Saturday Night Live is a long, long season. Over the years, 47 of them now, it’s been something of a tradition to book a ringer for the season finale, somebody well known to the cast who could be counted on to drag an exhausted staff over the finish line without too much fuss. Good old Buck Henry hosted 10 times in the show’s first five seasons, and hosted the season finale in the last four, his professionalism and reported willingness to perform whatever sketches were left in the maybe pile making him indispensable.
Natasha Lyonne was a first-time host, but it’s tough to imagine anybody being nervous about her being in the building for this last episode of Season 47. In her monologue, the former child star (who brought along a clip of herself on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse), turned cautionary tale (several sketches showed off the prominent scar from her drug-related heart surgery), turned feel-good comeback story (Russian Doll, Orange Is the New Black), spoke feelingly about the “real life chosen family” she’s made of many of the SNL regulars over the years. She even brought along a couple, as Maya Rudolph and Lyonne’s longtime former boyfriend Fred Armisen popped by to share their Natasha Lyonne impressions (and, in Fred’s case, tickle the hell out of her).
Even if she weren’t already a backstage favorite, though, Lyonne would fit right in at Saturday Night Live. With her brash New York demeanor (described by the actress as “a Little Orphan Annie type who talks like Dee Dee Ramone”) and seen-it-all unflappability, Lyonne was a fine choice to bring this season in for a landing. Her two biggest sketches saw her decked out as a man, mustache and all, hurling herself into some broad physical comedy and suitably motor-mouthed characterizations. (Even if the second one saw her immediately shot dead, only to be pinched, tickled, and thoroughly manhandled by multiple people while she gamely attempted to stay limp and silent.) Natasha Lyonne is a trouper and, after another long and eventful season, her rumpled indefatigability and palpable chumminess suited what turned out to be a ragged and intermittently emotional night.
Just to get it out of the way, this was the last show for a formidable list of veteran cast members, with Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, Pete Davidson, and Kyle Mooney all announcing this week that they were leaving. With all that baggage to consider, I should probably lay one final garland on Kate’s luckless but unbowed alien abductee Colleen Rafferty, she of the smoldering cigarette and the million and one euphemisms for her lady parts. (Tonight, we got “dong hole” and “wrong hole,” among others.) But we’re not here to bury Kate McKinnon and one recurring character that should have stopped at one, so I’m picking the 2002 prom pre-tape as the best of this last episode.
Narrated in full sentimental Wonder Years tones by Andrew Dismukes, the elegiac piece quickly turned into a train wreck of 20-years-later misfortunes as he ran through the fates of his happily dancing classmates. The running gag is that Lyonne’s Rachel Finnster was the cause of many of those misfortunes, but Dismukes’ class had its own issues, including Heidi Gardner’s valedictorian who wound up last in her class at Harvard. (“I guess our high school just wasn’t that good,” Dismukes muses.) Chris Redd’s character went pro—in porn. Throw in a couple of missing persons, a suicide (protesting Broadway Covid restrictions), and the odd insurrectionist or two, and, yeah, this was not a good high school. The joke that Lyonne’s Finnster was at the center of many, if not most, of those calamities powers the bit, Lyonne’s carefree prom dancing eventually slowing to a Kubrick-style evil glare as we find out that Dismukes’ character was not only murdered by Rachel Finnster, but is doomed the old school until the day she’s finally brought to justice. Ending on the yearbook message to have a great summer, the bit is a finely crafted sick joke on the subject of nostalgic goodbyes. I can never have too many of those, honestly.
Amidst a truly staggering number of season-ending recurring sketches, it’s a shame to single out one of the few original pieces here, but the 9 to 5 sketch was a knockabout farce without a laugh in it. Lyonne, as the Dabney Coleman-esque sexist boss, is snuffed out by Heidi Gardner’s hair-trigger pistol before he can get through one insulting line, or put away his penis. That results in Gardner, Ego Nwodim, and Cecily Strong trying to pull off a Weekend at Bernie’s bit for the benefit of Kyle and Armisen’s visiting board members, complete with all the body-molesting, drink-spilling, and awkward tickling that entails. Sometimes a sketch is loud and broad without being funny, which only makes it feel louder, broader, and about three times as long. Lyonne, unsurprisingly, looks to be a good sport about it all, especially since all the pawing just goes on forever.
