Season 46 of Saturday Night Live may go down as one of its weirdest and most contentious. The season began with people unsure whether it was even safe to perform. Then a country singer got canceled for not taking COVID-19 precautions seriously. Then that country singer did a mea culpa sketch with Jason Bateman. Then that country singer got canceled again. And then Elon?! It’s been a year, folks. A year that made no damn sense.
It’s sometimes hard to gauge Saturday Night Live’s cultural relevance in an ever-fragmenting culture. People tweeted angrily about SNL on both sides of every issue it prompted. But is Twitter outrage (or, heaven forfend, praise) a useful metric for audience engagement? No. You want to know what is? TikTok sounds. TikTok is its own weird little world, but it’s a world whose demographics are all over the shops. By that metric, do you want to know which episode of season 46 had the most staying power? Adele’s. The sound of Adele introducing musical guest H.E.R. is still getting used on TikTok months later. It used to be for people to show off their pets or wigs, but now it’s been taken up by normie TikTok as a beach-body challenge. John Mulaney and Timothée Chalamet’s episodes also did well on the app. Mulaney’s monologue got lip-synced, just like everything that man does. And the fake SoundCloud trap song performed by Chalamet and Pete Davidson was unironically adored by zoomers. In fairness to the youths, that song did kinda go.
Here’s how we made sense of this senseless season: screen time ranked by points. The SNL points system was first designed by Erik Voss for Splitsider and honed into a deadly blade of evaluation at Vulture. You get one point if you’re onscreen. If you’re a waiter that only gives exposition, or if your voice is used in a commercial parody, that’s a point. Performers get two points if they deliver a joke line. Anyone in an ensemble sketch usually gets two points, because the laughs are spread pretty evenly. But if the sketch is written around your very funny character, that’s three points, baby. Cast members also get three points for Update pieces, since that is essentially a one-person sketch all about you. Bonus points are awarded for going viral, getting an applause break, or saying “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night.” Here is a handy chart of who said that most often this season:
We also used the same rubric to calculate cast-member screen time in the sketches that are cut for time but released later on YouTube. They don’t count in the overall score, but it’s interesting to see what could have been:
This season was as fragmented as the reactions it inspired in the audience. Episode three was the first one in which every Not Ready for Prime Time Player had a line. People can kind of do whatever and still work on SNL now. Aidy Bryant is doing Shrill, Kenan Thompson and Chris Redd are doing Kenan, and Michael Che is doing his show on HBO Max. SNL used to be the show that launched you into bigger things, but now you can get launched and still stay in the nest. Will this laissez-faire attitude to scheduling continue when society as a whole comes back? Only Lorne knows.
And, without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, her:
Musical Guest: 1.1%
This year, we included the times a musical guest cameoed in a sketch. Like the “audience Q&A monologue” format, it is not getting used enough in this current iteration of SNL. It’s always fun, even if they flub their lines. Kid Cudi had one of the breakout sketches on Carey Mulligan’s episode with “Weird Little Flute,” which shouldn’t have surprised anyone; he was good on Comedy Bang! Bang! Bad Bunny did two sketches as a musical guest, and he’s never been more charming. Mix it up, musical guests!
Lauren Holt: 2.5%
Lauren Holt had a pretty typical freshman season. She didn’t appear in some episodes, she got to introduce herself to the audience with an Update piece, and there was a cold open or two where her only line was “Live from New York …” Ranking lower than the Update hosts isn’t a great sign, but with a cast this large, some people are going to get sidelined. In sketches, Holt was mostly given spots in ensemble “everyone at this dinner party hates the wacky character” pieces. Hopefully next year, she can break out a little more.
Michael Che: 2.6%
Che stayed behind the Update desk all season, which makes sense. The topical-news segment of SNL seems to get longer and longer each year, so why add the occasional waiter or celeb impersonation to your workload? Especially when you’ve got an HBO Max show to do.
