Saturday Night Live’s content train kept a-chuggin’ all the way through Season 44, which wrapped this past weekend with a fine episode hosted by Paul Rudd. We can be a little tough on the show around these parts, but that’s only because we want to see it be as strong as it can be. When it does hit its potential, it’s a show every bit as good as its legacy—a comedy institution that still writes the kind of comedy that justifies it being an institution. The way the show is written and produced might make it unnecessarily hard to consistently hit such a high level, but even the worst seasons are still full of great comedy and memorable sketches. And although it wasn’t one of the best, Season 44 was far from the worst. Here are 10 sketches that prove Saturday Night Live still has a lot to offer the comedy world.
Season 44 started in September, and although it never quite recovered from its Trump-era doldrums, the show has seemed to make a concerted effort to rely less on recurring characters. This means more sketches like “Teacher Fell Down,” a weird bit of business from Kate McKinnon that has the off-kilter charm expected from the show’s episode-closing 10-to-1 slot. In the past that’s probably where this sketch would’ve aired, but this was smack dab in the middle of the Jonah Hill episode, with something even weirder airing at the end. As I wrote back when it aired, “the unexpected details turn what seems like a pretty limited idea into a consistently funny sketch that isn’t as repetitive as it easily could’ve been.”
This was clearly written by somebody who’s very familiar with Weezer’s discography and the arguments on both sides of the divide. Leslie Jones, who believes that Weezer is unlistenable after Pinkerton (other than a few songs on the 2001 album), goes head to head with Matt Damon, a staunch Weezer believer who celebrates their entire catalogue. Their impromptu beef disrupts an otherwise pleasant grown-up Christmas party, angering their hosts and embarrassing the life out of their partners, and yet anybody who’s ever felt strongly about Weezer (or any other band) probably understands why it’s so important to stick up for what you believe. Even if you don’t like Weezer (and c’mon, you really shouldn’t—even Pinkerton is bad), if you care about music you’ll feel something when you watch this thing.
What makes this sketch so good isn’t just the absurd incompetence of the PowerPoint presentation made by Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon’s receptionists. It’s the extreme lengths they both go to to apologize for that incompetence, along with how well these two play off of each other. The stereotype of an older person getting completely bewildered by modern tech is a stereotype, but one rooted in reality, and between that familiarity, Bryant and McKinnon’s chemistry, and the building expectation of each new ridiculous slide, this is one of the funniest sketches of the season.
Kenan Thompson’s Bill Cosby impersonation used to be a loving tribute to a man who loomed large not just in Thompson’s own career but throughout all of television and comedy. Now it’s a brutal caricature of a career criminal who preyed upon unsuspecting women for decades while hypocritically lecturing others for not setting a good example. “Jail Cellmate” doesn’t have any sympathy for Cosby, mocking not just the quirks that Cosby impersonators have riffed on for years, but his hypocrisy, his blindness, and even the fact that he hasn’t just died yet.
Comedy isn’t a constant. This sketch aired in December; it didn’t make my list of the best SNL sketches of 2018, but after rewatching it a few times this year, I’ve realized that was a mistake. This is a really well-written bit of comedy, with a simple premise based on a well-established genre of TV that SNL hasn’t strip-mined for material yet, and full of jokes that continually escalate instead of going around in circles. The performances are also top notch, from Claire Foy’s cheery vacuousness, to Mikey Day’s increasingly perturbed soldier trying to maintain his British restraint, to Kenan Thompson’s (presumably lecherous) interloper.
SNL has a long, rich history of busting guts through graphically busted guts, or at least other scenes of bloody and grotesque violence that arrive out of nowhere. “The Duel” might not be as gross as “Farewell Mr. Bunting” or Phil Hartman’s weightlifter at the All-Drug Olympics, but Sandra Oh is still a bloody mess well before the end. Although the violence is shocking and subverts expectations, it’s still not really the point of the sketch; its criticism of how women are traditionally expected to be apologetic and subservient gives this one a truly memorable bite.
This wasn’t Kate McKinnon’s most memorable season on the show, but she did get one of her best showcases yet in this sketch from John Mulaney’s latest excellent hosting gig. In her best physical comedy of the year, McKinnon plays Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not, and reveals that she has absolutely no idea how to actually whistle. Her increasingly awkward farewell becomes funnier as it goes. Almost as impressive as McKinnon’s performance is Mulaney’s ability to maintain both a straight face and his classic Hollywood accent while all this is happening around (and on top of) him.
The past loomed large over Adam Sandler’s first hosting gig since being fired from the show in 1995, and it was never more powerful than in this episode-closing tribute to Sandler’s old friend and cast mate. It’s a touching tribute to one of the show’s best and most popular performers, who died way too young over 20 years ago. It’s not funny, per se, but it’s one of the most heartfelt moments in the show’s history, and one that never feels cloying or overly saccharine. The emotional high point of the season would probably rank higher if we hadn’t already seen it on Adam Sandler’s recent Netflix stand-up special.
John Mulaney has been the host of SNL’s best episode for two straight seasons now. He’s a big part of why those episodes were so good, of course—he’s a fantastic sketch performer who knows exactly how to play every scene he’s in, without any of the awkwardness or poor cue card-reading skills of some other hosts. He’s also a great writer, though, and that’s even more important—between his own work and his eye for sketches written by others, his two episodes have been nothing but sharply written comedy from start to finish. “What’s That Name” is another sketch that quickly subverts the audience’s expectations, starting off as a trivial celebrity-recognition game before abruptly becoming a scathing mockery of how little interest we take in the lives of people we actually know. Bill Hader as the smug host and Heidi Gardner as Mulaney’s friend’s girlfriend sell it perfectly with the right amount of contempt in their delivery. This wasn’t the first time SNL has done this sketch, but the last time was several years ago and so it felt new and fresh when they brought it back this year.
Can we give Adam Driver an Oscar for this sketch? I know TV folks get Emmys but this is better than any movie acting I’ve seen this year. He’s almost frighteningly committed as Abraham Parnassus, an ancient oil baron who shows up at his son’s career day to talk about how important it is to crush your enemies. This might be the best pure job of acting anybody’s ever done on this show, or at least in recent memory. Even without the wig and makeup (which make Driver look a lot like Stacy Keach’s similar character Abraham Wright from Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud) Driver would’ve disappeared into this role. That’s how thoroughly he captures the imperious demeanor of a Gilded Age oil baron. I don’t normally think SNL should repeat sketches that often—many a great one-off has been quickly run into the ground through repetition. But Parnassus could easily be Driver’s version of the Continental or Jonah Hill’s six-year-old Catskills comedian, an iconic character that only shows up when the actor who plays it is hosting.