If all you know about Saturday Night Live’s just-concluded 42nd season is what you’ve read in Sunday-morning headlines and on the president’s Twitter feed, you might assume the show radically broke from its variety format this past fall and spring, cramming every episode with one topical political sketch after another.
But that’s not true at all. The political sketches — featuring Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump! Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer! Kate McKinnon as a besieged Hillary Clinton! Beck Bennett as a shirtless Vladimir Putin! — generated the most social media attention and attracted the most presidential ire, to be sure. Yet SNL has never fancied itself exclusively a political satire machine. In fact, most of the show’s seasons that haven’t overlapped with a presidential election cycle have only touched politics on fleeting, perfunctory occasions.
Politics is inescapable these days, on television and in life. And this season of SNL had a stronger-than-average hit ratio when it came to ripping unbelievable news from the headlines and spinning it into something even more unbelievable. But there were plenty of laughs to be had from sketches that weren’t fueled by the spectacle of the election or Trump’s ensuing presidency. So here’s a chronological look back at the season’s 23 most memorable moments whose partisanship won’t divide a dinner table or grind a party conversation to a halt.
“Actress Roundtable” (October 1)
This sketch concept — starring Kate McKinnon as Debette Goldry, a kooky aging actress who experienced hideous maltreatment from old Hollywood and welcomed it with open arms — appeared twice more later in the season, but the sequels couldn’t top the original, which had host Margot Robbie struggling to contain her giggles. McKinnon is an ace at playing over-the-top characters whose matter-of-fact explanations of their bizarre antics leave her conversation partners baffled and mildly disturbed.
A wacky-character showcase like this needs a strong anchor. Aidy Bryant does particularly impressive deadpan work here as the host of an actress roundtable where Debette leaves three younger actress emotionally scarred. Bryant nails her disgusted delivery of “They didn’t ask that and neither did I” when Debette shares a particularly vivid memory of her travails; the contrast to McKinnon’s extreme performance is sharp.
“Diego Calls His Mom” (October 8)
With all of its dialogue in Spanish and no subtitles in sight, the tone of this sketch is as wistful as it is satirical, with wide-eyed immigrant Diego’s account of his stay in the American heartland hitting subtle grace notes that SNL can only sparingly provide.
Writer Julio Torres — a distinctive new voice on the show’s writing staff in season 42 — told Seth Meyers that this idea elicited blank stares from his colleagues when he first pitched it. But host Lin-Manuel Miranda was game, and the result is thrilling: a personal yarn that renders Diego with humanity and complexity in just two and a half minutes.
“The Sink” (October 15)
This sentimental short is another Torres joint — the eccentric stand-up and writer made his mark in unusually short order for a new SNL writer, earning a laudatory profile from the New York Times as he neared his one-year anniversary on staff. Here, he transforms a sink he saw in a friend of a friend’s apartment into an existential treatise, delivered via voiceover with a careful blend of pomposity and self-doubt in host Emily Blunt’s dulcet British tones.
SNL went back to Torres’s acquaintance’s apartment to capture footage of the actual sink, a grandiose accoutrement in an otherwise mundane bathroom. This sketch smartly clocks in at 90 seconds — any longer for something this weird and specific would have been overkill.
“Haunted Elevator” (October 22)
One nonpolitical sketch rose above the rest in the battle for online attention this season, courtesy of a zany doofus and his oddly sexualized skeleton minions. It’s easy to see why David S. Pumpkins went viral so quickly: Host Tom Hanks is so committed to the performance — which he was apparently still workshopping with only minutes left to air — and the ride’s guests (played by Bennett and McKinnon) are so perfectly horrified and intrigued, that the final punchline lands with a bang, justifying the whole enterprise.
Skeletons Bobby Moynihan and Mikey Day wrote the sketch with Day’s frequent collaborator Streeter Seidell; their previous team-ups, with Larry David in “FBI Simulator” and Peter Dinklage in “Mafia Meeting” are built around characters they describe as “a squad of loud people who derail people’s experiences.” Mr. Pumpkins is a worthy addition to that canon.