Colin Jost: 2.8%
Colin Jost was in one more sketch than his Update brother, appearing in the Mother’s Day extravaganza. You remember — with Elon’s mom and Tish Cyrus? Jost’s memoir came out during hiatus, so he had the time to appear in sketches if he wanted to. But again, why should he? Update is almost its own show-within-a-show on SNL. For a long time, the Update anchors have been kind of isolated from the main cast. Like musical guests doing sketches and audience Q&A monologues, Update anchors should have to do a few sketches every season. Because it’s fun! It’s like seeing your teacher outside of school. What are they doing out there with normal people?
Punkie Johnson: 3%
Punkie Johnson has already carved out a unique spot in the SNL cast: old. She was the grandmother in the prayer-off sketch, a “blessed” aunt in the “Vaccine Game Show” sketch, and a cousin that’s somehow your mom’s age in the graduation-applause sketch. That’s not all she did, of course. Johnson played Dionne Warwick’s niece in the sketch series Miss Warwick took as a personal birthday present. But Johnson added an interesting grounded presence to many family sketches. Mars (and SNL) needs moms.
Melissa Villaseñor: 3.3%
It is telling that one of Melissa Villaseñor’s Update pieces this year was about her having to shoehorn in impressions. Let her do impressions! Villaseñor brought her singing chops to “Murder Show” and “Boomers Got the Vax.” But the fact that Villaseñor has a flawless Kristen Wiig in her back pocket and somehow didn’t do it when Wiig hosted? Insupportable. Jimmy Fallon pretended to be Mick Jagger to Mick Jagger’s face. And when Fallon hosted, Andy Samberg did it to him. Does Melissa have an Andy Samberg? If so, let him host and keep this bit going. For a sense of what Villaseñor can do when she’s allowed to go whole-hog, check out her work on this year’s Independent Spirit Awards.
Andrew Dismukes: 3.5%
Andrew Dismukes showed a lot of promise this season. He played unhinged masculinity well in sketches like “Dog Park” and “Jack Flatts.” But he also played a much chiller youth in “Picture With Dad.” The rhythm between him and Beck Bennett in that sketch is perfect. It should be cured and served on a charcuterie board. He is what theater people in the ’20s called a “juvenile,” the guy who reads young onstage and can coast on that for a decade or so. Bogart was a juvenile when he started acting. But as a frosh in a big ol’ cast, Dismukes got somewhat lost among the other cast members. Maybe next year he can break type and play an old wizard or something.
Bowen Yang: 3.8%
Bowen Yang truly shined this year, despite being in the bottom half of screen time. His Update piece as himself in response to the wave of anti-Asian hate crimes broke through Comedy Twitter and into what’s left of the monoculture, not an easy feat. And people adored his turn as the iceberg from Titanic. Some people claimed he was carrying the show, a notion he took umbrage to and did an “I Don’t Think So, Honey” against on his podcast, Las Culturistas. Yang didn’t carry the show, but he did lift it up. The intensity with which he delivers Post-it notes in the “Job Interview” sketch fucking wrecked me. Yang is one of those boys helping flip girls into the air in Bring It On. He isn’t Kirsten Dunst. The work he does lifts his fellow players into the air so they can do lots of spins or whatever this cheerleader metaphor is breaking down.
Chloe Fineman: 3.9%
Chloe Fineman took an interesting turn during the back nine of season 46: She started hosting talk shows. Talk and game shows are the backbone of SNL. Without the overarching rhythm of a talk show, how do you give structure to the parades of characters and impressions that we love so well? And the host is the key to that structure. They’re the metronome of comedy. Fineman would be an interesting inheritor to Kenan Thompson as frequent game-/talk-show host; she’s got the precision. But Fineman’s two talk-show hosts, Icelandic weirdo Ooli and pop star/cause célèbre Britney Spears, almost hearken more to Mike Myers. Myers hosted “Sprockets,” “Wayne’s World,” and that one with the British kid in the bathtub from a deep place of character. That’s what Fineman is doing with her Britney.
