Saturday Night Live’s 45th season came to an end in a most unusual way, with a run of “at home” episodes where cast members shot their own footage at home. Those three quarantine editions weren’t any more consistent than the show usually is, but they were weirder and more inspired, and making them some of the brightest highlights of the season.
Of course the traditional episodes that ran into March had their fair share of worthwhile sketches, too, especially the episodes hosted by Eddie Murphy and John Mulaney. If you ignore the expected weak spots of the show—the political cold open and Weekend Update’s news jokes—this was the closest thing SNL has had to a legitimately good season in years. And these sketches—which aren’t ranked or in any specific order—were a huge reason why. Here are our favorite sketches from SNL’s 45th season.
The best sketch of the second at home episode came, again, from Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon. They did another variation on their duo of well-meaning but incompetent women in a grocery store ad marketing all the stuff that isn’t selling during the quarantine. “Grocery Store Ad” marries the genial oddness they bring to their Smokery Farms characters to a timely premise that pretty much everybody will feel acutely during these weird times. McKinnon can be a little too confident a performer at times—her Ruth Bader Ginsberg character is an ostentatious bust at this point—but working with Bryant brings out the best in both of them.
Here’s something that hits a little too close to home: during one of Saturday Night Live’s quarantine episodes, we got a glimpse at how life has turned out for Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael in the animated short “Middle-Aged Mutant Ninja Turtles.” And no, it ain’t pretty. I have a job. My wife seemingly still loves me. I don’t have kids. I basically feel the same way I did at 20, despite the gray hair and extra pounds. Still, I feel this way too much. Despite my (still relatively successful) attempts to retain my youth, I recognize this struggle from my friends, my siblings, and even myself, when I’m at my most honest. This is the natural course of life, even if you’re a turtle mutated into a ninja vigilante by radioactive sludge. You can’t beat up time, no matter how many nunchucks you swing at it.
The best piece of the first “at home” episode was a return sketch that swapped out one piece of office software for a newer one that’s become a daily requirement for so many working from home. One of last season’s best sketches starred Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon as two middle-aged receptionists utterly failing to understand PowerPoint during a corporate meeting. The absurdity of their presentation—and their own increasing shame and panic—was a new highwater point for the already fruitful Bryant/McKinnon tandem. They brought that concept back in this episode, but in the context of a Zoom meeting. Once again Bryant and McKinnon’s characters were completely inept at the most basic concepts behind Zoom, the internet, and computers, resulting in a series of progressively ridiculous reactions from the two.
John Mulaney hosted SNL again in February, and although it wasn’t quite as strong as his first two episodes, it was still easily one of the best of the season. I could’ve picked from a handful of different sketches for this list—the Sound of Music parody is particularly funny—but went with “Uncle Meme” because, well, sketches about very contemporary modes of communication will always feel a little bit more timely than sketches making fun of movies from 55 years ago. Mulaney again expertly deploys his inherent white, uptight squareness as the butt of an embarrassing meme started by his nephew, and Chris Redd gets a couple of great lines in, too.
If you’re somehow not thoroughly middle-aged, maybe some context is needed here. “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” was one of Eddie Murphy’s breakout sketches in the early ‘80s, a time when he was pretty much the only star SNL had. It was a parody of Mr. Rogers, obviously, with the joke being that Mr. Robinson was, um, living rough in a bad part of a New York outer borough.
Well, a lot has changed in the last 40 years. The Brooklyn of 1982 is not the Brooklyn of 2019. So the first “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” sketch in decades hones right in on the gentrification that has overtaken almost all of New York. The ghetto that Mr. Robinson lives in is now home to million dollar apartments, and he’s simply learned how to adjust to his new surroundings. Indeed, he’s made them work for him.
Before cable, TV was a wasteland at 11:30 p.m. on Saturdays, which is one reason Saturday Night Live was able to establish itself as a cultural touchstone. If you’re nostalgic for those days, check out the sketch below. One thing Mr. Robinson always had going for him: he always knew when to cut and run, a skill in short supply among SNL writers and performers these days.
It might be easy to get laughs by contrasting a family-friendly brand’s public image with a graphic discussion of sex, but there’s more to “Sara Lee” than just that basic concept. Harry Styles and Bowen Yang are both tremendous in this sketch, with Styles playing the humble but unapologetic social media editor responsible for the posts, and Yang playing one of his stern but surprisingly patient ads. Yang has been the breakout player of the current season, making the kind of instant impact rarely seen on a show that tends to ease its talent into the job; this isn’t even Yang’s best performance, but it’s the best sketch in which his consistently strong characterization makes a presence. Too often SNL sketches lack either a strong point-of-view, a good central idea, or notable performances; “Sara Lee” is one of the few to boast all three.
SNL doesn’t have a great track record on race issues with its sketches, and I can understand why some might be turned off by this sketch. It works for me not just because it highlights a very real phenomenon of people hoping a criminal suspect doesn’t reflect or encourage the kind of division that’s so common in America today, but because of the increasingly joyous performances of Kenan Thompson, Ego Nwodim and Chris Redd. SNL’s politics have been tiresome for years, but this is one of 2019’s political sketches that hit its mark.
Somewhere upthread I mentioned that I don’t have kids. I forgot to add that I also have absolutely no idea how to talk or relate to kids these days. The most awkward conversations I’ve ever had are with my nieces and nephews, who thankfully are all starting to enter adulthood and thus become real people I can talk to like a real person. This ad goes out to all of us who have absolutely no idea how to chit chat with kids. Kristen Stewart once again gets to show why she’s become one of SNL’s more reliable hosts, nailing the awkwardness, confusion and embarrassment of all us adults who are bewildered by the most basic contact with children. Part of me assumes Duolingo has to be some kind of a scam, but if this product was real I’d sign up for it.
Everybody knows Kenan Thompson is SNL’s resident MVP, and has been for well over a decade. Chris Redd’s starting to rival him, though. This is probably Redd’s best showcase of the season, with him slowly revealing his character’s idiocy and incompetence after engineering a coup against his drug smuggling partner. There’s also a great cameo from Harry Styles as one of his goons.
The Joker-parodying sketch “Grouch” was SNL’s most celebrated movie parody of the season, but I personally prefer “Space Mistakes” to “Grouch”—it’s broader and sillier, sending up not a specific movie, but an entire genre of space disaster films where the smallest problem has the most dramatic results. The blunt, formulaic way it uses language, with multiple characters repeating some version of the refrain about space mistakes, drives this video, but some solid special effects and good performances from Chance the Rapper and Ego Nwodim certainly help out a lot.
The quarantine hit everybody hard but especially parents. I can’t imagine being cooped up indoors for months, trying to work from home while also making sure my kids are doing their school work and staying entertained. I can barely handle a toy poodle. SNL hit on the perfect plan to help the parents of the world, and turned it into a catchy, uplifting jam.