Of the meager roster of originals tonight, the best showcase for Lyonne was the 1950’s baseball sketch, where her broadcaster reacts with escalatingly inappropriate loose lips to her doctor’s prescription of methamphetamine. Lyonne as an old-timey baseball announcer is a can’t-miss proposition, and this largely doesn’t, as her male announcer lets fly with bottled up ethnic slurs, remarks about players’ wives, and that story about the time a hungry Babe Ruth ate a live orphan on a cold Cleveland night. She even tells the dirtiest old joke I’ve heard on SNL in a long while, and urges listeners stuck in traffic to “just slam the gas and see what happens.” But worry not, everybody, as the sketch pairs her with Mikey Day in the booth, and a Mikey Day character is bound and determined to put a stop to any given sketch’s shenanigans. Where would SNL be without a Mikey Day character on hand to point out that someone in a sketch is acting all funny? I’m genuinely asking.
I go after Jost and Che pretty hard down below, so I’ll say—they’re fine. Update on their watch usually scores a middling body blow or two. Here, Che’s joke about Fox News white supremacist and stochastic terrorist Tucker Carlson at least mentions the fish stick heir’s stock in Nazi-cribbed “replacement theory” bullshit before settling for a small dick joke. And Jost obliquely referenced how hate speech has become mainstream GOP policy by joking how, in censuring marginally outraged GOP holdout Liz Cheney, the GOP leadership called her criticism “cheaper than a Black rabbi.”
Political comedy, to be worth a damn, means meeting the moment on its own terms. Smirky chuckles in the face of genuine, mounting fascism and multifarious oppression is surrender, comically speaking. Jost referenced the far-right lunatic who just won the Republican gubernatorial primary in Pennsylvania. (Doug Mastriano has, among other horrifying things, straight-up promised to throw out any election results not in line with his tin hat bigotry.) Except that Jost then pivots to insults on the guy’s looks, along with those of actual elected GOP governor Ron DeSantis, in lieu of, well, anything. Do the jokes or don’t do the jokes. But stop wasting my time.
The other big goodbye tonight came from Pete Davidson, who came into work live for the first time since, I believe, the Willem Dafoe episode back in January. I’ll miss Pete. He got better as a sketch performer, but was always best on Update, delivering chunks of self-effacing stand-up as SNL’s troubled kid brother. Here, he references the whole Kanye thing, and compares how right-wing outrage over him mocking Rep. Dan Crenshaw somehow didn’t reemerge once Tucker Carlson started doing the same thing. But this was really a last taste of Davidson’s signature “what am I doing here?” shtick, with a genuinely affecting helping of gratitude to the show that gave him his now-flourishing (if strange) career. Everybody who’s ever worked at SNL has a Lorne Michaels impression, and Pete’s anecdote about Lorne telling the just-auditioned Pete, “let’s screw this up together,” sums up Davidson’s tenure on the show with an aptly sentimental tone. Good luck, mister.
It is never, ever a good sign when this is the longest section of any review. But here goes.
It looked like Kate got her goodbye out of the way right up top, as poor Colleen Rafferty once more was debriefed by the government about getting, well, de-briefed by those pesky aliens. The sketch is what it is, as Colleen chain smokes her way through a tale of low-rent extraterrestrial groping and eventual graceless humiliation (this time they drop her, ass-up, in the middle of a Mets game). The first time was a genuine voyage of gut-buster comic inventiveness, with McKinnon’s characterization of a tough broad amusedly unsurprised that she got the short end of the stick, close encounter-wise. All the jokes about slang terms for vagina and anus were never the main draw, although they certainly were the only thing that really changed each time the bit came back.
