SNL returns for its 40th season this Saturday, with host Chris Pratt, musical guest Ariana Grande, and pretty much the same cast – minus a handful of people we rarely saw in sketches anyway. Following a lackluster season, Lorne Michaels is now sticking with the tools he’s got, replacing five departing cast members with only one newcomer – standup Pete Davidson – and promoting writer Michael Che to co-host Weekend Update. Meanwhile, Colin Jost will remain at the desk after taking on the job last February. It’s a conservative approach, compared to last year’s throw-everything-against-the-wall casting strategy, which resulted in a cast so overpopulated that some remained literal faces in the crowd at the season’s end.
Counting its blessings isn’t the worst move for SNL right now. Viewers warmed up to returning cast members during last year’s transitional season, with Taran Killam, Cecily Strong, and (Emmy-nominated) Kate McKinnon emerging as bankable scene-carriers. Meanwhile, the show has been on a hot streak of video content – which now makes up a full third of SNL’s sketches. With Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett staying on board, and the third Good Neighbor alum Nick Rutherford now joining them as a writer, producers appear to be doubling down on this transition. The rotation of Michael Che and Cecily Strong reflects a show carefully evaluating its strengths and how best to use them.
If replacing the late Don Pardo with sound-alike Darrell Hammond is any indication, SNL appears less interested in reinventing the wheel in its 40th season. And maybe that’s a good thing.
Perhaps the biggest SNL news to come out in recent weeks was the promotion of Michael Che to Weekend Update, replacing Cecily Strong. Che has been a writer on the show for the past two seasons, writing sketches like “Black Jeopardy” and “White Christmas.” Last summer, he joined The Daily Show as a correspondent, proving he can be just as effective as a fake newsman as he is as a comedian – a perfect combination for Weekend Update host. Meanwhile, head writer Colin Jost will continue to co-host the news segment, apparently still trying to nail down that Seth Meyers impression.
At first it seemed that SNL replaced the wrong host – a fan-favorite actress losing her spot while the prototypical Harvard Lampoon boy gets to keep his. But ultimately this could be a smart move for the show. For one, Cecily Strong was at her best form in Update characters – like the Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started A Conversation With At A Party – and now she can return to her strong suit. But more importantly, the success of a two-host Weekend Update depends on the chemistry between the pair. Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler bounced off each other like childhood friends. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey represented an SNL with women at the wheel. Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon were the overachiever and class clown stuck doing a presentation together. The Strong-Jost Update was never very clear, but the Jost-Che Update? Something about that seems to work, in theory. Specifically, if SNL can steer into the racial disparity between the two men – as it famously did in 1975 with Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor – the show might actually tap into some provocative commentary. Hopefully that’s something SNL is interested in pursuing with its first-ever black Weekend Update host.
The other big news we’ve heard is that 20-year-old standup Pete Davidson will be joining the cast as a featured player. Like most SNL newcomers, Davidson is a relative unknown, and like most SNL newcomers, we probably won’t see much of him over the next few months. Judging from his sets on Adam Devine’s House Party and Jimmy Kimmel Live, Davidson certainly seems funny – the question is whether he can be funny on SNL… a whole different beast, considering how hilarious actors like Jenny Slate and Tim Robinson struggled to connect with viewers.
In a cast now dominated by improv/sketch performers, standups have seen particularly difficult starts as repertory performers. In the past decade, only three standups have been hired as featured players: Davidson, Jay Pharoah, and Brooks Wheelan. Hopefully Davidson can build relationships with other staff members, avoid writers room politics, and find ways to get air time other than an occasional set during Weekend Update.
Other than the additions of Michael Che and Pete Davidson, the rest of the cast will look exactly the same, minus a few pounds. The load-bearing cast members are all returning, and there’s no reason to believe that Kenan Thompson, Taran Killam, Cecily Strong, and Kate McKinnon will continue to dominate screen time like they did last season. If the reports of this being Thompson’s final season prove correct, we can expect the senior cast member to play an even greater role than usual, the way Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader were sent off in their final years. That’s either great or terrible news in Thompson’s case, depending how you feel about talk show sketches where nothing happens.
Of last season’s freshman class, only Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, and Sasheer Zamata have survived the cut, perhaps because the only ones to carve out a clear niche for themselves. Hopefully with fewer performers sharing roles (12 instead of last season’s 16), they, along with the rest of the cast (the always serviceable Bobby Moynihan, Aidy Bryant, Vanessa Bayer, and Jay Pharoah), will be given more room to showcase themselves.
While the cast has seen relatively few changes, the writers room has experienced quite the shakeup, apparently. Alison Rich, Natasha Rothwell, Streeter Seidell, Jeremy Beiler, and Nick Rutherford have joined the staff, while Paula Pell, Mike O’Brien, Marika Sawyer, Leslie Jones, and LaKendra Tookes are no longer listed as full-time writers. Firm details about SNL writers (credits for particular sketches, who exactly is on staff each week, etc.) are always tough to come by due to the amount of collaboration going into the pieces and the short-term contracts writers are often signed into. So it’s not clear whether those departing will be gone from the show permanently.
Despite the personnel changes, the tone of the sketches likely won’t change too much. The room will still be run by Colin Jost, Rob Klein and Bryan Tucker, with longtime writers like Steve Higgins, James Anderson, and John Solomon still around to write those aforementioned Kenan Thompson talk show sketches we all love so much. Thankfully, SNL has continued to invest in its video output, bringing in a former CollegeHumor Editor-in-Chief (Seidell) and the third member of Good Neighbor (Rutherford) to join a well oiled film team that includes pros like Rhys Thomas, Matt & Oz, Alex Buono, Sarah Schneider, Chris Kelly, and Dave McCary.
Regardless of where you stand on the staffing changes, SNL producers have certainly nailed the Season 40 host bookings so far. Chris Pratt will host this weekend’s season premiere, followed by Sarah Silverman on Oct. 4, Bill Hader on Oct. 11, and Jim Carrey sometime later in the fall. With so many hosts with actual comedy backgrounds, this season’s schedule is already a vast improvement from a year ago, when Tina Fey’s season premiere was followed with Miley Cyrus and Bruce Willis. And any season that features Parks & Rec supporting actors and opens the door to more Stefon is likely to be a good one.
Of course, this is an anniversary year, and there’s nothing SNL does better than celebrate SNL. And since 90 minutes of self-congratulation isn’t nearly enough, the show has a three-hour 40th anniversary special planned for Feb. 15, 2015, where we’ll all ponder the cultural impact of “Dick In A Box” and try not to think about how rough Dan Aykroyd looks. And if that still isn’t enough, before each new episode, NBC will re-air a previous season’s Emmy-submission episode, offering us surreal glimpses into the past, like when Jimmy Fallon once performed song parodies on late night television.
So a new Weekend Update co-host, a promising lineup of hosts, and a smaller cast that may actually have a chance to show off its talent. Zero episodes in, and Season 40 is already off to a better start than last year.