With SNL’s 39th season coming to a close, we’re taking a look at the past season with a series of posts examining the highs, lows, and other memorable moments from the past eight months. Here we recall some of our favorite sketches from the season – both live sketches and videos.
Season 39 of SNL certainly hasn’t been the most popular among viewers, with its first half bogged down with criticism over the lack of diversity in the cast, and its second half attacked (often unfairly) for uneven writing under new head writer Colin Jost. Even though the show hired Sasheer Zamata (along with two black female writers), and the script quality under Jost has more or less remained on par with Seth Meyers’ room, viewers remain underwhelmed, with ratings down 18% from last season, and an ugly backlash after Leslie Jones’ routine. The truth is, after such a massive cast turnover, Season 39 was always going to be a rebuilding year, no matter what safeguards SNL tried to take. Just as it’s taking time for fans to fall in love with new cast members, so it takes time for writers to acclimate themselves within the new behind-the-scenes pecking order, which is why that playful chemistry between actors and writers that defined past seasons seems so rare right now.
As we compile this season’s best sketches – 12 pretaped videos and 12 live scenes, in chronological order – the videos’ superiority becomes pretty obvious. As I mentioned in my article about the show’s ”live problem,” SNL’s impressive team of directors and editors (led by Rhys Thomas) has been the only consistent element throughout this transitional season, producing weekly short films that display a comedic precision the increasingly safe and sluggish live sketches have struggled to keep pace with. Indeed, while choosing the 12 best videos left nearly as many honorable mentions, the second list reads more like “the 12 good live sketches” from this season.
That said, anyone who has been watching regularly knows there have still been plenty of hilarious moments from Season 39. And while they may not have reached the heights of last season’s “Louie Lincoln” or “Darrell’s House,” they’re at least proof that the show can still make us laugh.
Girls Promo. From the season premiere, this well executed parody of Lena Dunham’s HBO series received the praise of the star herself, with newcomer Noel Wells’ excellent impression and Tina Fey’s Albanian “girl” Blerta, who cleverly mocked the show’s First World fixation.
Beer Pong. Among the first (and best) Good Neighbor videos to run on the show was this setup with Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett as blase frat bros explaining the absurdly complex house rules to a game of beer pong – whistling your favorite song, designing a roller coaster, posing for a baseball card picture.
Wes Anderson Horror Film. The best thing to come out of October’s Edward Norton episode (a very awkwardly Caucasian night that aired right as the season’s diversity crisis reached a boiling point) was this perfect tribute to the eccentric whimsy of auteur filmmaker Wes Anderson, which, as Alex Buono (director of photography) detailed in his making-of blog post, elevated SNL’s production process to a whole new level.
Ice Cream. Another enjoyable Good Neighbor-style video featured Kyle Mooney as an ice cream guy who slips into an existential coma when a customer makes a simple joke.
Blockbusters. After Blockbuster Video officially closed its doors in November, SNL came out with this beautifully shot and hauntingly scored short film following depressed ex-employees as they wander the earth until they eventually stumble upon a surreal, cult-ish refuge.
Twin Bed. While SNL’s music videos this season have yet to reattain the hit-after-hit consistency of the Lonely Island era, this catchy single by the women of the cast about the sexiness of doing it in your childhood bedroom during the holidays gave us some of the funniest images of the year.
Me Trailer. This shot-for-shot parody of the trailer for Spike Jonze’s Oscar-winning film Her (not to be confused with one of the million “Him” videos the Internet made) saw Jonah Hill as a shy man who falls in love with his own voice – a possibility so plausible it’s a little surprising Jonze’s movie didn’t address it.
Bird Bible. SNL’s fake commercials are so ingrained into its format, and often so simple in concept, that they begin to fade from our memories the moment they end. Not so for this bizarre ad for a bible depicting religious historical figures as birds (the only video this season to re-air in a later episode after its initial run), which featured a blend of absurd avian imagery and enjoyable deliveries by Mike O’Brien and Kate McKinnon as soulless Christian parents.
Ooh Child. Some of the best moments on SNL this year were built around specific songs that magically established a mood, just to subvert it moments later. Case in point, this slow-burn short with Lena Dunham trying to sing along to The Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh Child” during a roadtrip, only to be thwarted by the car’s navigation commands. Bonus points for the solid twist out.
