Saturday Night Live’s 45th season will be remembered primarily for two things: the return of Eddie Murphy and three prerecorded episodes that thanks to coronavirus-related closures, were the first to violate guidelines made clear by the very title of the show. As with all things 2020, there’s a before and an after. Through early spring, blithe and ignorant as the rest of us, SNL enjoyed a solid season that flaunted the benefits of its (slowly) diversifying cast and writing staff. Then came the canceled plans and improvisational experiments of March. Strange and uncomfortable as the situation was, the “At Home” SNL episodes brought a measure of comfort to its fans while giving individual performers a chance to indulge their individual aesthetics. Here are some of season’s best sketches, on both sides of the pandemic divide.
Like the Chappelle’s Show “Racial Draft” in reverse, this newscast finds two black anchors and two white anchors in a competition to determine whether more criminals in the day’s headlines are black or white. From the very first, highly inappropriate celebration, the 8H audience sounds both shocked and titillated — and this is only moments into a sketch with many twists and turns to come. The ensemble, including host Phoebe Waller-Bridge, bring nice life to what’s on the page; in particular, Kenan Thompson and Ego Nwodim lend an effervescence to their gloating. Nwodim, Michael Che, and Chris Redd wrote this sketch together, exhibiting the kind of sharp satire about race that just couldn’t get made without people of color in the writing room. It’s a cleverly engineered and perfectly barbed sketch that is wrong in all the right ways.
What happens if the sunniest place on earth goes very, very dark? This parody of Todd Phillips’s Joker didn’t just skewer the artsy, angsty origin story of Batman’s premiere villain — it perfectly recontextualized the entire Sesame Street universe in a bleak, Gothamesque landscape. If Oscar the Grouch (David Harbour) is a brooding garbage man, it follows that the Count counts pills, Cookie Monster begs for his next chocolaty hit, and Ernie gets stabbed for refusing to hand over his rubber duckie. (Next to Harbour’s grumbly half-Grouch, half-Phoenix, Alex Moffat’s mournful Bert is the best impression in the piece.) The production elements — down to the ominous, orchestral cover of the Sesame Street theme — are pitch-perfect, delivering the sketch to its self-important crescendo. Thankfully, it doesn’t so much poison childhood memories as inoculate against gratuitously dark art.
“Love at First Sight”
Jennifer (Cecily Strong) and William (Chance the Rapper) are not in a standard meet-cute. Though the thrill they feel upon meeting one another makes them soar into the air — with help from some in-studio wires — the underlying subject here is the sort of fleeting rebounds one might expect after ending a significant relationship. That means the couple ends up hovering just a few feet off the ground, whacking into tables and smashing glasses at the bar before Jennifer flashes the bartender while trying to perform drunken flips. The choreography is brilliant, in its awkward way, and perfectly captures romance borne of desperation. While the posted version of the sketch is great, the dark corners of the web may have the live version, where the chaos gets upped in the second half. (Strong dangles helplessly over a table for some time while Ego Nwodim and Heidi Gardner try not to lose their minds laughing down below.)
“Duolingo for Talking to Children”
There’s something universal in this take on the foreign-language app, which finds a clueless adult (Kristen Stewart) trying and failing to communicate with her friends’ children. “Do you wear your clothes to school?” she asks one kid, while genuinely doing her best. After brushing up on some helpful kid terms such as “chicken fingers” and preparing herself for “long, meandering, pointless stories,” she is well on the way to social normalcy. With its crisp visuals and comforting voice-over from Cecily Strong, this ad recognizes it is a strange art to talk to kids even though you’ve been walking the planet for at least 15 or 20 years longer than they have. Turns out a commercial parody can be funny, incisive, and strangely consoling all at once.
Those who know the work of writer-performer Julio Torres know that on SNL, he likes toying with brands’ online personas and blurring the lines between spon-con and satire. Like earlier sketches about Barbie and Ken’s respective Instagram presences, this season’s “Sara Lee” is about corporate underlings and social-media illiteracy. This time, the unself-conscious cog (Harry Styles) confuses his personal Insta with that of his gainful employer, using the Sara Lee handle to post comments such as “wreck me daddy” on some twink’s pic. (The sketch made little turns of phrase like “must get rid of toxic in community” strangely indelible.) Unlike most sketches, this one has a postscript: Sara Lee’s actual feed blew up with copycat comments, which the parent company deleted. While the sketch’s co-writer Bowen Yang lamented on Twitter that the brand lost its chance to become “THE bread for f*gs,” it’s fun to imagine that some people will always associate “Sara Lee” with the phrase “destroy me king.”
“That’s the Game”
Good comedy is like magic, in that it enlivens everyday phenomena we otherwise take for granted and makes it so we can’t see those original persons, places, and things the same way again. “That’s the Game” pulls off this kind of trick, narrowing in on an unexamined trope in crime dramas and revealing it as a cliché that seems face-palmingly obvious. This scene depicts a big turning point in the story, in which a drug kingpin (Kenan Thompson) is confronted by his armed, dangerous underling (Chris Redd). While it’s meant to be a student-becomes-the master takeover, it’s soon clear that the young hustler has no practical notions about leading a narcotics empire, much less pricing, selling, or even identifying drugs. The supporting players, including a conciliatory Thompson, are great, but Redd is the star here, with the sort of wide-eyed, ferocious cluelessness that made his turn in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping so damn good.