“A Girl’s Halloween” (October 22)
As SNL’s cast evolves from season to season, certain pairings and collaborations often rise to the surface. The current iteration of the show often finds comedy gold when its female cast members unite onscreen, whether they’re singing about having sex in their childhood bedrooms or reminiscing about awkward high school theater parties. Season 42’s Halloween episode brought some of them together for another strong showing when, Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong, and Vanessa Bayer played three innocent women prepping for a relaxed evening on the town, only to see their outing descend into chaos. The sketch’s structure elevates its comedy — each time the girls share their hopes for a successful girls’ night, a flash-forward reveals just how much those hopes went unfulfilled. Thankfully, all ends happily, if messily.
“Meeting with Mr. Shaw” (November 5)
Though his hordes of fans may say otherwise, the usually charming Benedict Cumberbatch largely fell flat as an SNL host. He seemed eager to play but a little uncomfortable, and most of his material didn’t take off. Some might say this sketch, which aired just before the 1 am closing credits, is just another example of that criticism. And they’re probably not wrong.
But something about Cumberbatch’s banal delivery coupled with the incongruous image of a tall statue of an eagle wearing a business suit made me giggle. Sometimes a sketch can succeed by aiming a tiny nugget of silliness squarely at your funny bone, and doing little else. For me, that nugget of silliness is apparently an eagle in formal wear who once met with Nelson Mandela and Howie Mandel at the same time.
“Jheri’s Place” (November 12)
SNL was more meta in season 42 than it’s been in recent memory, with numerous appearances from cast members playing themselves, references to the controversy around Donald Trump’s November 2015 appearance and, of course, obligatory attempts to address President Trump directly.
Meta for meta’s sake can feel lazy. But the meta joke in “Jheri’s Place” lands because the sketch pulls a neat trick. The opening minute is devoted to a lazier-than-average SNL sketch — one that could easily be described as “a very thin premise beset by technical slip-ups and performance issues.” But as soon as it appears to have ended, Beck Bennett appears onscreen as a commentator of sorts, repeating that exact assessment as if he were judging a football play — and throwing to a “post-sketch” conference where host Dave Chappelle and the rest of sketch’s cast answer reporters’ questions about what went wrong. This sketch, unlike the lackluster ones that inspired it, leaves everything out on the field.
“Thanksgiving Parade” (November 19)
It says something about Kristen Wiig’s current position in the SNL universe that the most memorable sketch from her November hosting appearance is one in which she doesn’t say a word. Wiig has at times felt like the high school graduate who can’t tear herself away from her old haunt, reprising her most beloved characters long past their comedic expiration date.
But in “Thanksgiving Parade,” she gets to do some sinister physical comedy alongside Bobby Moynihan and Mikey Day, as the trio play enormous Macy’s parade balloons who veer off track, scaring an unsuspecting family watching from their apartment window. As SNL often does without much fanfare, this piece pulls off an impressive technical feat for a live show and delivers plenty of laughs in process.
“Wells for Boys” (December 3)
Torres (can you tell we’re big fans?) topped himself yet again with a pre-taped piece paying tribute to children who refuse to conform to American society’s rigid gender roles. What “Wells for Boys” so perfectly is convey a sense of wonder and childlike enthusiasm without irony or condescension — a rare and potent achievement. And host Emma Stone — who just a few months later would win an Oscar for her excellent performance in La La Land — does quite a bit of emotional work here in just a few lines. It seems some parents could change the course of their child’s emotional life just by showing them this sketch at the right age.
“High School Theatre Show” (December 3)
Perhaps SNL’s most fruitful recurring sketch in recent years is built around a tried-and-true formula: Kenan Thompson and Vanessa Bayer play parents of high school students sitting down to watch their “socially conscious” teens perform a show they wrote themselves, brimming with the adolescent musings and artistic earnestness that so many young artists possess. In this edition from December 3, the kids take stock of post-election America, but they hit a few rhetorical stumbling blocks along the way. “I’m pretty sure they all just wanted to kiss each other and then made it about something,” Bayer’s character says at one point. This one never disappoints.
“Romance Bookstore” (December 10)
This sketch sees John Cena and Aidy Bryant live out some erotic fantasies behind the bookshelf at an “adult literature” shop, while Kenan Thompson’s unflappable store clerk deflects their eccentricities as customers approach. It’s an example of the power of savvy casting — Bryant excels at high drama of this variety, Cena is willing to make himself look like a fool, and Thompson is a master of standing on the sidelines with an upturned nose.
Thompson’s energy in general is infectious; though he’s long been rumored to be planning his exit from SNL, he recently told HuffPo he’ll be back next season. Good thing, too: As the show’s longest-running cast member to date — and with other SNL veteran Bobby Moynihan officially departing for a CBS sitcom — Thompson will leave a void in the cast when he’s gone.