Informed by NSA investigator Aidy that someone has to accompany the alien pervs on a permanent, grubby star trek, it’s Mrs. Rafferty and Kate’s big goodbye that grudgingly undoes all my cynicism. With a pair of the little grey dudes preparing to paw at her pubes, Kate’s Colleen pauses at the spaceship door and says, tears in her eyes, “I always felt like an alien on this planet anyway,” before Kate got the first of the farewell gestures. “Well Earth,” Kate/Colleen tells us, “I love you. Thanks for letting me stay a while.” You’re welcome, Kate. And thanks, for everything.
Aidy’s moment came with a bouquet and kisses from Michael Che and Bowen Yang on Update, as she and Yang’s trend spotters wheeled out again. Nobody’s in the mood for another rant about what does and doesn’t make for a good repeating sketch, but, you know, it’s sort of what I get paid for. (In short: this has neither the focus nor the performances to stake out a franchise, and comes across as a poor person’s Stefon.) I love Aidy, and Bowen’s a star, and this is an awfully sweet way for Aidy to go out, as, not quite breaking character, she and Yang predict future trends like “ten nice years” and “a friend I couldn’t have done this without.” And then there’s the smooching, and it’s all very lovely, and I can only hope that those delicious looking cocktails were, just this once, real booze.
I don’t think Alex Moffat is leaving, but he got a recurring character gift to close out the season, too, with that guy who just bought that boat. He’s good at it, rattling off the douchiest double entendres a half-formed little twerp can cobble together (and get by NBC standards and practices), while subliminally letting slip his own inadequacies in the dong department. I like Moffat. He’s got a bit more versatility than pal Mikey Day, and he’s certainly intentionally punchable as this guy. The cast shakeup in the offseason is going to tell whether Moffat gets called into the upper tier or remains an above average everyman with the occasional showcase like this one. I think he’s up to the challenge, but that means leaving moderately amusing franchises like this behind.
Man, another one, huh? Well, while I likewise haven’t heard anything about Kenan Thompson ending his Cal Ripken-esque SNL streak, the Treece Henderson Trio is as good a goodbye for the season as you could ask for. Actually, scratch that. There are about five other recurring Kenan bits I like better, but the ongoing on- and off-stage dramas of low-rent, hotel lounge musicians is just weird enough with its fill-in-the-blank details that I can’t quite quit it. Kenan, as always, is the scat-singing Henderson, backed by Kyle Mooney’s keyboardist and whichever host is sitting in as Treece’s band/roommate. There’s so little variation in these sketches that that sort of becomes the joke. There’s infighting, someone in the audience points it out, and then a phone call informs Treece that his shared apartment has been burgled, endangering his favorite article of clothing. (Tonight it’s a knockoff Bottega Veneta fanny pack.) The show would have made a bigger deal about a Kenan departure, and, truthfully, I am in no way troubled at the thought of Kenan Thompson staying at SNL for as long as he wants. It’s not that the show needs Kenan, or that Kenan needs Saturday Night Live at this point. But his gifts fit so well into the SNL formula that it will just feel a little bit off without him. You know, if he’s not still doing this when he’s 60.
Well, with SNL signing off for the summer and the working life of a freelancer being about as guaranteed as a featured player who got about one sketch every six weeks (good luck, Aristotle and Punkie, I’m rooting for you), here’s one last bit of analysis concerning Saturday Night Live’s satire. Jost and Che (as head writers and Update anchors) need to rise to the moment. Assuming they’re coming back, and that the United States is still hurtling toward a white supremacist authoritarian assault on democracy in September, shows like this just aren’t going to cut it when it comes to walking the walk. (The walk being SNL’s perennially overblown estimation of its own worth as a vehicle for meaningful political comedy.)
