Last spring, it looked like change was in the air at Saturday Night Live. There had been rumors that Lorne Michaels had hoped to entice some of his most popular players to stay on through the show’s 50th season, which wouldn’t kick off until 2024, even allowing them to take breaks as needed to branch out into other projects while remaining cast members; this would have represented a major shift in strategy for a show that’s supposed to cultivate new comic talent. Instead, after a couple of pandemic-era seasons that seemed to leave cast members uncertain about the right time to leave, a bunch of veterans finally pulled the trigger: Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, Pete Davidson and Kyle Mooney all left the show at the end of Season 47.
Some of these exits were handled with more fanfare than others. But all four had their departures confirmed ahead of their final episode; fewer fans anticipated that there would be a second wave of less ceremonious exits announced over the summer and into the fall. In recent weeks, it’s become clear that Melissa Villaseñor, Alex Moffat, Chris Redd and Aristotle Athari will not be back for Season 48. As that Oct. 1 launch date approaches, there’s more genuine uncertainty around the show than there has been in the past decade, where its top talent was allowed to become a comforting constant.
In terms of pure numbers, eight cast members is the biggest single-season exodus since 1995, when the show’s mostly-disastrous 20th season lost 11 players by its end. The shakeup extended for months, a mix of veterans quietly leaving midseason (Mike Myers), newbies unexpectedly quitting in disgust (Janeane Garofalo!), replacements never getting much of a shot (Morwenna Banks?!) and a summertime house-cleaning that was urged by the NBC higher-ups and claimed Adam Sandler and Chris Farley, two of the show’s most popular names, among others. Will Ferrell joined the following season, signaling a new and very different era of the show.
Yet even this shift was a bit more iterative than the broadest retellings will have it. Though it’s often treated as the show clearing the boards and starting over, a number of cast members actually stayed on: David Spade, Tim Meadows, Norm Macdonald and the recently hired Mark McKinney and Molly Shannon bridged the transition from Season 20 to Season 21. For that matter, not everyone who arrived with Ferrell that fall for Season 21 was quite so successful: David Koechner and Nancy Walls lasted just one season. Three cast members closely identified with this period — Chris Kattan, Ana Gasteyer and Tracy Morgan — were added a little later.
Those changes were the result of some of Saturday Night Live’s darkest hours, so it’s no wonder it took a few seasons to find stability again. By most metrics, the SNL of today is in a much better place. It’s a surprisingly successful vestige of TV done The Old Way, in that it is a network program that flexes an institutional brand name, draws a substantial live audience on a weekly basis and has also adapted to time-delayed viewing with its sketches and music performances that can live on YouTube and Peacock for days/weeks/years (depending on the clearances, anyway). Given all this, and the fact that Michaels is said to much prefer a more gradual transition between eras of the show, it’s surprising that over a third of last year’s cast is now gone.
It’s not clear whether this is because long-timers like McKinnon and Bryant have pulled off the band-aid on the idea of sticking around until Season 50, or whether the show is facing other, less public challenges: budget cuts (which has driven some cast changes in the past), dissatisfaction within its recent record-size cast or a Michaels-mandated shakeup. What is clear is that — like Season 21 before it — this new incarnation of SNL will be a strange mix of the familiar and brand-new.
In the context of all of these changes, it’s a bit odd that Cecily Strong seems to be returning — eventually. She’s doing a Los Angeles run of her take on the one-woman stage show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe this fall, which means she’ll miss at least the first few episodes of the season, as she did mid-season last year for the New York production of that show. (I saw it, and it certainly indicated that Strong might be ready to apply her sketch-comedy skills to more nuanced characterizations.) She’ll break Kate McKinnon’s record as the longest-serving female cast member on the show, alongside overall record-holder Kenan Thompson; it also seems like Michael Che and Colin Jost are sticking around to solidify their titles as the longest-running Weekend Update anchors. Alongside these decade-or-more fixtures, there will be four featured players: Marcello Hernandez, Michael Longfellow, Devon Walker and Molly Kearney — the show’s first nonbinary cast member.
All four additions come from the world of stand-up, which has yielded some SNL success stories — Sandler, Dana Carvey, Leslie Jones, Pete Davidson — but feels less fruitful overall than the worlds of sketch comedy and improv. It sometimes feels like Michaels is fixated on finding new sources of unformed but promising on-stage charisma (like Davidson) rather than performers with a near-endless utility for the business of actually conceiving and executing comedy sketches (like Aidy Bryant or Ego Nwodim). Yet some of the show’s most familiar old touchstones that seem to favor a stand-up-style skill set — flashy political and celebrity impressions, breakout stars whose movie vehicles you can already picture, Weekend Update — have been among the show’s weak spots these last few years. Will adding a bunch of stand-ups to the mix improve any of that, or is it refusing to acknowledge which areas of the show may have become outmoded or, at least, less worthy of attention?
However the newbies turn out, there’s a bedrock of talent at the show, as there usually is, and it would be great to see Heidi Gardner, Ego Nwodim, Chloe Fineman and Bowen Yang take greater ownership of the show as a whole, without so many familiar faces needing airtime. Then again, the ensemble still somehow stands at a whopping 17 people, including the two Update anchors and part-timer Strong (but not counting Please Don’t Destroy, the trio of writers who also sometimes get their own Poor Man’s Lonely Island video segments). The strategy of slowly and seamlessly shuffling cast members in and out pays dividends in allowing talent to (sometimes) move through the show at their own pace, rather than rushing toward a movie deal. But it can leave some performers feeling like remnants of already-bygone eras: So Mikey Day is still there, but frequent scene partner Alex Moffat is gone? There will still be Cecily, but without her immediate peers Aidy or Kate? There are four new cast members, but Weekend Update is still hosted by guys who have been doing it since halfway through the Obama administration, one of whom has his own, separate sketch show on HBO?
Then again, maybe we’ll tune in on Saturday and discover that Jost and Che have vacated the Update desk, that Sarah Sherman has a delightfully grotesque new character locked and loaded, and that James Austin Johnson is no longer the only cast member who can do a credible political impression. In some ways, the uncertainty is part of the nervous sport of SNL-watching — something the show itself seemed to temporarily forget as it urged everyone to keep close by during COVID. Maybe Michaels has decided to stop looking toward that big Season 50, and more about how the show continues past that — even, at some point, past him.
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