Ever since “Dyke and Fats,” Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant have been the SNL double act to beat. Over the course of this season, they sold apple-picking tours, groceries, choir robes, and more. Despite this constant commercial activity, the McKinnon-Bryant partnership has become shorthand for a sisterhood of little physical bits and adoring glances. This sketch, a parody of a black-and-white movie, let McKinnon and Bryant toy with something more classically catty. There are two complimentary movements here: one in which two scheming sisters try to off one another in over-the-top ways, and one in which they prevent their beautiful young sibling (Jennifer Lopez) from stealing the heart of an eligible bachelor known only as the Corporal. Though the stylized vocals and movement of the ’50s vixen might seem like a restraint, McKinnon and Bryant find even more room to play.
“Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood 2019”
When Eddie Murphy returned after a 35-year hiatus, SNL was in a bind: If writers didn’t take on beloved sketches from Murphy’s legendary stint on the show, it might look like Billy Joel refusing to play “Piano Man.” If they couldn’t find creative ways to engage the old material, it would feel like pandering. Impressively, writers found ways to thread the needle and helped Murphy slip back into 30 Rock as though he’d never been gone. Gumby, Velvet Jones, and Buckwheat all got a moment in the spotlight, but the best mix of old and new came through in “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood 2019.” It brought back Murphy’s twinkling, conspiratorial Mr. Rogers impression, and it gave him a new challenge: gentrification. In working with the writers to reexamine rather than just relive old favorites, Murphy avoided obvious the pitfalls of an auspicious return and added new trophies to his SNL display case.
“Del Taco Shoot”
This piece of 10-to-1 devilry somehow got smuggled into the first half of the Adam Driver episode over the winter. Day player Douglas (Kyle Mooney) is incapable of delivering his most important line — “Hey, man, I’m all outta cash” — to the satisfaction of the commercial’s director (Beck Bennett) and Del Taco’s VP of Branding (Driver). From there, it’s a mad loop of line readings until the director and branding guy break Dougie’s spirit and finally, inexplicably, get what they want. Written by longtime pals Bennett and Mooney (with help from a third writer, Andrew Dismukes), this sketch feels like the sort of goofy experiment these guys might have done in their Good Neighbor days. All this and it makes room for Driver to deliver one more committed, cartoonish performance that’s unlike anything he does on the big screen.
After finally getting the call from SNL, first-time host RuPaul proved to a major network crowd he was much more than Drag Race catchphrases. While he confidently played a horny cop, a coal miner, and a fully grown adult baby, one sketch offered an over-the-top character portrait accessible for casual fans and drag insiders. “Check-Splitting” was an ode to the righteous ladies of ’80s sitcom Designing Women, in which two female co-workers (Ru and Cecily Strong) get upset on behalf of a fellow office mate when she is asked to split the check at a collective dinner. Naturally, Ru and Strong push one another to greater heights of Sugarbaker speechification while everyone else at the table sits around baffled. And for those who know drag, the entire scene might as well be a preamble for the final line — “That was the night the lights went out in Georgia!” — a Dixie Carter trademark that’s a touchstone.
“Sound of Music: Rolfe and Liesl”
This sketch is for everyone who’s watched a beloved musical about teenagers and thought, Is that teenager 30? The guy who played Rolfe, the charming Nazi-to-be who woos Liesl Von Trapp in the Sound of Music, was in his 20s when he sang “16 Going on 17.” Kids don’t notice this stuff, but thankfully adults remember — and then they become writers. Here, Rolfe (John Mulaney) tries to get Leisl (Cecily Strong) to ignore the age gap between them, an age gap that increases every time he opens his mouth. Mulaney, a musical-loving man increasingly ready to sing in public, makes for a suave, creepy Hitler Youth Humbert, while Strong’s Leisl is keen and circumspect (“You’re a geriatric telegram boy and I’m rich and good with puppets. You do the math”). While plumbing both the history and the cultural artifact, writers Fran Gillespie and Sudi Green find ways to pack jokes into nearly every line.
“Stuck in the House”
If one sketch reflected the malaise underlying the spring of coronavirus, it’s this Pete Davidson–Adam Sandler rap from SNL’s second “At Home” episode. Quarantined in his mom’s Staten Island home, Davidson laments the endless and repetitive days, the loss of human contact, and the fact that he can’t watch Ozark because he already watched Ozark. Across the country, the Sandman wears an underwear mask, bakes terrible bread, and avoids Rob Schneider (who crops up in noxious Waterboy mode). It isn’t lyrically complex, but it’s honest. The depression and mental instability bubble is just under all of the boredom, reflecting a quiet desperation so many of us suffer while enduring various brands of lockdown. It’s nice to feel like we aren’t alone.
“What Up With That?”
The return of Kenan Thompson’s first big SNL sketch — which hasn’t made air since the 40th anniversary special — proves that context can be as important as content. Its only gag hasn’t changed since its first appearance back in 2009: Jheri-curled BET talk-show host Diondre Cole (Thompson) can’t find time to interview famous guests because he is constantly launching into the catchy “What Up With That?” theme song. A simple but endearing bit of silliness, the sketch took on an entirely new meaning in the context of SNL’s run of “At Home” shows. Given the show’s production constraints, it was both a surprise and a relief to see Cole and his massive entourage do their thing. Thompson’s irresistible energy delivered comfort and joy during an inexplicable moment, while supporting performers, editors, and animators all helped to elevate the sketch’s sense of manic glee.