TV | November 22, 2021 7:15 am

“Saturday Night Live” Is the Funniest It Has Been in Years

Thanks to some strong new hires and less stunt casting, the sketch comedy show is bouncing back after a few bleak years

SNL
After four bleak years bogged down by presidential politics, "Saturday Night Live" is actually rebounding this season.
NBC/Gabriel Serrano

Like fashion, complaining about Saturday Night Live is cyclical. Over its 47 seasons on the air, the show has continued to serve as a launching pad for some of our most well-known comedians, whether they wind up hosting late-night shows, starring in movies or spending the better part of a decade starring on Emmy-nominated network sitcoms. And yet, everyone inexplicably remains convinced that the era of SNL they grew up watching is the best, that nothing the show has done in the years since can possibly hold a candle to the sketches they used to watch behind their parents’ backs as kids. Of course, nostalgia is powerful, but time marches on, and those of us who grew up watching, say, Will Ferrell and Molly Shannon are forced to reevaluate our opinions as the Andy Samberg and Kristin Wiig stans get older and achieve more cultural capital. Almost always, the eras we were so convinced were bad cycle back around and eventually get heralded as classics.

But despite this predictable pattern, the naysayers have been particularly vocal in recent years. When Donald Trump got elected in 2016, glass-half-full types began saying things like, “Well, at least we’ll get some great comedy out of this,” but Saturday Night Live never truly rose to the occasion. In many ways, it would have been impossible for them to; when real-life political drama is so dark and upsetting and stranger than fiction, it becomes almost beyond parody. (How, for example, was Alec Baldwin’s Trump supposed to be more outrageous than the man himself?) Too often, the show veered into the serious and self-important, patting itself on the back, for example, for opening with Kate McKinnon dressed as Hillary Clinton singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” After the early success of Baldwin’s Trump and Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer, the show began relying too heavily on celebrity cameos for all of its political impressions. Instead of trusting its cast to do what they do best, SNL leaned on stunt casting, bringing on Maya Rudolph to play Kamala Harris, Larry David as Bernie Sanders, Ben Stiller as Michael Cohen, Jim Carrey as Joe Biden and even Robert De Niro as Robert Mueller.

Some of those were better received than others, and Carrey’s Biden in particular got slammed for its total lack of any resemblance to the actual Joe Biden. (It wasn’t so much an “impression” as it was “Jim Carrey pulling Ace Ventura faces in a white wig.”) Eventually, it got so bad that by December 2020, Carrey stepped aside and was replaced as Biden. Missteps like the Carrey casting might have been easier to overlook if everything else on the show wasn’t so bleak, but those four years were plagued by too many political sketches and then, of course, a pandemic. The latter forced cast members to get creative and perform sketches remotely from their homes with whatever props and costumes could reasonably be sent through the mail, but the DIY performances never could hold up to the professional-quality ones fans had grown accustomed to. (And besides, there’s only so many Zoom jokes one can make.) When times get dark — like say, “police brutality dark” or “failed insurrection dark” or “hundreds of thousands of Americans dead from a virus some believe to be a hoax dark” — people often look to humor as an escape, and however well-intentioned they may have been, SNL didn’t offer us that escape.

This season, however, the show has bounced back remarkably. Perhaps because it no longer has to shoehorn in so many political sketches every week, there’s more room to experiment, and as a result Saturday Night Live is funnier than it has been in years.

Part of that is because of the excellent new cast members brought onboard for Season 47. Most notable so far is James Austin Johnson, an extremely skilled impressionist who has taken on the roles of both Biden and Trump for the show. His Trump — which was popular on his social media before he even got cast on SNL — is funnier than Baldwin’s. That’s probably at least partly because the stakes are lower now that Trump is no longer president, and it feels more okay to laugh at him again (instead of simply being horrified, on a daily basis, by the fact that he was the leader of the free world). But JAJ’s Trump is also impeccably accurate, moreso than Baldwin’s, and instead of whatever nightmare political situation he found himself entangled in, it focuses on the former president’s distinct vocal tics and tendency to ramble, bouncing from one topic to the next in the same sentence.

When the show does get political these days, it seems to be doing so with more finesse. Cecily Strong earned plenty of praise for a viral “Weekend Update” appearance in which she opened up about the abortion she had at age 23 while dressed as a clown, pushing boundaries by addressing a taboo subject while never sacrificing laughs to make her point. (As Vox’s Aja Romano pointed out, “On one level, Strong’s sketch plays directly into the hands of people who think modern comedy has lost its edge — that woke culture has changed the art form into humorless political lectures. But on another level, Strong arguably shows that comedy can not only withstand the political lectures but also be made stronger by them, if done well. There’s something about the phrase ‘clown abortion’ that inevitably evokes laughter.”)

But even outside of politics, SNL has been spot-on for much of this season. There’s a lightheartedness that was missing for the past four years, and some of its best material has had nothing to do with Democrats or Republicans at all, like a sketch about how impossible it is to cancel your cable subscription or “Man Park,” which astutely poked fun at the biggest mental health issue facing men. Sometimes, they veer into the completely goofy, as with last weekend’s “New Military Weapon,” whose entire premise banks on fact that a man sitting behind a dog and gesturing with his arms — making it look like we’re watching a creature with the body of a human and the head of a dog — is funny. (Spoiler alert: it is; not everything has to be highbrow.)

Johnson isn’t the only new cast member to have left his mark so far this season, either. Aristotle Athari got a chance to shine on a “Weekend Update” segment where he played a robot that had been trained to perform standup comedy. Sarah Sherman — whose surrealist humor would have precluded her from even joining the cast in the past — had a star-making turn in a segment that saw her poking fun at Colin Jost and has already been viewed on Twitter over 2.4 million times. The Please Don’t Destroy comedy team — consisting of Ben Marshall, John Higgins and Martin Herlihy — have been a welcome addition, serving up memorable digital shorts (like the recent “Three Sad Virgins“) that fill the void left behind by The Lonely Island.

In short, things are finally looking up, and there’s plenty for Saturday Night Live fans to be excited about. It’s been a combination of circumstance and some extremely smart hires that has righted the ship, and now that they’re finally giving themselves the room to get weird, we’ve entered a new peak era. Of course, we’ve got to enjoy it while it lasts; it’ll only be a few years before things cycle back and the next generation insists it actually sucked.