A few notes before we start: yes, despite people jokingly calling for its end every year since at least the mid ‘90s, Saturday Night Live is still on the air; yes, its dubious response to the Covid pandemic has seemed patently unsafe and ludicrous from day one, ultimately resulting in a wave of positive diagnoses by the end of 2021, and a bizarre year-end episode that consisted of a small number of celebrities introducing a few new pretapes and a number of older sketches in an otherwise empty studio; yes, a lawsuit accusing former cast member Horatio Sanz of grooming and sexually abusing an underage fan at SNL afterparties implicates a culture of abuse at the venerable show overseen by creator and long-time producer Lorne Michaels. Obviously comedy is the last thing you should think about in light of such serious allegations, but SNL’s institutional failings would make it very difficult to write uncritically about the show even if it was consistently funny.
Still, this is a comedy section. We take the culture of comedy seriously, and report on it as such, but we also like to point out things that we think are funny. And despite all the unseemly aspects surrounding SNL, and despite how unfunny it usually is, there were still some sketches and performances that made us laugh in 2021. We want to give credit where it’s due, and point out when people like Bowen Yang and Aidy Bryant and Andrew Dismukes do a good job. So let’s look at 10 of them—the 10 best SNL sketches of 2021.
Some of the show’s best sketches don’t even air on TV. Case in point: this cut-for-time pre-tape from April’s Daniel Kaluuya-hosted episode is exclusively found on YouTube. It’s a showcase for Chris Redd, who switches moods on a dime when his Vietnamese soldier realizes the suicide mission he just signed up for is a solo job and not one for his whole platoon. Redd goes from cocksure action hero confidence to nervous cowardice in a snap, with his expressive eyes doing a lot of the work for him. Redd doesn’t get to show off his considerable skills on SNL as often as he deserves, but if you’ve seen him on Kenan, The Lonely Island’s Popstar, or his episode of Detroiters, you know how fantastic he can be; “The Hero” is just a glimpse of his talent.
One thing SNL reliably does well is absurdity. “The Job Interview” recalls the unpredictable ridiculousness of Will Forte or Tim Robinson, between the concept of an ad agency that works on spec, Bowen Yang’s increasingly bizarre interjections, and how the sketch uses language in weird, off-kilter ways. The noodle fight in the end might take the oddness a little too far, but otherwise this is a charming bit of gleeful nonsense.
Buying a mattress is an inherently depressing and tedious experience, so you might as well have fun with it and turn the mattress store into your own off-off-Broadway theater. That seems to be the thinking of Rami Malek and Aidy Bryant’s characters in this sketch from October, where they play a married couple who keeps breaking into some weird ripoff of Days of Wine and Roses, or something. Bryant, of course, is one of the show’s best, and Malek brings his actorly passion and commitment to the sketch, making it one of the funniest things the show has done this year.
Season 46’s last episode, which was hosted by Anya Taylor-Joy, was also its most consistent. There wasn’t really a bad sketch throughout, and although not everything clicked, nothing was embarrassing in the way the show can sometimes get. The highlight was probably “Lingerie Store,” another great bit of performative nonsense from Aidy Bryant, who has established herself as one of the most reliably hilarious cast members in the show’s history. Here she and Taylor-Joy (in a role that seems written for Kate McKinnon but that the host and Queen’s Gambit star is very good in) play co-owners of a bra store somewhere in the New York area, as evidenced by their very thick accents. This sketch wraps some deeply silly jokes inside a real-life situation women are all too familiar with: the discomfort of breasts and the awkwardness of shopping for bras that actually fit properly. Despite the focus on breasts, here’s no snickering frat boy mentality or male gaze in this one; it’s framed entirely through the experience and perspective of women, but with a cartoonish kind of exaggeration that grows funnier throughout the sketch.
