This season on SNL, it was harder than usual to pinpoint the best sketches. It’s not that it was that bad — if anything, I think it’s a bit more consistent than last year. No, it just felt like a lot of sketches were really average. The premises would be strong and the execution would be there, but overall, there was a flatness. Many sketches didn’t feel like they found laughs beyond the initial concept. So, when making this list, I tried to find sketches that, well, did. Here are the best sketches from Saturday Night Live season 43.
When it aired, “Welcome to Hell,” which was written by Anna Drezen, Sudi Green, Aidy Bryant, Kate McKinnon, and Cecily Strong, was properly lauded for responding with heavy condescension to a specific brand of aww-shucks incredulousness that some men employed when hearing about how widespread sexual misconduct is in our society. But in the months since, I find myself watching it over and over again — partly because the song is so damn catchy, but mostly because all the performances are so specific and funny. They all have their own special way of walking the line of ironic and committed. It’s the show’s best political sketch of the year.
There was more breaking than normal this season. Essentially, in every episode, at least one person broke. And it’s a bit of a bummer. SNL, though it always had an amount of it, was created to be the response to the mugging of the previous generation of sketch comedy. That said, this sketch brings me so much joy that I not only don’t mind Larry David not being able to keep it together, I love it. It’s just such a big, silly swing of a sketch. Also, I do think it somewhat works in the world of the sketch, in that here is an older man, newly exposed to gay club culture and a lot of terms he never heard before, let alone said, played by an older man who is essentially in the same situation by being in the sketch.
One more thing: Cecily Strong. She is a G.D. revelation in this sketch, which she also co-wrote with James Anderson and Julio Torres. Along with Kenan Thompson (who should be nominated for an Emmy this year), Strong was the MVP of the season for me. She can do big characters like this, but, as you’ll see throughout the list, she’s an all-time great at getting laughs while playing the straight man. She is in eight of the top ten sketches, three of which she co-wrote. This isn’t a coincidence.
Not the most dynamic sketch on the list. No one moves, and nothing really happens to the characters. That said, the script is so tight, and the performances are so good. Structurally, essentially once the premise starts, it’s all laugh lines. And then it gets heightened that much more with each performer executing such hilarious, perfect choices. Future Emmy nominee (if there is any justice in this world) Kenan Thompson’s character in particular feels well-drawn. In total, you get a sketch that is deeply weird but really grounded, super dark but really silly. It feels like a perfect middle point of its two writers, James Anderson and Julio Torres.
Outside the political cold opens and “Weekend Update,” there weren’t a lot of impressions this season. Which is a bit weird when you think of the history of the show. Take “Friendos,” which in another world could’ve been “Migos Goes to Therapy.” Written by Chris Redd, Gary Richardson, and Will Stephen, the sketch forgoes direct impressions, instead using the vocabulary of Migos’ aesthetic to get to something more interesting and ridiculous. And the acting! Everything Kenan, who should be nominated for an Emmy this year, does is so funny, but in particular I’m obsessed with his line readings when he says “I guess I just assume y’all like pity me, like y’all don’t really want me around” and Donald Glover responds “Naaah, you’re funny.” Speaking of funny, this sketch is funny.
“Sitcom Reboot” was a sketch John Mulaney wrote with Marika Sawyer and Simon Rich many years ago when they were working together on the show. It never got past the table read. When Mulaney was asked to host, he told me in a recent episode of my podcast, they realized they could add some intro about sitcom reboots to make it seem topical enough to get on air. And it worked! The dark observation about body-switching movies is funny enough, but how it escalates as we learn more about this terrible, terrible man is what makes it once of the best sketches of the year. The influences list, the bit about not doing the voice but then doing the voice, the fact that he stared at her with no expression while the clips play, the line about who played the little boy: This thing is packed with great jokes.
