The other five hail from the Los Angeles comedy scene: Mooney and Bennett are members of popular LA sketch group Good Neighbor, Wells and Milhiser are performers from the UCB-LA theater, and Wheelan is a comedian who was hired after opening for Good Neighbor in the group’s showcase for SNL producers. For more background, check out our profiles of each featured player.

The picks have been met with the typical buzz of excitement from fans, although many have lamented the absence of a black female, Latino, or Asian-American in the group. O’Brien’s four seasons as a writer (not to mention his several years performing improv and sketch in Chicago before that) ought to make for a smooth transition into the cast, but given how short the incubation period has been for rookies like Cecily Strong, the new go-to cast member could be anyone. Ultimately, their success will be determined not by how neatly they fill the voids left by Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, and Fred Armisen, but by how quickly they find their own voices on the show, develop relationships with the writers, connect with viewers, and fix Lorne a scotch. So long as none of them drops the F-bomb, they should be just fine.

Cecily Strong co-hosting Weekend Update. With the announcement of the new cast members came the news that Cecily Strong will join Seth Meyers as a co-host of Weekend Update, presumably on deck to take over when Meyers leaves for Late Night midseason. Last season, we lobbied for individuals like John Mulaney and Vanessa Bayer for the gig, but Strong seems like a wise choice: her poised delivery and sharp timing made her characters big hits with viewers, and her “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party” was one of the highlights of the news segment. From a viewer’s perspective, Strong wasted no time calibrating to SNL’s style and rhythm – a process that takes most cast members years to complete. Hopefully Strong’s swagger will carry her through the gauntlet of Weekend Update, which is, for many viewers, the face of the show.

Good Neighbor. One of the most exciting developments with the staff changes has been the casting of Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett from Good Neighbor (as well as the hiring of the group’s Dave McCary as a director). Good Neighbor’s videos have racked up millions of views online and made them staples of the LA comedy scene – not to mention launched their careers, with Mooney making appearances on Parks & Recreation and Sports Show with Norm MacDonald, and Bennett’s AT&T campaign spot. Among their fans are up-and-coming director Steven Spielberg and (according to Bill Hader) Andy Samberg and Jorma Taccone – whose own online video popularity as the LA sketch group The Lonely Island got them hired on SNL eight years ago. The digital shorts made by Samberg, Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer were wildly popular and brought a whole new generation of fans to the show, and producers have been searching for ways to fill the void created when they left. Tapping another three-man LA sketch group with a large online presence seems like an obvious move to do just that.

So will Good Neighbor become the next Lonely Island on SNL? Despite the similarities between the groups, when it comes to comedic sensibility, the Lonely Island and Good Neighbor are cut from different cloths. The Lonely Island emerged in the early days of online comedy videos, when spectacle and shock value were sufficient to stand out in a relatively sparse crowd. Indeed, Samberg and co.’s “Lazy Sunday” SNL digital short was one of the first viral hits on YouTube. Meanwhile, Good Neighbor is a product of the recent era, when everyone has a channel on YouTube and Funny or Die, and online comedy as a whole has grown more sophisticated and self-aware. Much of the comedy in Good Neighbor’s videos derives from the presentation, whether in the form of intentionally sloppy editing or absurd offscreen voices. Will these post-YouTube framing gags play in the multicam live variety show context of SNL? Was it really even Lonely Island’s “web weirdness” that made them so popular, or was it their well-produced, catchy, funny music videos like “Dick in a Box” and “I’m On A Boat,” and if so, will Good Neighbor follow in their footsteps?

Regardless of how it plays out, it’s pretty exciting that a group as funny as Good Neighbor is partnering up with SNL, and we can’t wait to see what they come up with when they have SNL’s budget and production crew at their disposal.

New Writers. In addition to new cast members, SNL has made some changes to its writing staff. Colin Jost and Rob Klein will take over as head writers in anticipation for Seth Meyers’ departure, and longtime off-and-on writers room veteran James Downey has left the show. Meanwhile, joining the staff will be Tim Robinson, a freshman performer from last season who has been rotated out of the cast. Anyone who has seen Robinson perform – either on his home stages in Chicago or while guesting at UCB in New York – can tell you he is easily one of the most explosive live performers in the country. Thankfully for us, despite Robinson not quite connecting with viewers as quickly as his fellow newcomers last season, SNL has kept him on the payroll, so his talent will still be present on the show. Bill Hader had some kind words for Robinson’s writing skills in an interview with the Huffington Post last July:

You know who’s great? Tim Robinson is really fucking funny – I know because I’ve seen him on Wednesday at the table read. … He wrote a thing for Zach Galifianakis that is, for me, the only time in my life where I’ve ever fallen out of my seat laughing at a table read. … It had to do with a lawyer and it had to do with a briefcase. And it was the hardest I’ve ever laughed in my life. At that table read. Of everybody who’s been at a table read, I fell on the floor and said, “I’m going to throw up.”

Also joining the staff will be very funny comedian Michael Che, who wrote for five episodes last season and has now been hired full time, Chicago performer Claire Mulaney (John Mulaney’s sister), and LA comedian Mikey Day, whose time with Taran Killam on Wild’n Out should come to use here. Though the writers’ direct impact on the upcoming season will be less visible – other than the occasional tweet or interview, we have no way of knowing which writers are behind which sketches – it’s interesting to know that these creative minds will be influencing the show.

Returning Cast. While the newcomers struggle to find their footing, holding down the fort will be the remaining rank and file: Vanessa Bayer, Aidy Bryant, Taran Killam, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Moynihan, Nasim Pedrad, Jay Pharoah, Cecily Strong, and Kenan Thompson. With Strong at the Update desk, we wouldn’t be surprised if the bulk of the roles go to Killam and Moynihan during this transitional phase. The two proved themselves to be reliable workhorses in sketches for the past few seasons, and viewers have finally embraced them as the stars they are. And with Hader, Sudeikis, and Armisen gone, and Seth Meyers with a foot out the door, some bankable stars are in high demand at SNL.

Hosts. Only a few hosts have been announced for Season 39, and so far it’s a mixed bag. Tina Fey will host the season premiere this weekend with musical guest Arcade Fire, and the SNL alum always brings her A-game. But the following week will be Miley Cyrus pulling double duty as host and musical guest. In addition to our suffering from Miley-overload these days, the singer’s first stint as host in 2011 resulted in one of our least favorite episodes of Season 37. The week after will feature Bruce Willis hosting with musical guest Katy Perry. The action star has been praised for his comedic turns in the Die Hard movies; then again, action star hosts had a poor track record last season (see: Daniel Craig, Jeremy Renner, Jamie Foxx).

Hosts we’d like to see? Benedict Cumberbatch seems like a fitting choice, considering he has been in everything else (Star Trek: Into Darkness, 12 Years a Slave, The Fifth Estate, August: Osage County, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug), and the fact that he has a name that already sounds like a sketch character. It has similarly been a big year for leading males Hugh Jackman and Bryan Cranston, both of whom are proven multi-talents. Neil Patrick Harris was on our list of desired hosts last season, and after hosting the Tony’s and Emmy’s, and his moving back to New York following wrapping How I Met Your Mother, things are lining up for an NPH comeback. And should Brooklyn Nine-Nine become a hit – and we hope it does – we’d love to see Andy Samberg return to host.

What are you looking forward to this season? Any predictions of how the new cast members will pan out, or who the hosts will be? Can we expect any recent alums to make cameos? And how many of you viewers who “stopped watching SNL years ago when Murray and Belushi left” will stop watching it again?

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.

What to Look Forward to in ‘SNL’ Season 39