Cecily Strong: 4.2%
Cecily Strong was on and off this season of SNL. But when she was actually on the show, she was on. There’s a moment in what may be Strong’s last Update piece (big send-off vibes) when she’s singing “My Way” in a giant glass box of wine. Throughout the piece, she’d been spilling wine at Colin Jost, and near the bridge she’d flung a completely full glass on him. Then she reaches into the wine for another gobletful. There is a look of such fear on Jost’s face. He’s thinking, Oh no, another full glass? She wouldn’t. Would she? She would, and she did, and that’s what Strong brings to every performance. Limitless full glasses.
Aidy Bryant: 4.3%
Aidy Bryant skipped much of the front half of the season, because she was filming the last season of Shrill. But when she came back, it was with a bang. Somehow, Bryant became Ted Cruz. Bryant’s Cruz knows he’s the scum of the earth. He cops to it almost immediately. It’s kind of like when Moe said, “I’m a stupid moron with an ugly face and a big butt and my butt smells, and I like to kiss my own butt.” The sketch version of Cruz has no self-justifying narratives about why he is the way he is. Bryant’s Ted Cruz definitely likes to kiss his own butt.
Kyle Mooney: 4.6%
In previous years, Kyle Mooney has often stayed apart from the rest of the cast in his pretaped sketches. They ran like Albert Brooks’s short films from the early years of SNL. But this year, Mooney was often in ensemble sketches. He played a geek batting way out of his league in the “Prom Show” sketch, the friend from home who keeps trying to assert friend dominance with ancient inside jokes in the “Bachelor Party” sketch, and an almost certainly doomed gunshot victim in Elon Musk’s cowboy nonsense. But we also have to give it up for Baby Yoda. Baby Yoda is Mooney’s Mitch McConnell: somehow eternally relevant despite being the weirdest-looking motherfucker imaginable.
Alex Moffat: 4.6%
Alex Moffat may have been relegated to mostly boysemble sketches like “Bachelor Party” if SNL had stayed cameo-heavy, but he got a boost in screen time when Jim Carrey gave up the Biden gig in order to pursue his true love: satirical painting. Then Moffat became the latest in a long line to don the Biden veneers. What Moffat’s Biden lacks in rasp (like Jimmy Fallon’s) and Jim Carrey catchphrases (like Jim Carrey’s), he makes up for in bro energy. Moffat’s Joe Biden is not offended if — no, when — someone tells him to fuck off. He knows he’s a handful.
Chris Redd: 5%
Chris Redd always manages to read a straight line funny. He doesn’t make the whole sketch about him, he just conveys his point of view very clearly with his delivery. It’s a clutch skill to have, especially if you keep getting relegated to “Friend No. 3” parts in group sketches. That’s not to say Redd doesn’t have a full creative life. He’s on Kenan’s show; flautists are doing reaction videos to one of his songs; and he reminded all of us that they’re called sketches, not skits. But I’d love to see more things like “The Hero” for Redd. In the “Cut for Time” sketch, Redd plays a Vietnam soldier who accidentally volunteers for the dumbest mission ever. Watching him spiral as it becomes clear that he is 100 percent going to die is a treat.
The ramp-up to the election really made it seem like cameos were going to win the screen-time ranking again this year. But after Carrey departed as Biden (and Alec Baldwin stopped coming through for … reasons), Lorne stepped on the brakes with all the headline-getting guest stars. There were five whole episodes where no returning cast members, host spouses, or cast-member moms appeared. That’s beautiful. This cast is (1) immensely talented and (2) friggin’ huge. Let them explore the space. Kevin Jonas had more screen time than some of the featured players in Nick Jonas’s episode. We need to do better.
Pete Davidson: 5.4%
Pete Davidson started out the season barely involved, but he really stepped up over the past year. The Old Pete would mostly stay confined to pretaped raps and Update pieces that were just stand-up. But Davidson’s got impressions now! He played two noted scumbags: Andrew Cuomo and Matt Gaetz. And he innovated in the emo-rap space with his Timothée collab, which paid off big-time on TikTok. But one of the funner moments in Davidson’s year of screen time came in the “Dionne Warwick Talk Show,” where Pete played his bud Machine Gun Kelly. It was clearly one of those impressions honed by hours of doing nothing together. How often do you get to make fun of your bestie on live TV?
