Remember last year’s Season 46 finale of Saturday Night Live, which opened cold with four longtime cast members onstage together as themselves, fighting back tears? Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, Kate McKinnon and Kenan Thompson looked like they were leaving last May, Cecily even more so after she followed Pete Davidson’s thanks to the audience speech in Weekend Update with her own wine-soaked rendition of “I Did It My Way,” only for all five of them to return last fall? Yeah, kinda made Season 47 feel anticlimactic. Also made for for the biggest SNL cast ever, 21 in all.
So what to make of the season?
We’ve already outlined our Sweet 16 sketch moments from Season 47. Now let’s hand out some grades.
New Cast Members: A-
Breaking in on SNL is notoriously difficult. All-star comedy troupes could be assembled just from the lineup of cast members who flamed out, one-and-done style. So getting any screen time when there’s more comedians and celebrity cameos chewing up the scenery than ever before? That says a lot about the sheer strength of the performances and personalities of this season’s three new additions: James Austin Johnson, Sarah Sherman and Aristotle Athari.
As we’ve mentioned before, Johnson (or JAJ for short) carried perhaps the biggest burden by replacing Alec Baldwin in portraying Donald Trump, and also impersonating current President Joe Biden, which meant opening the show and the entire season cold. Sherman, who went by character Sarah Squirm before landing in 30 Rock, figured out how to get her wild ideas on-air, from a person with “Meatballs” growing out of them to putting the killer Chucky doll in a corporate setting, to of course, taking over Weekend Update to torment Colin Jost. And Athari, who otherwise seemed invisible by comparison, somehow managed to have the only new recurring character of the season?!? His international singing sensation, Angelo, debuting alongside Rami Malek, and receiving a vote of confidence from at least multiple guest hosts (Billie Eilish, Jerrod Carmichael) who wanted to duet with Angelo, even if sometimes his performances got “Cut For Time.”
Featured Cast Members: B-
Andrew Dismukes put the featured in featured player this season, as Beck Bennett’s departure last summer seemed to benefit Dismukes the most, in terms of roles and screen time. Still only 26, Dismukes found himself in more and more sketches, finding his own voice and place in the show.
Punkie Johnson, meanwhile, might not have received as many opportunities to shine, but when those moments came, she took to them!
Repertory Players: Pass/Fail (PASS!)
Kate McKinnon missed the first seven weeks to work on her Peacock series, Joe vs. Carole, yet stormed back to sing with Oscar winner Ariana DeBose, portray Dr. Anthony Fauci as well as two Supreme Court justices (the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her replacement, Amy Coney Barrett), and went out as a GOAT in the finale cold open, rocketed into space because she was truly extraordinary.
Cecily Strong missed the first three episodes to start 2022 so she could star in an Off-Broadway revival of a classic Lily Tomlin show, but revealed an Emmy-worthy performance as a clown who’d had an abortion, and also impersonated a variety of other “clowns” from politics and cable news. Strong proved she had more in the tank to give of herself and to us, and still does.
Pete Davidson missed eight episodes in 2022, ostensibly to film a movie, although Davidson’s seemingly larger-than-life life became even more of a running theme for him on the show (and not just because he started dating Kim Kardashian after she hosted). Pete’s appearances most often centered on his offstage reputation, whether he was mocking the “please don’t destroy” trio in their video, making music videos that reflected his own celebrity status, or even just talking about his real-life adventures from behind the Update desk, such as buying an old Staten Island ferry at auction with Colin Jost.
Kenan Thompson crossed the 1,500-sketch mark in week 14, and since NBC cancelled his primetime sitcom, Kenan, after two seasons, that’s one less thing stopping him from reaching an incredible 20 seasons of service on SNL.
Chris Redd, who co-starred on Kenan, still has his other co-starring vehicle on Peacock (Bust Down), but he’s enjoying the swagger of his new role as New York City Mayor Eric Adams plus his continued ability to churn out music videos, so his profile will only keep getting bigger.
Ego Nwodim‘s profile grew, too, helped in part by Dionne Warwick joining her live to endorse her Warwick impersonation.
Mikey Day grew into the “glue” role, that actor who might not star or steal the spotlight, but shows up more often than you might think as the straight man or supporting character to keep the sketch from going off the rails.
