Saturday Night Live did the unexpected this year: it actually broke from the rigid formula it’s been locked into for the last 35 years, at least for a couple of episodes. Granted it had to—the pandemic made sure of that. Those “at home” episodes in the spring weren’t the best SNL episodes, but they were the most memorable in years, because of how distinct they were, both visually and structurally. The best clips from those episodes weren’t just homemade, but felt personal in a way this show rarely gets, letting cast members who routinely struggle for airtime display their unique comedic sensibilities and performance skills. Unfortunately the show ditched that format as the last season wrapped in May, and returned to the studio in the fall when Season 46 started up. That’s not just a dangerous decision—do they need to put the cast, the crew, and actual audience members at risk for a comedy show?—but one that saw the show immediately return to its overly familiar format. Not only were those at home episodes safer than returning to the studio, they were also funnier than what they’ve done in the studio since.
The early episodes of Season 46 were bogged down with terrible political cold opens and the obnoxious stunt-casting of Alec Baldwin and Jim Carrey as Trump and Biden, respectively. The show’s improved somewhat since the election (although the best episode of the new season was the last one before election day, with John Mulaney’s latest hosting appearance), but is still finding its way during what’s been a mediocre era. Given that the cast is generally talented and likable, and that the writing staff is full of great comedians and writers, you have to assume the show’s deficiencies lie with the people in charge—from the head writers, to Lorne Michaels, to the network itself. Bummer!
Still, some great comedy made its way out of this factory. The following 10 sketches vary in tone and taste but are all, for our money, worth laughing along with. Here’s what SNL can do when it does it well.
The quarantine hit everybody hard but especially parents. I can’t imagine being cooped up indoors for months, trying to work from home while also making sure my kids are doing their school work and staying entertained. I can barely handle a toy poodle. SNL hit on the perfect plan to help the parents of the world, and turned it into a catchy, uplifting jam.
When John Mulaney hosts Saturday Night Live (which he does often—he hosted twice in 2020, his third and fourth times overall) you can expect two things: intricately written sketches that focus on one or two details that initially seem insignificant, and sketches about musicals. “Sound of Music: Rolf and Liesl” ticks off both boxes, turning Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” into a duet about those creepy older guys who try to date teenagers. Mulaney and Cecily Strong hilariously trade off of each other, and the whole thing ends with a great kicker.
Mulaney’s two 2020 episodes weren’t quite as strong as the two he hosted in prevoius years, but they were both easily among the season’s both. I could’ve packed this list out exclusively with sketches from his episodes—and you’ll see a few more, as you’ve already read about the Sound of Music parody—but focused on “Uncle Meme” because of its timeliness and the sheer comedy of Mulaney’s pleading and frustration. Mulaney again expertly deploys his inherent white, uptight squareness as the butt of an embarrassing meme started by his nephew Pete Davidson, and Chris Redd gets a couple of great lines in, too. The show revisited the idea in Mulaney’s second episode of the year, and it was pretty much just as good then, too.
Here’s something that hits a little too close to home: during one of Saturday Night Live’s quarantine episodes, we got a glimpse at how life has turned out for Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael in the animated short “Middle-Aged Mutant Ninja Turtles.” And no, it ain’t pretty. I have a job. My wife seemingly still loves me. I don’t have kids. I basically feel the same way I did at 20, despite the gray hair and extra pounds. Still, I feel this way too much. Despite my (still relatively successful) attempts to retain my youth, I recognize this struggle from my friends, my siblings, and even myself, when I’m at my most honest. This is the natural course of life, even if you’re a turtle mutated into a ninja vigilante by radioactive sludge. You can’t beat up time, no matter how many nunchucks you swing at it. A follow-up cartoon in December was just as good as the original.
The contrarianism in Bill Burr’s stand-up can be a little frustrating, but he’s turned into a surprisingly fine actor, which served him well when hosting SNL for the first time this year. “Sports Debate” plays uncomfortably with the tragedies of racism and police violence, and although I don’t begrudge anybody who finds it in poor taste, the tension and commitment to following the concept through makes it one of the better written and more memorable sketches of the year. Burr, Kenan Thompson, and Ego Nwodim all play their roles perfectly in a ridiculous escalation that sadly feels all too plausible.
Repetition is a classic comedy tool, and like any tool it can make a mess when used improperly. Another John Mulaney sketch is an example of how to use repetition well. When confronted with the Headless Horseman during a nighttime walk through Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane has one basic question: does the Horseman ever use his head for, y’know, self-pleasure. It’s pretty much single-mindedly focused on that one idea, but written with enough depth and with enough permutations of that basic concept to never get old. Yeah, it’s vulgar, but also weirdly witty in its own way.
The best sketch of the second at home episode came from Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon. They did another variation on their duo of well-meaning but incompetent women in a grocery store ad marketing all the stuff that isn’t selling during the quarantine. “Grocery Store Ad” marries the genial oddness they bring to their Smokery Farms characters to a timely premise that pretty much everybody will feel acutely during these weird times. McKinnon can be a little too confident a performer at times—her Ruth Bader Ginsberg character is an ostentatious bust at this point—but working with Bryant brings out the best in both of them.
Speaking of the fantastic chemistry between Bryant and McKinnon, here’s the rare SNL talk show sketch that doesn’t immediately feel played out and creatively moribund. The two play the kind of extravagant old characters that New York is known for, old-school mid-society New Yorkers who love Broadway, costume jewelry, and hotel living. Yes, they’re like a distaff version of Mulaney and Nick Kroll’s Oh, Hello characters, but broader and more absurd, and with New York references general enough for pretty much everybody to understand. RuPaul fits right in as one of the two men they’ve both been married to.
Remember what I just said about repetition? While “Headless Horseman” repeated the same joke in many different ways, “Del Taco Shoot” shows how repeating the exact same joke over and over can be almost deliriously funny. (I mention this a lot but the gold standard of this will always be the infamous Simpsons rake gag.) “Aww man, I’m all out of cash!” gets said so many times that it transcends all meaning and becomes a purely verbal shibboleth, less ad copy than a symbol of mankind’s eternal frustration. Okay, that’s probably overselling it, but after you watch it you’ll probably understand what I’m getting at. Hearing Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, and eventually Adam Driver say those seven words over and over and over again quickly turns into a jolt of pure comedy.
In this absurd riff on old Depression-era melodramas, host Timothée Chalamet is sad about his family falling into poverty and having to sell the farm, but he’s simply devastated by the fact that he’ll also have to say goodbye to his best friend, a very small horse. Tiny Horse, who seems to be anywhere from one to four inches high, and who changes regularly between some kind of weird overlay effect and what looks like claymation, doesn’t want to leave at first, until Chalamet has to repeatedly yell at him to git in a gag almost as brilliantly drawn out as Sideshow Bob stepping on those rakes. Over the course of his song (did I mention this is a song?) Chalamet’s farm boy realizes that he was holding Tiny Horse back—that with freedom, and the drive to be great, he could graduate from Animal University, become a cabinet member, maybe even marry a Congress member. A very specific Congress member. The sky’s the limit for Tiny Horse, as long as Chalamet learns to let him go.