In a standard year, SNL’s production schedule makes it something of a barometer of national fears and anxieties. But of course, it was a _______ year. Here, your adjective — weird, crazy, sad, hard, unprecedented, or other — probably shifted in response to your given circumstances and what was happening at the time. After any given week of obsessing about the pandemic and politics at every level, perhaps you felt the show reflecting your state of mind to an uncanny degree. And during a ________ year, there was probably a lot going on up there.
The end of SNL season 45, filmed at actors’ homes during strict quarantine, was a comedic pu pu platter highlighting each player’s sensibilities; despite (painlessly, miraculously) bringing cast and crew back to Studio 8H, season 46 retained this looser, more free-form sensibility. (It helped that, once Donald Trump lost the election, news headlines and cultural conversation took on more importance than national political figures.) Favorites stayed in their respective lanes: Kate McKinnon did characters; Pete Davidson did raps; Kyle Mooney did Kyle Mooney; Kenan Thompson glued it all together. Plus, a more diverse roster of hosts and slightly more diverse cast made coolly pointed sketches like “Strollin’” possible.
Our list of the season’s best sketches doesn’t usually include Weekend Update segments, though we’d be remiss if we didn’t highlight Bowen Yang: Not only did he passionately address rising Asian American hate, he shined as the muted, saucy Fran Lebowitz and killed (literally, figuratively) as the iceberg that sank the Titanic. Online chatter and YouTube hits concurred: There weren’t many breakaway hits on which all fans agreed. So, more so than usual, season 46’s best sketches reflected your personal tastes. That’s why, during this _______ year, our best-of includes a little bit of everything SNL did to keep us happily distracted.
“Bottom of Your Face ft. Megan Thee Stallion”
“Bottom of Your Face” lets a group of rappers (Chris Redd, Kenan Thompson, and Pete Davidson) express their fears about the masked lower half of their dates’ faces, and gives said dates (Ego Nwodim, Megan Thee Stallion) a chance to respond. The hook of this song is so catchy that you might miss the smartly observed lines about the unique perils of dating during the COVID-19 pandemic: “It’s strange, you’re by yourself lookin’ like Bane / I ain’t seen your whole face, but I know your dog’s name.” Host Chris Rock chimes in to warn that there might be just “one big tooth” under that mask, and musical guest Megan Thee Stallion elevates the whole affair by delivering her verses with complete seriousness: “He don’t care about your health, he just wanna see you topless / Pullin’ up to his crib swallowin’ his droplets” — a line that will surely strike terror in the hearts of every listener. It’s unclear if this sketch will hold up in a few years, but from where we’re standing, “Bottom of Your Face” is an unsettling little earworm that gives voice to a highly relatable quarantine phenomenon.
A supreme exhibition of Kate McKinnon and Kenan Thompson’s goofy chemistry, this sketch sees a standard news segment on a hailstorm hijacked by two locals who happened to find love amid the chaos. Jean (McKinnon) and Rudolph (Thompson) narrate their love story (from co-workers at Pebble Falls’ Big Wooden Nickel to perhaps something more) to the chagrin of increasingly frustrated news anchors (Alex Moffat, Ego Nwodim) who try in vain to keep the interview on track. The quiet magic of this sketch lies in McKinnon and Thompson’s line deliveries: see, for example, the smug way Rudolph reveals, “We kissed. On the lips,” or the pride with which Jean, when asked if she’s aiding in the town’s search efforts, says, “No. I’m done searching.” We also get not one, but two buttons as the sketch comes to a close — the shocking reveal that Rudolph’s wife is one of the town’s missing, and Moffat and Nwodim’s anchors leaning in for a kiss. It’s a notable feat for SNL, which usually struggles with sticking the landing.
From Dave Chappelle’s initial misdirection to Pete Davidson breaking, this sketch unfolds as a series of little revelations. It’s no secret that Black and brown people have been hit hardest by pandemic-induced unemployment, but no one expected Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben to get the axe. (The show does well to cast Maya Rudolph and Kenan Thompson as these beloved food mascots, in order to make our heroes as real, likable, and pitiable as possible.) “It’s not what you did,” the exec (Alec Baldwin) tells a confused Aunt Jemima, “it’s about how you make us feel about what we did.” Sharp political point made, Chappelle drops in as “Allstate guy” Dennis Haysbert, giggling as he uses a vocoder to deepen his voice. By the time Chappelle breaks the fourth wall, forcing America to reconsider the size of Pete Davidson’s lips, it’s just the syrup on top of a stack of fluffy, buttermilk pancakes.