The only sketch tonight that even half qualifies is the voting ad, and that is so mired in watery both-sides murk that it manages to say literally nothing at all. “Dumb people vote, so you’d better vote to countermand their influence” is a nothing of a sentiment to build a sketch on if it’s not tied to any additional point of view. And it is not. Kenan’s self-proclaimed dumb voter goes out of his way to say that he’s voted for both the elephants and the donkeys before, just so nobody can possibly come away thinking that SNL is taking some sort of position concerning—just as an example—the majority-white, resentment-motivated, misinformation-gorging bloc that voted to put a cartoonishly corrupt demagogue and greed-headed conman in the White House.
I’m tired. I’m sure everyone at Saturday Night Live is tired. Writing six or so years of Trump and GOP-related material in a daily atmosphere of fear and outrage that white Americans are choosing increasingly hateful and violent fundamentalist nationalism over democracy has to be a grind. (And toss a two year pandemic on top, just for added fun.) But that’s their job, and Saturday Night Live’s reputation for sticking it to power and making fun of those most worthy of ridicule has never looked more threadbare and impotent. I’ve written (a lot) about how SNL has never been as politically radical as its rep. (From the start, its role as a live weekly affront to the medium of television—and entertainment more generally—was much more powerful.) But the worst and most dangerous times are when satirists make their bones. Under Che and Jost’s leadership, Saturday Night Live is far, far too content to coast on that reputation, equating above-it-all hipness with rebelliousness. Again, if SNL wants to bail on politics and just produce an apolitical show, then that’s a valid choice. (It would have to be a lot funnier to justify that, however.) But don’t toss off some lukewarm, toothless premise like this one and pat yourself on the back as you check off “politics” on the rundown.
Pete, Kyle, Aidy, Kate. Saturday Night Live makes stars and loses stars, and these four have put in a combined 38 seasons. And if Kyle didn’t get the same sort of center stage farewell as the rest, well, that sort of fits his whole niche on the show. Bon voyage, everybody.
This will be a busy summer, making the fates of everybody left behind tough to fathom. If Lorne goes on a hiring spree, we could see underserved cast like Aristotle Athari, Punkie Johnson, Melissa Villaseñor, and Sarah Sherman continue to scramble. Or he could listen to me and let this talented but scattered cast rise to fill the holes left by their departing (and airtime-gobbling) costars and see if they turn into stars themselves. For all my griping, I’m excited to see the show evolve.
“Buh-buh-buh-buh-basketball, gimme gimme gimme the ball, because I’m gonna dunk it!”—10-To-One Report
I thought Kate and Aidy’s individual bows earlier in the episode would rob us of one last team-up, but the gods are good and we closed things out with another tag-team commercial for a Kate-and-Aidy business. This time, it’s an ad for the very concept of grey pigtails on “whimsical women of a certain age,” a gently silly premise that gives them the chance to mine their inimitable chemistry for some appropriately strange laughs. It’s all in the details, as their mellow, middle-aged, grey-maned pitchwomen extol the virtues of being the sort of women someone will meet for five minutes and then talk about for the rest of their lives. Or who you’ll see once and think, “Got it.” Or who have untroubled shared carnal custody of Kyle Mooney’s similarly grey-haired forest sculptor alongside seemingly every other grey-tailed lady in town. SNL’s given more elaborate sendoffs for beloved cast members (and Kate and Aidy are as beloved as it gets in my book), but letting them go out as the sweet and silly team they’ve always been is lovely, too.
Getting paid to write about Saturday Night Live is something that would have knocked the socks clean off of young me. I’m no longer young (like, at all), but I’m still thrilled that the fine people at Paste took me on after the… unpleasantness… that marked my departure from a different place. And I’m grateful that you all have come along with me. I hope I’ll see you all when SNL comes back this fall. Now get some sleep, you knuckleknobs. I know I will.
Dennis Perkins is an entertainment writer who lives in Maine with his wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, (Special Agent Dale) Cooper. His work has appeared in places like The A.V. Club, Ultimate Classic Rock, and the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. You can find him on Twitter, where he will anger you with opinions, and Instagram, where you will be won back over by pictures of Special Agent Dale Cooper.