If the truckload of statuettes Lorne Michaels carted away from the Emmy Awards earlier this month wasn’t indication enough, “Saturday Night Live” is coming off a true annus mirabilis. It was a season memorable enough to qualify as peak performance for a 43-year-old show presumably well past its peak.
The presidential election had a lot to do with that, but don’t sell Michaels short by reducing his success to simply riding the country’s political tsunami. Many of TV’s comedic properties got the Trump bump, which only underscores how incredible 2016-17 was for “SNL” to stand out amid such a crowded field.
How did “SNL” defy those odds? Generating huge buzz bringing in ringers like Alec Baldwin, Melissa McCarthy and Larry David for recurring guest roles impersonating political figures. Elbowing the rest of the cast aside to make room for these consistent cameos was an inspired decision, one Michaels had never made to this extent over the course of the show’s long history.
Baldwin will be back this season, and though McCarthy and David probably won’t be, my guess is we’ll see other special guests take their place. Anyone famous out there do a good John Kelly impression? Chances are, we’ll see them in Studio 8H soon.
But the reliance “SNL” has on its special guests is something that bears watching, particularly as the Trump effect wears off, and the series will have to draw its strength as it typically once did more from its full-time employees.
After relatively few departures over the past two seasons, “SNL” saw the exit of three regulars: two of them, Vanessa Bayer and Bobby Moynihan, were pretty versatile veterans, and a third, Sasheer Zamata, was less utilized but not a minor player, either. Three rookies were just added earlier this week, which is always a delicate task on a show that isn’t always patient about grooming new talent.
Because the additions were made relatively late in “SNL’s” offseason, one wondered whether Michaels was going to bother replacing the departing trio at all considering he could very well have got by on a lighter roster given how much he could go to the well on special guest stars. But the trio of newbies brings the current cast to 16, in line with the total team the show has fielded going into the fall in three of the last four seasons.
Going 16 deep seems to be what “SNL” does when its ensemble isn’t at optimal level the way the series was back in 2007-09, when just 12 players per year was necessary given the Dream Team in place at the time, including Tina Fey, Seth Meyers, Andy Samberg, Amy Poehler and Jason Sudeikis.
“SNL” doesn’t currently have that kind of all-star nucleus. Kate McKinnon remains the star head and shoulders above the rest, an exalted status similar to what Kristen Wiig enjoyed on the show in her final seasons. “SNL” is also well-served by a nice “Weekend Update” duo in Colin Jost and Michael Che, whose chemistry has really gelled. Cecily Strong, Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, Leslie Jones, and Kenan Thompson are all solid, though they pale in comparison to that 2007-09 era.
Of the 16 in place for Season 43, six of them will be “featured players,” the junior varsity level of the “SNL” cast. It’s actually somewhat surprising Michaels hasn’t promoted Alex Moffatt and Mikey Day, who were utilized unusually often for rookies, to the main cast. It is equally surprising that another rookie, Melissa Villasenor, is still in the cast considering she was barely used at all and didn’t do much memorable in her limited time.
But trust Michaels when he demonstrates patience. Some of “SNL’s” current stalwarts like Aidy Bryant and Pete Davidson took time to grow into their now indispensable roles.
That said, there are plenty of comedians who come into “SNL” and discover quickly that they aren’t going to hack it. RIP Jon Rudnitsky, a one-and-done from 2015; and who can forget the bloodbath of 2013, when four rookies bit the dirt (Noel Wells, Brooks Wheelan, John Milhiser and Mike O’Brien). It’s not an indictment of their talent; “SNL” history is littered with people who went on to bigger, bettter things after unremarkable runs on the show (see: Silverman, Sarah; Rock, Chris, etc.).
The cast chemistry may seem trifling in importance when “SNL” has the capability to draw stars like McCarthy in with some degree of regularity. But if that strategy doesn’t prove to have staying power, there’s tremendous risk. Even if Michaels somehow found a way to bring back Baldwin every week, “SNL” will still live and die on the strength of its core cast.