Ah, poor Kyle. He tries so hard. Whether he’s looking for friendship or love, Kyle Mooney (or his on-camera simulacrum) puts his heart and soul into it — and more often than not, barely breaks even. Winning this year’s Mooney Medal for the Socially Awkward is “Bits,” in which Mooney gets a bit introspective. After failing to successfully riff with his friends while watching football, Mooney’s alter ego Ryan retreats to a candy-colored fantasy realm of animated bluebirds and sad clowns playing harps. When he returns to the real world, ready to try again, he still proves himself as the guy who “kills the bit.” Despite the fact that his pals’ jokes are dumb, and Ryan’s are actually fairly creative, Mooney makes the plight of this introverted seeker absolutely relatable. Maybe we could all take a lesson from Ryan, and not try so hard — but how to resist when even a muted, lackluster response might make us the one who finally “nailed the bit”?!
The real anchor of this holiday sketch is neither Bowen Yang nor Cecily Strong’s broad, fantastically costumed cabaret singers, though they’re both doing very good work here (Strong as Billie Moon, a faded starlet who once bounced a check at Sardi’s, is particularly fitting). The anchor of this sketch is instead episode host Jason Bateman as Devin the piano player, whose cynicism shines in contrast to Charlie (Yang) and Billie’s unbothered cheer. Bateman has made a career of playing the unlikable straight man, so YMMV on the appeal of this sketch, which highlights Bateman’s natural ease at bursting everyone’s bubbles. But there is something satisfying about hearing Devin reply “They did not” to Charlie’s assertion that “the Swedes” have achieved herd immunity during the pandemic, or his repeated correction to Billie that, no, he is not a doctor, even though he’s wearing “all that gauze.” This is a bit of a sleepy sketch that doesn’t exactly build to a big payoff or turn, but that’s part of its charm — and if nothing else, it has Yang and Strong covering Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand, which is a blessing in itself.
This massively viral sketch — arguably the most popular of the season, at least according to YouTube metrics — features Pete Davidson and Timothée Chalamet as mumble rappers Guaplord and $mokecheddathaassgetta cluelessly answering questions about hip-hop on a panel alongside Queen Latifah (Punkie Johnson) and Questlove himself. Though Questlove’s low-key energy feels at odds with the tone of the sketch, it is deeply gratifying to see him physically attack Davidson and Chalamet midway through their rendition of “Yeet (Remix),” a song whose lyrics include “You never loved me, Mom.” Ego Nwodim also deserves a shout-out for her turn as baffled panel host Nunya Bizness, a role she elevates with her readings of lines like “The two confident white boys raise an interesting point.” Chalamet and Davidson, for their part, are clearly committing fully to the sketch and genuinely making each other laugh; Chalamet, at one point, has to cover his face to keep from breaking. It’s the kind of pure joy that is just fun to watch.
The joyful, suburban Christmas morning in this pretaped sketch is like all joyful, suburban Christmas mornings, in that it barely cloaks the existential dread of the family matriarch. While dad, son, and daughter catalogue the innumerable gifts and treats bestowed upon them, mom tries hard to be grateful for her singular present — a robe. Kristen Wiig is best known for broad and wacky characters, sure, but this piece shows just how much of her soul she can bare with a glance. Wiig pitches this mom with a punishing exactitude: “I keep the pain inside of me,” she confesses, dead-eyed, after silently suffering a burn from the stove. Well-paced and well-directed, this playful, cutting portrait of the underappreciated mom was an excellent clip to share with immediate family that had no mention of COVID and no political overtones.
During Christmas of 1944, on the European front lines, American troops get a taste of normalcy with a USO show full of classic song-and-dance numbers. Then comes Nurse July (Kristen Wiig) and a volunteer from the audience — Private Garrett (Bowen Yang), who is not at all phased when July calls for a decidedly modern, gender-bending pop jam with choreography to match. By the time the sexy duo becomes a filthy trio (featuring musical guest Dua Lipa), the audience of soldiers is completely onboard. From the faux-’40s patter to the ass-spanking finale, this sketch was an ecstatic little twist on a holiday classic. A viewing of White Christmas — the mid-’50s feel-good Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye vehicle that serves as the inspiration here — isn’t necessary to enjoy this sketch, but it does enhance things. The lighting and camera effects alone do an incredible job mimicking the early Technicolor vibe of the original.
Some SNL sketches hinge on a particularly memorable character or topical pop-culture reference. And others are premised entirely on one evergreen observation, as is the case with “Birthday Gifts,” which asks the essential question: What’s up with the cottage industry of “Mama Needs Wine” merchandise? Aidy Bryant plays a suburban mom just trying to have a normal birthday while her friends gift her novelty signs that grow increasingly pointed about her problem with alcohol. The SNL props department gets full marks for these signs, which cheerily display sentiments like “Hey barkeep, I wanna die tonight” and, simply, “I drink too much.” Bryant fumbles a few lines, which, funnily enough, makes her character appear to actually be drunk. Regina King’s weirdly insistent friend is also a standout here, emphatically pushing bags into Bryant’s hands with a firm “This is my favorite.”