Dyke & Fats. Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant revealed themselves to be hilariously progressive in this stereotype-fueled 70s buddy cop show, which honestly wouldn’t make the worst SNL spinoff movie.
The Beygency. The one saving grace of the Andrew Garfield episode was this trailer for an Adjustment Bureau-style conspiracy thriller starring Garfield as a man on the run for his life after making one innocent criticism about Beyonce. (Luckily, Queen B approved.)
When Will the Bass Drop? While SNL didn’t need The Lonely Island to swoop back in to make another great digital short (this season has proved that the current film team has managed just fine without them), none of us were complaining at this thrilling case study in heightening, which featured just the right amount ecstasy-driven surrealism and over-the-top violence.
Mornin’ Miami. Miley Cyrus’ episode is one we’d rather forget, but at least it launched the run of this amusing recurring sketch in which dead-inside morning news hosts record bizarre promos, which came back again in the Drake episode and a third time in the dress rehearsal for the Charlize Theron episode.
NASA Shutdown Cold Open. One of the strongest of the creative cold opens from the season’s first half was this scene that cleverly contextualized the government shutdown within the popular Gravity film setup, with astronauts trapped in space and no one manning mission control except a janitor.
Michelle Obama Cold Open. SNL made an uncharacteristically bold move with a cold open that turned its critical eye toward itself, using Kerry Washington to mock the show’s whitewashed cast by scrambling to play Michelle Obama, Oprah, and Beyonce, all in one scene. The piece included a tongue-in-cheek promise from the producers to fix the situation unless they fell in love with another white guy first, six Matthew McConaugheys, and the Rev. Al Sharpton walking out to say this sketch taught us nothing. And while some unconvinced viewers saw this as an attempt by the show to sweep its diversity problem under the rug, Kerry Washington’s excellent performance and the eventual hiring of three black women in January made this cold open one of the most memorable live moments on SNL in years.
Olya Povlatsky. Kate McKinnon’s character work has positioned her as a load-bearing pillar in the cast, with her numerous Weekend Update appearances as proof. The hardest hitting has been the miserable Russian woman Olya, who originally appeared last season but whose tales of woe came back just in time for the much scrutinized living conditions at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Jebidiah Atkinson. The best new character of this season has been Taran Killam’s Jebediah Atkinson, an 1860s newspaper critic who slammed the Gettysburg Address and has now extended his snarky one-liners to all speeches of history and aspects of pop culture. Admittedly Jebediah has lost a little steam since his first appearance in the Lady Gaga episode, but the amount of fun Killam seems to have with the character has made the bit an ongoing success for Weekend Update.
Baby Boss. Beck Bennett has managed to stand out among the numerous new cast members, both for his knack for playing into the awkward humor of the Good Neighbor videos, as well as his ability to command the stage during live sketches – specifically, as a powerful CEO who has the body of a baby.
Your Love. The most pure-fun moment of the season came during the surprisingly-good Josh Hutcherson episode, in which the cast weaved the lyrics of The Outfield’s “Your Love” into a cheesy 80s rom-com scene. (Watch the video here.)
Baby, It’s Cold Outside. One of the few sketches from Jimmy Fallon’s episode that didn’t pair him up with Justin Timberlake was this satisfying twist on the notoriously rapey holiday tune, with Cecily Strong as a postcoital clinger.
Women’s Group. In yet another showcase of the cast’s females, Melissa McCarthy played a woman who upends a chill women’s group with her violent plans to avenge her father’s death.
Black Jeopardy. Michael Che’s script gave us one of the edgiest takes on race we saw on SNL all season, with Louis CK as a very white contestant on a very black version of a very white game show. While some were offended, the rest were relieved SNL has emerged from the dark tunnel of controversy better equipped to approach a sensitive subject matter.
Blue River Dog Food. In a live show in which actors often seem to, at best, merely hit their marks and recite recently rewritten lines, straight-up acting in scenes often goes overlooked. This gradually intensifying argument about dog food was a striking exception, with Cecily Strong and Seth Rogen’s impressive commitment paying off in dividends.
Cat Commercial. The one indisputably hilarious moment from a disputably successful episode featured Charlize Theron and Kate McKinnon as (disputably) lesbian cat lovers in an infomercial for a pet adoption agency, giving us a wonderful clash of context between adorable mewing kittens and darkly personifying descriptions.