This would be a perfect little comedy sketch if it didn’t have Colin Jost in it. It starts with a great concept: what if one of that psychic octopus that predicted those sports winners predicted a man’s death on live TV? Andrew Dismukes, who is easily the most underrated member of this current cast, sells that revelation perfectly with a combo of terror and fake stoicism; he tries to stay cool on TV and accept that his days are numbered, but is clearly freaked out the whole time. And then he brings out a “talking” dog who wants to get into an existential discussion about Dismukes’ fate. The cherry on top is the dog itself, which, in the grand tradition of animal actors, doesn’t quite do what it’s supposed to. This is a great idea with great execution and the kind of unexpected turn that makes live TV so interesting.
Bowen Yang’s still relatively new on SNL, but he’s already established himself as one of its weekly highlights. His breakout piece this year was his Weekend Update appearance as the iceberg that sank the Titanic; if you’re wondering how you impersonate an iceberg, well, Yang turns it into a riff on celebrities who are trying to move past old scandals. The iceberg isn’t there to talk about something that happened over a century ago; it’s there to plug his new album, “a hyperpop EDM New Disco fantasia called Music.” Yang nails celebrity culture and the awkwardness that arises whenever a talk show host asks their guests what people actually want to hear, and doesn’t just stick to the questions preapproved by publicists.
This pretape from the awkward, Covid-wracked final episode of the year pulls out SNL’s most reliable move over the last decade: it points a camera at Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon and lets them get as silly and absurd as they want to be. “HomeGoods” smartly keeps Paul Rudd out of Bryant and McKinnon’s way for the bulk of the video, but his amiable goofiness fits in perfectly once the two win him over to their grandchildren-obsessed mindset.
This parody of the Fast 9 trailer that starts with Vin Diesel waxing wistfully on the movie theater experience has been hanging out in my brain pretty regularly since it first aired back in May. Beck Bennett’s Vin Diesel is always funny, but the way he keeps listing things found in movie theaters, from the snacks to “the bird that’s trapped inside the lobby,” is wonderfully absurd, but still really does make me miss theaters. It’s jam-packed with details that are both specific and yet absolutely universal and shared by anybody who’s ever been to a movie theater. Watching it again, just now, for like the seventh time, makes me want to immediately go out and see whatever is showing—omicron be damned.
This one hits close to home. Yes, I am a big fan of Disney’s theme parks. I go there pretty often, to both Disneyland and Disney World, and it has been weird not going to them during the pandemic. Disneyland reopened at the end of April, and just over a week later Ego Nwodim gave this fantastic performance on Weekend Update as a harried mother whose will has almost been shattered by the stresses of a Disney trip. I have seen thousands of women suffering in this way, and Nwodim perfectly captures their pain, in hilarious fashion.
“Man Park” struck a nerve with every woman I know. They’re all too familiar with the bottomless emotional need of men raised in a society that actively teaches them not to grow emotionally close to other men. In turn I and my friends all see far too much of ourselves in this one, from the meaningless circular chatter about Marvel, to the uncertainty of how much we should open ourselves up to any man we haven’t already known for decades.
I’m pretty sure this had to have been written by some of the 30something women who work on the show right now. From the very start, when a too eager Pete Davidson jumps up when Ego Nwodim walks through the door and immediately accosts her with excited greetings and non sequiturs like “Dune?”, my wife felt this thing more than she’s ever felt any SNL sketch in her entire life. (Although if it was us the “Dune” would be replaced with some dumb wrestling thing that she patiently acts like she cares about.) She’s pretty sure she could have written this one herself, which I assume almost all women thought after seeing it.
The reaction to this video reinforces why comedy can’t rest on simple observation alone. You can’t just refer to something; you need to take that observation that other people would be familiar with, and then actually do something funny with the idea. It’s not enough to just observe that men are raised to swallow their emotions until they can spew them out all over their romantic partner and nobody else; you need to use that as the basis for a larger idea, which the sketch does with the concept of a dog park for emotionally stunted boyfriends and husbands. If you see too much of yourself in Davidson or Alex Moffat, know that I’m in the same boat, and we can both get better if we try. Just don’t expect me to talk to you about any of this that much; I can handle this on my own, pal.