“Theatre Donor” (January 11)
New SNL cast additions sometimes sputter before they shine. Season 41 newbie Jon Rudnitsky was canned after one year; his most notable accomplishment was the time he missed a cue by 30 seconds. A couple seasons ago, several new cast members were let go after accruing a meager combined screentime of what felt like only a few minutes.
But this year’s newcomers have stepped up to fill the holes vacated by Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah, who left before this season. Mikey Day, an SNL staff writer since 2013, has broken out, with several high-profile impressions (Donald Trump Jr., Paul Ryan) and dazzling performance showcases — like this one alongside host Felicity Jones, in which he plays a crotchety geezer whose poor health and ill temper cause public disturbances with every move he makes.
“La La Land Interrogation” (January 21)
Aziz Ansari’s episode contained several good sketches — a short film in which he tentatively bonded with an Uber driver, a silly bedroom bit with Melissa Villasenor doing goofy impressions — but the one that hit the hardest touched on one of the most contentious debates of the last year. No, it doesn’t involve politics — this list has a no-politics rule, remember?
For certain circles of film fans, the debate over Moonlight and La La Land dominated the run-up to this year’s Oscars, right up to the final award. Ansari’s character dares to speak ever-so-slightly ill of La La Land, only to endure the in-person equivalent of an internet troll backlash. Go-for-broke, chair-smashing aggression from Cecily Strong and a late-breaking dig at Westworld, delivered by Kenan Thompson, send the sketch over the top.
“Totino’s” (February 4)
SNL isn’t Breaking Bad; with few exceptions, each episode works whether you’ve seen the ones that came before or not. But diehard fans have gotten a treat in the last year as the show has leaned into narrative continuity within particular sketch concepts. A case in point is this annual Totino’s bit, which started as an innocent riff on how men use the Super Bowl as an excuse to treat women like their servants, and morphs in this iteration into a passionate lesbian romance between characters played by host Kristen Stewart and the invaluable and underappreciated Vanessa Bayer, who won’t return to SNL next season. The two actresses have explosive chemistry, and their unrequited love is punctuated by interruptions from the unsuspecting gaggle of football bros. The only question remaining is: Where does this saga go from here?
“Pitch Meeting” (February 11)
Alec Baldwin has hosted SNL more than anyone else, and thanks to his frequent appearances as Donald Trump (and Bill O’Reilly, and Capt. Sully Sullenberger’s second-in-command) in season 42, he’s racked up more screentime in the last year than ever before. It was inevitable that he would host an episode this season, and overall, it wasn’t quite the classic it could have been — Baldwin flubbed a few lines and seemed slightly distracted, perhaps owing to the pressure of his numerous cameos this year.
But an early highlight of the Baldwin episode was this sketch, which had the foresight to predict, in a way, the controversy around Pepsi’s ill-advised protest commercial that briefly dominated headlines in April. Later in the season, the show would offer up a novel response to that controversy as well.
“Zoo-opolis Voiceover” (March 4)
Sketches like this aren’t the product of fiendish imagination. They’re pragmatic, taking advantage of the deep well of impressions at SNL’s disposal and mining comedy from known quantities. This approach has mixed results — sometimes a cavalcade of impressions isn’t sturdy enough to justify this utilitarian treatment. But in this case, the impressions from Melissa Villasenor, Alex Moffat, and host Octavia Spencer are frenzied, polished, accurate and concise.
“Zoo-opolis Voiceover” is a particularly nice showcase for Villasenor, the new cast member who’s been the least visible of this year’s three new hires. She hasn’t appeared on Weekend Update or anchored any memorable sketches, but she’s got a murderer’s row of impressions waiting to be tapped for just the right occasion. This sketch was a great start.
“Olive Garden” (March 11)
This sketch has almost everything great about a solid SNL sketch rolled into one: go-for-broke physical comedy (Kenan Thompson planting his face in a plate of saucy pasta); real-world observational humor (“The people act like they’ve never seen a restaurant or eaten food before!”); new cast member showcases (Mikey Day having the world’s most spastic orgasm); and a capable host (Scarlett Johansson) who blends right into the silliness. Plus, Beck Bennett added to his rapidly expanding repertoire of characters who expect absurd things from others but believe their requests to be straightforward, and Leslie Jones pulls off an epic facial expression of shade when Bennett’s character does his best (worst) attempt at an African-American voice. This one would have been a winner in 2002, 2007 or 2012 — and it was a winner in 2017.