Heidi Gardner, Alex Moffat, and Melissa Villaseñor all fell off in the screen-time department this season, but not due to any lack of talent on their parts. These three all deserved better this season, but suffered from the bloated size of the cast. Here’s hoping they re-emerge in Season 48. They’ll be helped, of course, by two other massive cast departures.
Aidy Bryant stuck around not only to stick it to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, but also to enjoy a few more go-arounds with her sketch comedy partner-in-criminally-funny bits, Kate. Aidy also received a proper send-off in the finale, along with kisses from Michael Che and Bowen Yang.
As his fans quickly noted, Kyle Mooney did not get a proper farewell in the finale, all-too-fitting for a guy whose short films all-too-often got “Cut For Time.” Even Mooney’s own films acknowledged his diminished stature in the show following the departure of his comedy partner (Bennett), often pointing out his feelings as an outsider. Perhaps Mooney’s eccentricities could only gain their proper respect outside of the show? To be fair, though, SNL did give him one final “Baby Yoda” appearance in the penultimate episode, as well as a shout-out in Pete Davidson’s finale Eminem tribute music video to his fellow cast members and Lorne Michaels. Which, ironically or obviously, also got Cut For Time.
Chloe Fineman and Bowen Yang were promoted from featured players to the main cast before this season began. While Bowen may not have landed any moments that broke through quite as much as his Titanic Iceberg piece did last season, he brought a fierce energy to anything asked of him. Chloe certainly picked up the slack during Kate’s hiatus, and demonstrated in this late-season short, “The Understudy,” that she’s eager, willing, and able to fill in for anyone else, too, with her wide range of impersonation skills.
Can you call it a success merely because Lorne didn’t pull any stunts by inviting train-wrecks such as Donald Trump or Elon Musk to host this season? Yes, I know many of us (myself included) expected Kim Kardashian to attract millions of eyeballs to the show with the only laughs coming at her expense, only to have surprise all of us doubters.
No athletes or politicians to muck things up this season. Nope. Only a solid stable of popular and critically-acclaimed performers, plus a few musicians who mostly had bona fide acting credits (Lizzo in Hustlers; Selena Gomez in Only Murders in the Building; ok, Billie Eilish had only played Billie Eilish before SNL). Paul Rudd and John Mulaney both joined the Five-Timers Club. Former SNL stars Jason Sudeikis and Will Forte made nostalgically heroic returns to the studio. And plenty of others got to make their hosting debuts, all giving it their all, despite the writing often letting them down.
Cold Opens: C-
Speaking of which…what a mess. If you read any of my recaps from this season, or watched the show yourself, you’d have witnessed episode after episode where SNL felt overwhelmed by the news of the week, so they decided to overwhelm the audience by cramming all of their ideas into cold opens that ran too long and tried to say too much about too many things, all of which meant screaming past any great idea worth exploring for more than a minute. When Twitter users try to predict what’ll make the cold open on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, that’s not good for any comedy fan. Surprise us, please!
Musical Guests: B+
Kacey Musgraves went nude in the season opener, except few viewers outside of 30 Rock really figured that out in the moment since she didn’t call attention to it? Give credits to the bookers, though, for at least keeping up with the music release calendar or answering the call from record label publicists, as many of this year’s acts showed up on Saturday night, just 24 hours after their latest single or album dropped, or the week before a big new release. Also major props to booking Rosalia and not worrying about the fact that she sings in Spanish.
Eight of the musical acts (not counting the two singers who hosted this season) also found their way into sketches, and even more new and classic chart-toppers and viral hitmakers showed up in music videos, too. Making the pandemic even more relevant, two of this season’s acts had to reschedule due to COVID within their ranks, but both Charli XCX and Roddy Ricch made it back to 30 Rock to perform in one fashion or another before the season ended.
And how could anyone forget T-Swift’s 10-minute version of “All Too Well.” Certainly not Jake Gyllenhaal.
Weekend Update hosts and characters: C
Too often, they could’ve solved a problematic mess of a cold open by putting one of the oddly inserted characters on Update instead of jamming them into the mix at the top of the show.
Colin Jost and Michael Che became the two longest-serving Update anchors this season, both of them passing Seth Meyers to do so. They’ve developed obvious chemistry over the years. They’ve co-hosted the Emmys, gone on WrestleMania, and now what? They might both return this fall, but since Lorne did forecast a “year of change” in a recent profile of Che, perhaps it’s in everyone’s best interests to turn the page. If Andrew Dismukes and/or Sarah Sherman wanted it, either of them would bring a fresh take to Update. Or hire a new stand-up comedian. Or even take my previous suggestion from many moons ago and put John Mulaney behind the desk to anchor the show and Mulaney himself! Do something fun and exciting with Update, you cowards.
