Saturday Night Live weathered the year in the same way many of the rest of us did: distracted and scattered, with moments of incisive clarity and manic release. It’s taken time, but the shock of Trump’s moment has transformed into the harrowing reality of Trump’s era. As a result, the jolt that inspired political sketches in 2016 and 2017 was gone. The absence of former head writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider sunk in, and even Alec Baldwin performed his pouty, boorish Trump by rote. (All of the Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro cameos weren’t going to make up the deficit.) Still, as it always does, SNL found room to play. The best sketches of the year weren’t the biggest and flashiest, but there’s still a little something on the list for all tastes: character portraits, odd writerly obsessions writ large, physical comedy, salient polemics, and gross-out gags that Standards probably had a hard time green-lighting.
Two aspects make this sketch noteworthy: one, the antic commitment of two real-world friends playing adolescent brothers, and two, Liev Schreiber with a hose. The impetus for the scene is simple — a mom and dad (Strong and Schreiber) ask their two rambunctious boys downstairs to meet the neighbors. There’s no huge reveal, no unbelievable twists, it’s just Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney acting like sugar-addled children ready to rip one another’s faces off as they vie for attention. The verve with which Bennett and Mooney play and dance and pad up the stairs on all fours is pretty irresistible. (And whoever chose the boys’ costumes — tighty-whities under long T-shirts featuring Looney Tunes characters in Rasta garb — deserves a special nod of appreciation.) Schreiber, for his part, was a surprisingly good host. Though this dad installed a hose in his house to spray his unruly boys, Schreiber played him with a great, understated way that he applied to all of the oddballs he was given.
9. Jail Cellmate
To anyone other than his accusers, it might feel like Bill Cosby’s fall came about overnight. Now more hamburger meat than sacred cow, it’s easy for hack comics to name-check the Cos as a synonym for “monster.” Writing good comedy about the former Everyman dad, however, remains a tricky thing. In this sketch, a newly jailed man (Seth Meyers) faces the cold comfort of having a wise man, who turns out to be Cosby (Kenan Thompson), as a cellmate. It’s soon apparent that Cosby’s mind is far from the horrific acts that put him in jail. Yes, he’s living in a fantasy world of Cosby Show–style hoagies and a turtle he believes is Quincy Jones. Ever the self-appointed moral compass for young black men, he still believes fellow inmates’ troubles began because they wore pants “around the B-U-T-T.” Thompson has done an excellent Cosby for years, but never has there been reason to employ the impression for anything other than flattery. There’s definitely some moralizing and a lame Woody Allen joke, but in all the major ways, this sketch manages to maneuver through a crowded minefield and score laughs, too.
Though it may not be the funniest sketch on the list, this one earns goodwill by going the extra mile. SNL does the weirdo-at-dinner sketch all the time, but this doubles up on weirdos and bucks formula more than once. Plus, there’s that niggling question that inspires this sketch: Why aren’t there any songs about Thanksgiving? The aforementioned weirdos, played by Steve Carell and Cecily Strong, recall just such a song. It’s got pumpkin pie and a magical connection between two lonely people, one of whom is a shy man with erectile dysfunction. “You would know it if you heard the music,” the weirdo lady says, before she and the weirdo man find a keyboard in the closet and begin to sing the peppy jam. Where most sketches would simply make the average citizens more and more uncomfortable with the weirdos, this one has all of them join exuberantly in song. The last moment, which involves a stabbing, some theft, and lost love, is another great twist. The attention to detail and the playful nature of the structure really make this one a winner.
7. Girlfriends Game Night
More than an act of lap sex, it’s a grounded performance and an out-of-control wheelchair that set this sketch apart. When friends (including Aidy Bryant, Heidi Gardner, and Melissa Villaseñor) gather to play Uno, their cohort Jeannie (Cecily Strong) brings her oooold, wheelchair-bound beau, Horace (Bill Hader). Horace calls out, “It’s here!” when his Cialis kicks in, and to increase her chances of conceiving, Jeannie mounts him. To keep her friends from grimacing, she drops a “courtesy blanket” on her lap. As Horace, Hader does what he does well — a bit of crafty mugging, an otherworldly voice borrowed from some ancient gnome of yore — but it’s Strong who really makes this over-the-top conceit land. Her practicality and no-nonsense attitude leave no room for the audience to wonder why she’s chosen this relic as a partner, or dwell on what’s happening just under a thin layer of wool. As Strong keeps things real, Hader’s use of the electric wheelchair ups the chaos. Everyone gets the giggles as he rams into tables and shoves ladies’ chairs across the room. It’s perfectly unsettling fun.