“Thank You, Scott” (April 8)
SNL often does its most pointed work when it tackles social issues through lenses other than the politics of the federal government or cable news. This number — a mocking ode to social media “slacktivists” — is a prime example. Louis C.K. is perfectly cast as a well-meaning couch potato who doesn’t have the energy or the will to affect tangible change. It’s a reminder that on SNL, few opinions or ways of life are beyond reproach.
“Take Me Back” (April 15)
The first 90 seconds of this sketch are pedestrian. Look, it’s Cecily Strong and Beck Bennett relaxing on date night. Look, Jimmy Fallon’s singing again. Look, there’s Mikey Day and Alex Moffat providing out-of-sync background vocals. (Okay, I laughed at that last part.) It’s not until you get three-quarters of the way in that the first solid punchline actually lands. Fallon’s character is singing to win Strong’s character back after he dragged an innocent man off a United flight. The revelation earns a cheer from the audience, and the sketch benefits from withholding its hook for so long. The kicker, too, is fun, particularly a week after Bennett’s turn as the director of Pepsi’s beleaguered Kendall Jenner commercial. No spoilers, but suffice it to say that narrative continuity plays a role once again.
“SWAT Recon” (May 6)
Some sketches are of the moment; others are timeless. The timeless ones are SNL’s bread and butter, and this one has a simple but layered premise: While on a stakeout, two SWAT team officers (Kenan Thompson and Beck Bennett) are distracted from their target when they spot two grown men (Mikey Day and host Chris Pine) having some playful, childlike fun — eating cotton candy, putting on a backpack fashion show, and more. As Bennett’s character points out, “They know it’s silly,” and it is. But it’s grounded in an earnest sweetness that builds to an almost inspiring final note: Thompson’s character realizes he’s lost his sense of youthful innocence, and the only way to regain it is to join the party himself. If only life’s problems were so easily solved.
“Kyle and Leslie” (May 13)
Kyle Mooney and Leslie Jones don’t appear to be dating in real life, but in SNL’s fictional universe they’ve already fallen in and out of love, and even had a kid (named Lorne, after the show’s creator Lorne Michaels). Their courtship was first documented during the November 12 Dave Chappelle episode and covered again in February when a fictionalized version of Jones attempted to take over for Alec Baldwin as Trump; this somber piece details their relationship’s downward spiral, with sterling performances from both Mooney and Jones. And a shock moment toward the end produces one of the biggest laughs of the season, paying off another recurring gag that’s been one of the strongest undercurrents of Weekend Update in the era of Colin Jost and Michael Che.
“Game Show” (May 13)
SNL seems to strive to craft abundantly generic titles for its sketches. But this “Game Show” is special, because there are pies — lots of them. In her four previous hosting appearances, Melissa McCarthy shined brightest in sketches that let her revel in wildly elaborate, gross-out physical comedy, and this sketch is no exception. Watching her take pie after pie to the face, as her contestant character grows more exasperated and resigned with each one, carries almost as much visceral pleasure as seeing her tear apart Sean Spicer’s reputation. When the story of season 42 is written years from now, the Spicer turn will likely make much more of an impression than a sketch in which she got her face messy. But maybe that’s a shame — this is the work of a masterful comedian.
“Enhancement Drug” (May 20)
SNL commercial parodies are a dime a dozen, but this one from Saturday’s season finale stood out thanks to a reliable injection of charisma from host Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The clip starts out innocent enough, as Johnson’s construction worker character describes a suspiciously effective male enhancement drug. But then he begins to narrate a visit to his skeptical doctor, played by Kyle Mooney — who moves his lips as Johnson reads Mooney’s dialogue as well as his own.
All drug treatments come with a cost, and this one turns out to be quite severe. Just don’t tell Johnson’s character that; he’s grinning from ear to ear until the end, when he utters a cheery “Hail Satan” while shilling for one of the world’s most dangerous drugs. The dialogue here is funny, but a committed host makes all the difference.
A few more non-partisan treats
Season 42’s finest musical performances: Bruno Mars, "24K Magic"; Solange, "Don't Touch My Hair"; A Tribe Called Quest, "The Space Program"; Chance the Rapper, “Finish Line/Drown” Sturgill Simpson, “Call to Arms”