It’s easy to forget, when SNL is on one of its upswings, that the sort of political activity that makes the show’s satire feel essential comes and goes. While we’re all in the morass of Trumpworld, it’s all overwhelming and hard to pin down. But even if there weren’t many flash point moments for SNL this year, the season remained really steady. Everyone in the cast, which hasn’t had any dramatic personnel shifts in the last several years, has relaxed into their roles and gives fans what they know to expect. Unsurprisingly, the season’s best episode was hosted by a former SNL writer and stand-up who knows both how to write a joke and hold this audience’s attention.
As far as this list is concerned, we picked a little bit of everything: the determined and ambitious, the salient and acerbic, the weird and woolly, and the impossibly silly. There were some nice surprises on SNL’s hosting roster, including two Asian-American actresses and a former cast member who once said he’d probably never host, but it’s worth noting that of the 21 SNL shows this season, only 7 were hosted by women. So, lotsa dude stuff.
“R. Kelly Cold Open”
SNL’s political sketches were generally underwhelming this year. The writers are in a tough spot: The show has long been locked into Alec Baldwin’s bloviating cartoon of Trump, and by Saturday night, the big, political event of the week has generally been picked clean by any number of late-night hosts and the Twitterverse, too. That said, it is fun to see SNL’s cold opens consider some headlines taking place outside the beltway. R. Kelly’s ostensible interview (and definite meltdown) with Gayle King certainly qualified. As Kelly (Kenan Thompson) fights off accusations of abuse stirred by documentary Surviving R. Kelly, he rambles, justifies, and ruminates in the third person à la Trapped in the Closet. Leslie Jones plays King, but this is really Thompson’s piece. His tone hints at R. Kelly’s cadence without becoming caricature, and he does his best to humanize Kelly without sympathizing with him. And the writing includes gems such as this one, spoken by an indignant Kelly: “I gave y’all Trapped in the Closet, ‘Feelin’ on Yo Booty,’ ‘Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number,’ and so many other clues … and this is how you repay me?!”
The premise of this filmed piece sounds a little too dangerous for TV: A thespian yearning for her first real acting challenge finds it on the set of a gay porn. Rather than linger on any blue bits, writers Julio Torres and Bowen Yang take the high road. Structured like a melodrama playing out inside the head of the Actress (who is played with care and restraint by Emma Stone), the sketch jabs porn conventions while completely skewering overserious actors’ puffery. As silly as it is to create a character backstory on a set full of lubed-up, half-naked dudes ready to pound, the piece also gives the audience reason to pity the poor Actress. Her act of artistic creation is undoubtedly bound for the cutting-room floor. And there’s another element of poetic irony: She cares enough to name her character “Deirdre,” but she herself will only be known as the Actress.
Millennial contestants Dave and Carrie (Pete Davidson and host Rachel Brosnahan) go on this game show to wrangle money, health insurance, and frankly, their own futures from out of the grip of baby boomers. In order to earn modest prizes like social security, the contestants have to remain silent in the face of self-involved characters with titles like “Parrot Head Boomer.” Unfortunately, the complaining about multiple mortgages and avocado toast undoes Dave and Carrie. As the host (Kenan Thompson) explains, “I know how you millennials love anything that challenges your worldview.” And then, taking down his own generation, the host adds, “I’m Gen X. I just sit on the sidelines and watch the world burn.” It’s one more sharp and playful standout in a streak of out-of-the-box game-show parodies. Bonus points for Aidy Bryant’s excellent patter song explicating the Boomers.
How to follow up a wildly ambitious musical parody of Les Mis that elevates an incredibly specific New York observation about lobsters in diners? Return with another ambitious parody of musicals that elevates another specific New York observation, and make it stranger than the first. John Mulaney, who saw sidelined sketch “Diner Lobster” come to life during his first hosting gig in 2018, came back with an even more over-the-top musical number in 2019. “Bodega Bathroom” blends elements of Cats, Rent, Little Shop of Horrors, and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory into a paean to bodegas and their filthy commodes. Sure, it’s a scat joke, but it’s a highbrow, phantasmagorical scat joke with singing cockroaches, Oompa Loompas, rat puppets, Tiger Sex Pills, and what about flaaaaan?
Adam Sandler’s joyous return to SNL contained several bright moments — none quite as bright as this sketch about a travel agency very concerned about its customers’ state of mind. Showing a world-weary maturity he did not have while a 20-something, Sandler quietly but firmly reminds potential travelers that a trip to Italy will not change who they are at heart. If they’re sad, they’ll be sad while tossing pizza dough; if they’re angry drunks, they’ll be angry drunks at wine tastings. The whole sketch has a patient, methodical pace that recalls an earlier time at SNL, which makes it all the more wonderful that it was written by younger writers Anna Drezen and Alison Gates. It’s lucky they stumbled across that odd Perillo Tours ad — something you don’t need to watch before consuming this, though it might improve the experience by 10 percent.