6. ’80s Music Video
This sketch of vengeance gone very, very awry is one of several great bits from Donald Glover’s spring hosting gig. Over a bed of twinkling keyboards and some drum machines, Raz P. Berry (Glover) croons about witnessing his lover’s infidelity before marching into a restaurant to expose her. He confesses all the terrible things he’s done since his discovery, including stuffing her expensive jewelry up his butt and nearly cutting his penis off (though he ultimately “passed out just holding the knife”). While it’s not essential to know Oran “Juice” Jones’s infamous video “The Rain” to enjoy SNL’s distinctly untimely parody of the same, it really enhances the experience. Particulars including the jewelry, credit cards, and even the Rambo reference are clever mutations of details lifted directly from the source material. Once Raz learns his jealousy and rage are due to a case of mistaken identity, the defeated singer shimmies into the night — very carefully, so as not to disturb the ass jewelry.
5. Revolutionary War
At heart, this ensemble sketch is about smug fandom — but, oh, the period clothing it wears. It’s 1775, and American colonists gather in Philadelphia to ponder the future of their relationship with the British. A group of “patriots” from New England, including host Natalie Portman and Rachel Dratch, strut in while boasting about “captain Thomas Brady” and their victory at Bunker Hill. Without directly referencing Super Bowl LII, a Philly delegation led by Tina Fey challenges the New Englanders while likening themselves to swift and deadly “iggles.” Whether SNL fans have encountered noxious Patriots and Eagles fans, or simply the phenomenon of grousing about noxious Patriots and Eagles fans, the sketch still hits. It’s a huge mob scene, and the accents are all over the place, but the cast is charged up and having a ball. The writing is also a perfect example of how to map one idea onto a different (but parallel) set of circumstances.
This spot on the list could easily have gone to another to another musical short imagined by Chris Redd and writers including including Gary Richardson and Will Stephen — e.g. the club hit about consent, “Permission,” or the environmentally friendly “Trees” — but the Migos parody “Friendos,” exhibited a real combination of flash, style, and heart. The premise is this: Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff go to therapy. (THERAPY!) As the trio revisits a session about an “ice-cream-colored” Lambo (LAMBO!) and neglected friendship, their song plays the signature sound of Migos down to Takeoff’s enthusiastic little chirps and echoes (ECHOES!). Migos enjoys a breakthrough and a group hug thanks to Dr. Angela Adelson, who also keeps the guys in check. “Instead of talking, bitch, how about you listen?” she says after one of Offset’s impatient interjections. Redd, Donald Glover, and Kenan Thompson play really well together, and Cecily Strong once again scores laughs as the straight person.
3. Career Day
More than Adam Sackler, more than Kylo Ren, oil baron Abraham H. Parnassus feels like the role Adam Driver was born to play. Watching “Career Day,” there’s a sense that, underneath all of Driver’s silent glowering, this scene-stealing juggernaut has always been waiting to grind his enemies’ bones into the dirt. Written by freshman writer Eli Coyote Mandel during his first week on the show, the sketch is a five-minute-long character centerpiece. Kids sit in a classroom, enduring lectures about their parents’ respective professions, until this ancient, unhinged man (and father of weakling boy Mordecai, played by Pete Davidson) howls about sucking oil from Mother Earth’s “teat” and his nemesis H.R. Pickens. Then Parnassus illustrates a point about the strong and the meek by violently impaling a dead bird with his cane. Driver’s scenery chewing sends this one right over the top. This year, I also really loved Kate McKinnon’s one-woman show “Teacher Fell Down,” but it’s not on this list as it just shared too many similarities with “Career Day.”
2. Black Jeopardy with Chadwick Boseman
Game-show sketches are an easy go-to for SNL writers. They have a built-in structure with a clean arc, room to stuff in lots of characters, and communicating context is a snap. So it’s worth noting that no other recurring sketch in recent SNL history has demonstrated more ideological elasticity than “Black Jeopardy.” Back in 2016, Tom Hanks’s MAGA-hat-wearing player drew a parallel between conservative conspiracy theorists’ paranoiac fantasies and those of black folks. This edition features two average contestants alongside the honorable King T’Challa of (Black Panther’s mythological African country) Wakanda. Thanks to T’Challa’s thoughtful answers, the parallel here is between the idealized world of Wakanda — where people honor their grandparents and trust law-enforcement officers — and the disappointing, all-too-real world. With that, a sketch that should feel repetitive finds another way to reflect the social and political life of the black community in an unexpected way.
1. Lobster Diner
John Mulaney wrote “Lobster Diner” while a writer at SNL, but had the sketch rejected. Now, this Les Misérables parody about diners that serve seafood, and the dopes who order that seafood, doesn’t have to remain a talk-show story about the sketch that got away. The content of “Lobster Diner” is Weird Al–level silly, e.g. the Les Miz call to arms becomes a plea for the survival of an old crustacean called “Do You Hear the Lobster Scream?” In terms of size of performances and production value, the sketch aims for the fences. There is a bubbling lobster tank featuring an aging Valjean stand-in (Kenan Thompson), peasants marching in full costumes, and mobile barricades festooned with lobster cages and fishing nets. (As the offending lobster-ordering dope says, “This diner has incredible set design.”) All this, and there’s a forlorn child called Clawsette. It’s big, ambitious, and absolutely ridiculous — exactly the thing to transport all of us out of Trumpworld for five minutes.