“Hot Ones With Beyoncé”
This script of this sketch follows the basic format of the web show on which it’s based: A celebrity (in this case, Beyoncé) eats spicy wings and answers questions while they sweat. But Maya Rudolph transforms what could be a pretty straightforward exercise into a subtle, sublime character portrait of a usually constrained public figure drifting into a complete meltdown. And though Beyoncé loses it, Rudolph remains in complete control. Revealing little character moments (“That’s not a good look for ’Yonce”) become larger and more intense (“Kiss my ass! Beyoncé’s head is wet!”) as the Scoville units increase. Before long, she’s begging her hairstylist to stuff ice cubes between her wig and scalp. The fun of watching the actual Hot Ones is seeing the persona melt away to reveal the person beneath; this Devil’s Diarrhea Scorpion–smeared fantasy may be the closest we get to the real ‘Yonce until her next visit to Oprah’s couch. Also, not for nothing, Mikey Day nicely represents the geeky fanboy side of Hot Ones’ host, Chris Evans.
“Viral Apology Video”
It’s hard to pick a favorite element in “Viral Apology Video.” Is it the way vlogger Marky Munro (Kyle Mooney) pronounces the word “sorry”? Is it his increasingly insincere attempts at apologizing for his past videos that “could be considered problematic and/or crimes”? Or is it Daniel Kaluuya’s JP exacting his revenge and possibly killing Marky by the end of the sketch? What “Viral Apology Video” does particularly well is synthesize the worst elements of online celebrity into a kind of Frankensteined worst-YouTuber-on-Earth. Marky, who shares DNA with Logan Paul, David Dobrik, Jensen Karp, and Jeffree Star, among others, serves as a sharp indictment of a digital culture that breeds cruelty and stupidity. The sketch also precisely skewers what makes the ubiquitous online apology so frustrating: its complete dishonesty. After all, as Marky admits, the loss of his sponsorships from Samurai Vapes and Cinnabon is “what hurts the most.”
After nine seasons on the show, fans would be forgiven for thinking they’d seen every politician, public figure, and entirely invented goofball of which Kate McKinnon is capable. Then, with “Study Buddy,” she shows up with a new one. McKinnon has played her share of boys before — including, famously, the Bieb — but the smart, stilted, and verbally precocious teenager Josh is something novel in her repertoire. Of course, this unlikely seduction scene between the nerd and “the Beyoncé of our science class” (Carey Mulligan) gets an incredible assist from Josh’s best friend Jason (Aidy Bryant). Together, the inexperienced boys hide everything that they don’t know under a mountain of chivalric behavior and mannered language. At the same time, McKinnon and Bryant egg one another on, creating a perfect and seamless little world in which the plant life in a gecko’s habitat is as important as lip position for receiving a kiss.
“The Muppet Show”
Once in a while, an extremely talented sketch-comedy actor will host SNL, perfectly match the energy of the cast, and perform the hell out of a sketch, prompting viewers to wonder, Why can’t the show be like this all the time? This was the case for Keegan-Michael Key in “The Muppet Show,” a sketch that almost entirely depends on the dynamic between Key and Kenan Thompson, who play security guards trying to put an end to Statler and Waldorf’s heckling of Kermit (Kyle Mooney) and Lily Tomlin (Melissa Villaseñor). Key makes every line count, but “Everybody here paid good money to hear this little dragon and his friends do they thing, so please let them do their thing without talking” is exceptional. The sketch culminates in a harrowing moment of physical comedy involving Key beating up Waldorf, complete with cartoon sound effects. “The Muppet Show” is a showcase not only of good sketch writing, but also of the endless benefits to having a host who knows what he’s doing.
“The Last Dance: Extended Scene”
Ostensibly, this sketch is about the epic Chicago Bulls documentary The Last Dance and its central figure, Michael Jordan — a man who truly deserves the title of GOAT, and whose championship mentality belied something a bit darker. Keegan-Michael Key puts in a solid turn as the quietly intense Jordan, but the undeniable star of the show is Heidi Gardner as his chummy everyman security officer, John Michael Wozniak. Early on, as Jordan challenges Wozniak to a round of pitching quarters, Wozniak jokingly utters the words, “I’m ready for my close-up.” Famous last words. The cocky Wozniak offends Jordan, who proceeds to take not only his money, but his pants, wife, and every remaining shred of his dignity. Gardner perfectly charts the quiet ritual of Wozniak’s humiliation, and still magically keeps the character broad enough so he’s laughable. It’s one of Gardner’s best performances on the show, hands down.