Heidi Gardner: 5.8%
Heidi Gardner has stayed in the middle of the pack for most of her SNL tenure. The Cecily-Aidy-Kate triad has held on for a long time, but Gardner has managed to secure her place as an unhinged monster on occasion. She performed a desperate plea for jokes in the Mother’s Day cold open; she Noémie Merlant’d it up in “Lesbian Period Drama”; and, of course, she brought a quiet sadness to her version of Michael Jordan’s security guard, John Michael Wozniak, a performance Vulture demands the Emmy-nominations committee recognize. The ball (basketball reference) is in your court, Emmys.
Mikey Day: 6.1%
Mikey Day has really leaned into his nasality this year. Move over, Aidy Bryant, someone else is Shrill on SNL. Day brought a thin and reedy energy to canceling children on Update, playing a beleaguered Universal Studios tour guide, and even getting ROBBED of this year’s Mr. Chicken Legs crown. Yes, I said it — robbed! Pete’s legs are ten times more shapely, and Mikey’s talent was infinitely more impressive and sexually confusing. The one thing missing from Day’s repertoire is a steady political impression. Now that Donald Trump Jr. is mostly irrelevant, he’s getting zoomed by the other cast members in “Live from New York” points.
Ego Nwodim: 6.2%
Ego Nwodim blossomed this year. She gives a beautiful stank face that makes her a necessary member in any ensemble sketch about societal faux pas. And with the world opening back up in fits and starts, there were a lot of those. Nwodim even managed to neg the entire concept of the male gender in the season finale. She also had a viral moment as Dionne Warwick in the “Dionne Warwick Talk Show.” She played the star as not exactly entitled, but as someone indifferent to any changes in society that may have happened in the past 40 years — someone who thinks her presence is a present and cannot be told otherwise. Miss Warwick was charmed by the impression, and we were charmed by her being charmed. What a nice thing to have happened during an otherwise bleak time.
Kenan Thompson: 6.8%
Kenan Thompson kept a comparatively low profile for his 17th season. Yes, third place is low-profile for Kenan. I guess when you’re flying coast to coast every week to star in a sitcom, your game-show-hosting duties are going to suffer. Thompson brought back his LaVar Ball Update character, gave an oddly nuanced sorrow to a “Gemma” sketch that ended with him having to hide his boner, and breathed an intriguing sexuality into his aging-choreographer character opposite Maya Rudolph. And something wild happened in the Daniel Kaluuya episode: During his monologue, the Brit cited Kenan & Kel as an inspiration to him. Not SNL. Kenan has been on TV for many zoomers’ entire dang lives. And since SNL has decided to work around everyone’s side hustles, it seems likely that he’ll continue to be on TV for a long time.
Kate McKinnon: 7.4%
More than any other cast member this year, Kate McKinnon let the frazzle show. She made comedy out of how bad she was doing in this new and inarguably shittier world. Her new Update character, Dr. Wenowdis, only exists because our government is terrible at health messaging. He is the personification of our national confusion re: every fucking thing. And she hosted a cold open as herself, trying to see if any part of America still worked. Nobody is doing great right now, but McKinnon was admitting it on live TV. Maybe that’s why, for the first time since Vulture started running these screen-time breakdowns, a different full-time cast member is in the top spot.
Beck Bennett: 7.7%
It was a real squeaker, but Beck Bennett is this year’s screen-time champ. Beck played a hefty chunk of the men in politics this year, which helped his numbers during Cameo Fest 2020: Death March to the White House. And unlike Kate McKinnon, whose Kellyanne Conway impression has become blessedly irrelevant, Bennett’s Mitch McConnell (and to a lesser extent, Mike Pence) continues to be needed in cold opens. Beyond impressions, Bennett was the barometer in many ensemble sketches. He’s tough about “drivers license,” until he’s into it. He hates the big Broadway dance number some bartenders are forcing him to watch, until it turns out he knows tap. Bennett plays stern high-status men that flip on a dime. Who knew, when he emerged as one Matthew in a sea of McConaugheys, that he’d have the range to dominate the show?