Yes, Saturday Night Live is a TV show. It does comedy several Saturdays every year, with new sketches and short films and that fake news that the president is always talking about. The inherent ridiculousness of that president has helped the show garner more attention in the last couple of years than it has in probably a decade or so, with Alec Baldwin’s guest turn as Trump regularly getting headlines and viral video shares on Sunday morning. It’s a hot time for the old show this year.
If you’ve read any of our recent reviews of SNL, though, you probably know that the editors of Paste’s comedy section aren’t impressed by its recent political humor. Not because we’re Trump fans who don’t like seeing him made fun of, as some Facebook commenters insist every week (we don’t think it needs to be said that Trump is an amoral, inhuman embarrassment and a deep, permanent stain on America’s reputation), but because the show’s political humor is rarely insightful or incisive, preferring to riff on its own fictionalized conceits of Trump and his administration instead of actually dealing with what this venal crew of con men (and women) are doing to our country and its people.
The show’s constantly insufficient political comedy has severely kneecapped it this year, in terms of actual laughs. SNL has rarely ever been consistently great, but many seasons in the past have had enough great material to justify giving it a season pass on the DVR. 2017 has seen a pretty low number of hits, though, as the frustrating political comedy has sucked so much of the oxygen out of the show’s air.
Still, it hasn’t all been terrible. The cast is full of genuinely talented performers who often improve on poorly conceived material through sheer commitment. There are some great comedians on the writing staff, including Julio Torres, who’s responsible for the best SNL segments from both 2016 and 2017. Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett’s absurdist vision doesn’t always generate great sketches, but when their pieces work they are consistently among the show’s best current work. 2017 also saw a number of talented hosts, some of whom were able to elevate lackluster writing.
We’re tough on this show on an almost weekly basis, and it’s definitely too inconsistent and easy-going to truly recommend, but when a sketch or film works it reminds us of why this show has lasted so long and why it has such a unique and prominent position within the world of comedy and TV. The 10 sketches and videos below all attest to that.
The SNL cast of the oughts had an unusually high percentage of performers go on to solid post-show careers. Fey, Fallon, Poehler, Wiig, Forte, Wiig, Sudeikis, Hader, Armisen, Meyers and Samberg are all doing high-profile work several years after leaving the show, which is probably the highest hit rate of any cast in SNL’s history. Bobby Moynihan came late in the decade, but his talent should hopefully earn him similar success—he was one of the show’s most consistent performers his entire time there, flashing a steady Hartman-esque everyman quality while also proving himself capable of stealing a sketch out from beneath anybody else on the show. “Attorney Ad” is proof: the concept is strong, and Kate McKinnon’s character work is as impressive as ever, but Moynihan’s inspired lunacy as a fatally incompetent lawyer turns the sketch into one of the year’s best.
Mooney and Bennett frequently parody ‘90s and ‘00s pop culture, from bad network sitcoms to basic cable reality shows. This Real World satire underlines the glaring unreality of so-called reality shows by turning minor, inconsequential events into relationship-threatening landmines. The pacing and structure are crucial here, but not as much as the contract between the poker faces Mooney, Bennett and Chris Pine keep during the house footage, and the exasperation and confusion they all show during the confessionals.
Some how this sketch didn’t even make it to TV, getting cut from the last episode of the year. It’s another piece of Mooney/Bennett surrealism, as the latter goes to increasingly ridiculous lengths to meet up with his friends on New Year’s Eve. If you haven’t checked out the “cut for time” sketches on SNL’s YouTube page, you should; they’re often better and weirder than most of what made it to air.
Kenan Thompson should never leave this show. He’s been there longer than anybody else and he’s still one of the two or three most consistently hilarious cast members. “Youngblood” works for a lot of reasons—its pitch-perfect recreation of “street” melodramas, Pete Davidson’s steely-eyed disbelief, Octavia Spencer’s Lockhorns-style relationship with Thompson, the great writing—but Thompson’s performance turns this sketch into one of the year’s best. It’s weird to think that the show’s longest-running cast member ever is still somehow underrated, but here we are.
Chance the Rapper hosted what is probably the best episode of 2017, and this smart sketch is the best sketch from it. It introduces a complaint that’s somewhat common among critics of the character of Batman into the mainstream pop culture consciousness, that Batman’s violent war on crime probably isn’t all that welcome by the people who live in the communities he brutalizes. Thankfully the sketch does it in a way that’s a lot funnier than that probably sounds.
Like Moynihan, the now-departed Vanessa Bayer was a crucial cornerstone of SNL’s last decade, an always-professional performer who maybe didn’t get the mainstream love that Kate McKinnon quickly acquired, but was just as valuable a contributor during her time on the show. Among her best work was the trilogy of fake Totinos ads that would air around the time of the Super Bowl. It culminates in this surprisingly touching finale, with Bayer’s character, who existed solely to feed her “hungry guys,” having a sexual and emotional awakening that marks her freedom from the constant cooking of pizza rolls.
Earlier this month I wrote that “The Race” is more proof that Mooney and Bennett should be SNL’s head writers. I stand by that assessment, and this isn’t even the duo’s best work on the show this year. It’s absurd without being inaccessible, references a well-defined era that many viewers are nostalgic for (uh, the 1980s) without obviously parodying any specific film or show, and, most importantly, it grows increasingly hilarious as it adds more and more unexpected details.
When this sketch first aired in May I wasn’t too enthusiastic about it. I thought its supposed surprise was a little too obvious, and that the whole sketch was more into the idea of shocking the viewer than actually being funny. I don’t know what I was thinking. Rewatching it today it’s clearly one of the better written and more subversive sketches in the show’s history, contrasting the banality of real evil with the cartoon inconsequence of mad genius supervillains. And it wouldn’t work nearly as well without The Rock’s strenuously matter-of-fact delivery.
The most recent apotheosis of Mooney and Bennett’s style is this ‘90s sitcom parody starring Larry David as a guitar-shredding, beer-addicted cousin who accidentally kills the fish he’s supposed to be caring for. There are no grand statements here, just a playful experimentation with form and expectation, recasting the soullessness of any given TGIF show into a surreal nightmare.
In 2016 it was “Wells for Boys.” In 2017 it’s “Papyrus.” Julio Torres is the best and most idiosyncratic writer SNL has had in decades, with his voice and interests clearly shining through in almost everything he writes for the show. (Presumably he’s also responsible for some of Cecily Strong’s “Deep Thoughts”-style bits involving Melania Trump, which are the most enjoyable of the show’s political jokes.) “Papyrus” is a constantly surprising tour de force of film-making style, turning a minor pop culture annoyance (the font used in the logo for the 2009 movie Avatar) into a clever parody of conspiracy thrillers. Don’t take my word for it, though; go read assistant comedy editor Seth Simons rave about the sketch earlier this year.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.