“Cha Cha Slide”
This perfectly convivial sketch is kind of a fish-out-of-water-wait-no-the-fish-is-in-water-and-in-fact-the-fish-is-remarkably-comfortable-swimming-here phenomena. While at a wedding with his girlfriend Lisa (Ego Nwodim), Daniel (John Mulaney) frets about fitting in, as a big cast dances its way through Mr. C the Slide Man’s “Cha Cha Slide.” Daniel shouldn’t worry. His old fraternity buddy from Howard comes by to reminisce about their Tom Joyner cruise, and he tells Lisa’s aunt that he’s “gonna pray on” her injured foot. Meanwhile, Daniel doesn’t miss a beat when hearing unlikely new dance instructions from Mr. C such as “stir them grits” and “pull out your church fan.” The sketch isn’t about mocking black or white culture; its subversion comes in when the social anxiety isn’t at all what the audience assumes it should be.
This one goes from zero to bonkers with impressive speed. When Michael (Beck Bennett) and his girlfriend (Melissa Villaseñor) welcome her parents (Jason Momoa and Heidi Gardner) for an intimate Christmas gathering, Michael disappears. Moments later, what we assume is Michael’s high-pitched lilt challenges all of them to “find” him. Though it’s all very weird, the dad is incredibly game to hunt Michael down, and an epic game of cat and mouse unfurls, replete with red herrings and booby traps. As it was in all of Momoa’s SNL sketches, his glee is palpable and infectious. He not only sells this wackadoo premise, he makes the final 30 seconds of the dad evaluating Michael’s greased-up, half-naked body (“Very handsome, very, very good”) seem almost normal. This sketch would be right at home in SNL alumni Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin’s Netflix series I Think You Should Leave.
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.
“Can I Play That?”
Three actors (Idris Elba, Cecily Strong, and Beck Bennett) line up to play their “least favorite” game, “Can I Play That?” The host (Kenan Thompson) presents various TV and film parts, and asks the contestants if they could play those roles, and if not, who could? Soon enough, when the host reveals that Will Smith isn’t black enough to play the Williams sisters’ dad, he mentions that the game is produced by Twitter. It’s soon clear that acting these days is essentially “becoming yourself, but with a different haircut.” Hollywood is only beginning to listen to calls for honest representation, and there are certain questions posed by this sketch — e.g., “Who could play Caitlyn Jenner?” — that have real answers. (Hint: It ain’t Jeffrey Tambor.) Still, the sketch does capture the ALL-CAPS nature of call-out culture and the way in which those making casting decisions think about audiences and actors, too. There’s a dark-horse theory that this sketch was written for the James Bond joke that pops up at the sketch’s conclusion. If so, the writer who designed this incredibly ornate framework deserves serious credit.
In an era of Venmo and like-minded instant-payment services, this stylized, dreamlike sketch about the power of writing checks is an endearing little gem. Written by resident dreamers Julio Torres and Bowen Yang, “Cheques” presents a series of classic movie dames and soap-opera villains who use checks and check-writing to intimidate, threaten, and otherwise milk the drama of any given moment. No, there’s nothing like scribbling furiously on a piece of paper, flicking one’s wrist, and saying a line like, “I trust this will suffice,” or, “Forget whatever you think you saw last night by the gazebo.” Plus, these magical paper slips are available in “baseball, Daffy Duck, or Michigan State.” Even the spelling of “cheques” revels in culture that feels somehow opulent but essentially vestigial.
Anyone who has even been confronted with baffling, outsize fandom will appreciate this sketch, which finds a civil dinner party disrupted by one man’s passion for Weezer. Correction: one man’s passion for the entire catalogue of Weezer. When Weezer’s cover of Toto’s “Africa” pops up thanks to shuffle play, said fan (Matt Damon) gets into an argument with another so-called fan (Leslie Jones), who purports that Weezer made two perfect albums and then fell off a cliff. What follows is a series of track listings and album titles hurled back and forth like hand grenades — and, sure, there are some insults, too. To everyone else at the table, and probably 99 out of 100 viewers, it’s not only a tempest in a teapot but completely unrelatable. Damon clearly had fun while doing his hosting duty this time, sinking his teeth into the scenery here and playing hard in other bits such as “Westminster Daddy Show.”
Honorable Mention: “Cut for Time: College Admissions”
Though SNL touched on the college admission scandal during a cold open in April, this cut-for-time sketch during Sandra Oh’s hosting gig at the end of March really dives in. Five college admission adjudicators (Oh, Heidi Gardner, Chris Redd, Cecily Strong, and Kenan Thompson) must decide on their final five prospective students. Though the deserving Louisa Rodriguez is on the bubble, she loses out to the son of Lou Ferrigno, the young heir to the Keebler cookie fortune, and some tiny equestrian that the rowing coach (Aidy Bryant) insists could “rip an oarlock clean off the boat.” It’s exaggerated, yeah, but given the circumstances and renewed scrutiny, it feels perfectly damning. Plus, the final twist (which is set up by Oh’s question, “Do you ever feel like we’re admitting too many Asian students?”) is great.