Revisiting sketches and characters, as SNL is known for doing, is sometimes frustrating to watch. You can feel the writers wanting to improve on the previous installment and then see them inevitably fall short. The Lonely Island, however, has a decent track record of being able to revisit and improve. (When the SNL staff ranked their favorite Digital Short, they chose a sequel.) Which is to say “Natalie’s Rap 2” is so much better than the original. And it’s better because, as I wrote about before Popstar, Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone have gotten better at making it clearer that what should be funny isn’t the disconnect of who is rapping but what they are saying. Unlike the first one, where hypothetically it’s supposed to be funny just seeing Natalie Portman rap incredibly dirty and aggressive lines, the sequel has jokes and actual subversion of how certain things are discussed in shallow junket interviews. And then the prequels part: Brava! Unlike what I complained about in the intro, they were able to find laughs beyond just having a funny-enough premise.
Sometimes John Mulaney can’t get over things. If you look close enough, there are observations that will cut in and out of a lot of his work. The fact that there are diners that serve lobster was one such observation. Years ago when he was writer at SNL, he and Colin Jost tried to write a sketch about it, then it appeared as a joke in Oh, Hello on Broadway. But it wasn’t enough! When given a chance to host SNL, Mulaney tried to get “Diner Lobster” on air, and like “Switcheroo,” it worked! What a big, stupid sketch this is. Just every little detail is so big and stupid. The daughter is named Clawsette, for God’s sake. The sketch has that “let’s put on a show” feeling that is good for SNL to have, especially right now when there are people taking it so seriously. Oh, you want the show to save the republic? It won’t. But here’s a lobster with a beard singing Les Mis. Thompson should be nominated for an Emmy for this sketch and other things he did this year.
From what I heard, when Ryan Gosling came in Monday night to hear ideas from the writers, he specifically wanted to meet and work with Julio Torres. And boy did he get a Julio Torres sketch — melodramatic, based on a minute observation about design, and meticulous in the specificity of its pop-culture parody. Yes, it’s a ridiculously small observation to build a sketch around, but what makes it work is how well it plays with tropes of a type of cerebral indie suspense thriller that you didn’t realize was a type of movie until they aped it so perfectly. I’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating: It is incredibly rare for a writer at SNL to be this recognizable just based on the tone of the piece. Add “Papyrus” to the Julio Torres best-of.
Escalation is sort of sketch-writing 101. You establish what is supposed to be funny and then you try to heighten the intensity, absurdity, stupidity, and/or criticism as the sketch continues. This sketch, written by Steven Castillo and Will Stephen, starts off pleasant enough, but once the game is established it’s a crescendo, building to two glasses of water being thrown in someone’s face. There were many strong hosts this season, but few felt like they elevated material like Sterling K. Brown. It’s easier to be crazy when you play a person that never actually would exist in the real world, but Brown was able to push seemingly everyday folks to the absurd. Praise, Shrek.
Especially because the show is filmed in front of a live audience, SNL sketches tend to get to the point really quickly; the twist happens in the first 45 seconds and then the rest of the sketch explores it. “Sitcom Reboot” is a pretty clear example of this. There aren’t any rules about these things, just orthodoxies. Sometimes a sketch will build to a big twist in the middle — for example, if the twist is super surprising (like “Farewell Mr. Bunting”). The problem, however, is then you have half of a sketch (the first half!) that is completely laugh-less. “’80s Music Video,” written by Cecily Strong with James Anderson and Kent Sublette, doesn’t have that problem. The first half is filled with so many weird, funny details, and then, in the second half, after you learn he has the wrong woman, the recontextualization of those details is funny in a completely different way. As a result, there are just so many different things to enjoy about the sketch. Not to mention, when you learn it’s based on a real video, there is an added level. It’s ambitious, but the ambition only accentuates the jokes. It’s the best sketch of the season. And all three performers deserve to be nominated for an Emmy. Not just for this sketch — the Emmys doesn’t do that — you know, just generally. Especially Kenan Thompson, who, if you haven’t heard, I think really deserves to be nominated for an Emmy this year.
Honorable Mention: “Chantrix,” “Za,” “Black Jeopardy,” “Tournament Fighter,” “Science Show,” “Rap History,” “St. Patrick’s Day,” “My Little Step Children,” “The Race,” “The Dolphin Who Learned to Speak,” “Customer Service.”