Saturday Night Live’s latest season came to a close with last Saturday’s episode, with Anya Taylor-Joy serving admirably as the final host of the year. It was the 46th season for the sketch show, which is seriously just an absurd number at this point. It shows no sign of slowing down, though; it’s become a well-oiled machine since Lorne Michaels returned in the mid ‘80s, and other than the ever-changing cast, the mid-’00s transfer to high-definition, and specific political or pop culture references, almost any episode from the late ‘90s on could have been created during any season. That might make the show a little formulaic, but it’s also insured a consistency rarely seen with such long-running TV shows. Sure, some casts are more talented than others, and some seasons are clearly weaker than others, but when it comes to SNL we’ve pretty much known what we’re going to get for decades now.
SNL is at its strongest when cast members are able to inject that formula with their own comedic sensibility. It’s something the truly great cast members consistently pull off—your Bill Haders, Kristen Wiigs, Aidy Bryants, and Kenan Thompsons. Nothing they do is too far out of line with the rest of the show, but you still get a strong sense of who these performers are and what they find funny. And the show is at its absolute best when it stops worrying about political events or current pop culture trends and just embraces absurdity for the sake of it.
You’ll find examples of both in the 10 sketches below. For our money, these were the funniest segments to air on Saturday Night Live during season 46, which started back in October, 2020, and wrapped up just a few days ago, on May 22, 2021. All of these sketches are worth checking out, if you haven’t seen ‘em yet.
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.
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.
The premise is a bit of a lay-up, and something multiple stand-up comedians have mulled over throughout the years: what would happen if somebody actually surprised their spouse with a new Lexus, like in those Christmas ads that have been running forever? Buying or leasing a new car really isn’t something you do on the spur of the moment or without checking with your partner first, and SNL’s take is initially the obvious one. It keeps digging, though, turning Beck Bennett’s husband from a man simply trying to do something special for a while, into a pathetic, jobless alcoholic who’s fixated on impressing his teenage son’s girlfriend. It’s not particularly inspired, but it is funny, and Bennett and Heidi Gardner do a great job in the lead roles.
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.
This could be recency bias here, but 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 first airing last Saturday night. 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 fifth time, makes me want to immediately go out and see whatever is showing.
The contrarianism in Bill Burr’s stand-up can be a little frustrating, but he’s turned into a surprisingly fine actor, which served him well when hosting SNL for the first time this year. “Sports Debate” plays uncomfortably with the tragedies of racism and police violence, and although I don’t begrudge anybody who finds it in poor taste, the tension and commitment to following the concept through makes it one of the better written and more memorable sketches of the year. Burr, Kenan Thompson, and Ego Nwodim all play their roles perfectly in a ridiculous escalation that sadly feels all too plausible.
Repetition is a classic comedy tool, and like any tool it can make a mess when used improperly. Another John Mulaney sketch is an example of how to use repetition well. When confronted with the Headless Horseman during a nighttime walk through Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane has one basic question: does the Horseman ever use his head for, y’know, self-pleasure. It’s pretty much single-mindedly focused on that one idea, but written with enough depth and with enough permutations of that basic concept to never get old. Yeah, it’s vulgar, but also weirdly witty in its own way.
Season 46’s last episode, which aired last weekend and 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. If this is Bryant’s last sketch on the show, she’s going out with a good one.
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.
In this absurd riff on old Depression-era melodramas, host Timothée Chalamet is sad about his family falling into poverty and having to sell the farm, but he’s simply devastated by the fact that he’ll also have to say goodbye to his best friend, a very small horse. Tiny Horse, who seems to be anywhere from one to four inches high, and who changes regularly between some kind of weird overlay effect and what looks like claymation, doesn’t want to leave at first, until Chalamet has to repeatedly yell at him to git in a gag almost as brilliantly drawn out as Sideshow Bob stepping on those rakes. Over the course of his song (did I mention this is a song?) Chalamet’s farm boy realizes that he was holding Tiny Horse back—that with freedom, and the drive to be great, he could graduate from Animal University, become a cabinet member, maybe even marry a Congress member. A very specific Congress member. The sky’s the limit for Tiny Horse, as long as Chalamet learns to let him go.