Fake Ads: D—
Sorry. My bad. I wanted to reserve my old-man ranting to remind you kids that back in our day, SNL used to write, produce and excel in the filming of commercials for outrageously fake products. And they aired them immediately after the monologues, just to fake audiences out more. Now, it’s all branded content sketches and shorts, and real ads in the ad break after the monologue. Where is the new Colon Blow?! Oh, wait. Did SNL stop making ads BECAUSE they entered into secret sponsored content agreements? I smell my own conspiracy theory.
But we know they have it in them to do fake ads again. It might not be Colon Blow, but if you ate that cereal, you could use a New Toilet.
Digital Shorts: B
Listed in lowercase on the show, the “please don’t destroy” trio of Martin Herlihy, John Higgins and Ben Marshall made their debut in week two with the short, “Hard Seltzer,” but really announced they’d arrived in episode six with “Three Sad Virgins,” getting mocked in their own short by Pete Davidson and Taylor Swift.
It remains weirder, though, that SNL didn’t really include them in the announcement of cast hires, that they’ve never been included in the opening credits announced by Darrell Hammond (in olden times, guest performers got name-checked in the intro), and that despite producing stand-out shorts (befitting their two-thirds status as sons of longtime SNL writer/producers), their films just as often got reduced to YouTube instead of airing on NBC during the live broadcast. They made 12 shorts during the season; five of them got “Cut For Time.”
Stunt Casting: B
Even with 21 cast members competing for screen time, this season crowded the hired guns even further out of the picture with celebrity cameos during 15 of the 21 episodes. In an improvement over the Trump years, however, none of these cameos had anything to do with Trump or politics.
Instead, we saw Owen Wilson’s brothers, Billie Eilish’s brother and parents, co-stars of the hosts (Daniel Craig for Rami Malek, Elizabeth Olsen for Benedict Cumberbatch, Kristen Wiig and Ryan Phillippe for Will Forte, Steve Martin for Selena Gomez), Tina Fey and Tom Hanks sub in during an audience-free Omicron Christmas episode and two star-filled editions of the Five-Timers Club inductions, a “What Up With That?” panel, music video cameos that made perfect sense, Peyton Manning as an Emily in Paris fan, and the biggest stunt casting of them all, when Tyler Cameron, John Cena, Chace Crawford, Blake Griffin, Chris Rock, Amy Schumer, and Jesse Williams all competed with Kyle Mooney for Kim Kardashian’s love.
Overall Grade: C
Final notes? This was far from the funniest season of SNL, even if it had plenty of highlights.
If you ask me, and my boss did, this “year of change” Lorne predicts for Season 48 needs to include more than a cast rotation. I mean, I argued back in 2018 that SNL could use fresh leadership at the top. That’s not going to happen until after Lorne celebrates the 50th anniversary. If he had hoped to keep the entire cast together until then, this past season proved he didn’t need to, and is better off letting them go pursue their side projects and future endeavors. Alumni are always welcomed back to cameo or guest host. We saw it even in the finale, with Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen joining Natasha Lyonne.
But still. Prove me wrong that five head writers means no true head writer. The credits list Che, Jost, Kent Sublette, Streeter Seidell and Alison Gates all as head writers, but whom is calling the shots after the Wednesday table-read? Who decides what sketches get put into production, and which ones make it to air after the dress rehearsal? Ultimately, everything still goes through producers Steve Higgins and Erik Kenward, and finally Lorne. Higgins, perhaps better known to you kids as Jimmy Fallon’s sidekick, joined the SNL writing staff in 1995; Kenward joined in 2000. In the 2000s up until Seth Meyers left in 2014 to host Late Night, you could argue that SNL had a singular voice or point-of-view thanks to Meyers or Tina Fey before him as the head writer.
How would you describe the voice of SNL now? It’s a cacophony. Which is a hilarious word. But not a harmonious one.
Sean L. McCarthy works the comedy beat for his own digital newspaper, The Comic’s Comic; before that, for actual newspapers. Based in NYC but will travel anywhere for the scoop: Ice cream or news. He also tweets @thecomicscomic and podcasts half-hour episodes with comedians revealing origin stories: The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First.