It wouldn’t be a “Saturday Night Live” season finale without the bittersweet moment that comes when a veteran cast member makes a final appearance. Last night it was Bill Hader’s turn to say goodbye, just as Kristen Wiig had done the previous season.
Given the revolving door at “SNL” has never seemed to stop moving over its 38-season run, the exit shouldn’t be cause for concern. Hader made a strong case for cast MVP over 2012-13, but Wiig also ended her run as “SNL’s” top player. And yet the show seemed to have enjoyed a solid season without her and another high-profile defector, Andy Samberg.
But 2013-14 could very well shake out to be one of those tricky transitional seasons that every now and then seems to threaten “SNL” over a history that has seen its share of low points.
Consider the already announced departure next season of head writer and “Weekend Update” anchor Seth Meyers, who plans to transition to his own NBC late-night show by next January. Add to that the increasing likelihood that Jason Sudeikis and Fred Armisen may not be with the series much longer; a New York Post report suggests this season will be their last, and the finale’s last sketch didn’t explicitly send them off, though it was certainly strongly hinted (NBC has yet to confirm whether either is done).
But don’t panic. The prospect of losing at least four prominent cast members before 2013-14 might seem dire, but students of “SNL” history will note that past mass cast defections tend to be like forest fires: While the damage done is seemingly devastating, it actually has a counterintuitively restorative effect, clearing the way for future growth. And what’s more, the seeds for the next generation of SNL already seem to be sprouting in the current cast.
The prospect of a mass exodus shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Sudeikis was originally intended to exit midway through the current season only to inexplicably stay on for the duration. Armisen also seemed to signal one foot out the door by relinquishing Obama impersonation duties to Jay Pharoah. Armisen and Sudeikis have had truly great runs at ‘SNL,’ but both seemed to be used less this season than in previous years, only accentuating the feeling that it’s time for them to move on.
To prevent this talent drain, “SNL” impresario Lorne Michaels will likely do whatever he can to forestal their exits, but it’s a short-term solution at best considering Sudeikis is eight seasons in, Armisen is on his 11th and yet another stalwart, Kenan Thompson, is on his 10th.
Michaels clearly has his work cut out for him in the off-season. But he’s been through this so many times he may not even be sweating.
The most direct comparison might be the 2005-06 season ,when “SNL” lost five cast members including “Update” anchor/head writer Tina Fey. But that was a breeze compared with the mass exoduses that rocked the franchise in 1985-86 and 1994-95.
But a funny thing happened in both of the seasons that followed: “SNL” experienced bumper crops in new cast additions. 1986 brought Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman and Kevin Nealon in one fell swoop. 1995 delivered Will Ferrell, Darrell Hammond, Cheri Oteri, Chris Kattan and Colin Quinn. All in one season.
But 2013-14 doesn’t necessarily require a fresh infusion of talent to salvage “SNL”; the series did a fantastic job of grooming in-house this season.
Two bright spots in the “SNL” men’s room: Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan. Both of these guys grew tremendously in 2012-13. Moynihan’s rise was actually something of a surprise given his first four seasons seemed to indicate he was headed for second-class status in the cast. His Drunk Uncle character may be the biggest draw on “Update” now that Hader’s beloved Stefon is gone.
As for Killam, he’s as close as “SNL” is going to get in terms of replacing Samberg’s singular weirdness, and he may have even more range than Samberg. In time, clearing the decks of all these male vets may actually give Killam room to shine.
Still, “SNL” desperately needs to bring in new male blood in the off-season. Beyond his much-improved Obama personation, Pharoah continues to be under-utilized and there’s little sense that’s going to change. Sole freshman addition Tim Robinson is not star material; he’ll be lucky to last a few seasons on “SNL.”
The female side of “SNL” might seem even more challenging given a franchise that was something of a boy’s club for so many seasons became dominated by women like Wiig, Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph more recently. And yet the unsung story of 2012-13 for “SNL” may be how quickly they managed to refuel.
Kate McKinnon, who joined at the tail end of last season, is probably second only to Pharoah when it comes brilliant celebrity mimickry, from Martha Stewart to Ellen DeGeneres. And Cecily Strong may be the “SNL” Rookie of the Year, demonstrating a versatility that may make her a breakout talent in no time.
With the “Update” anchor chair emptying next year, it’s tempting to hope Michaels will turn to one of his up-and-comers for what would be an instant status booster. That said, the good money is that chair will go to John Mulaney, an “SNL” writer who had a pilot in contention at NBC this year. He didn’t get a series order, which could be the best thing to happen to “SNL.”
While there’s every indication “SNL” is on the verge of a serious manpower outage, don’t fret yet. There’s already a lot of talent waiting in the wings at Studio 8H.