Saturday Night Live’s 43rd season, which wrapped up last week, was another year defined by its relationship to the Trump Administration. SNL’s weekly political sketches are staples of social media on Sunday mornings, with a bewigged Alec Baldwin and the latest celebrity cameo mugging on almost every news and entertainment website through the magic of embedded YouTube videos. It’s what the show is most known for today, its most prominent calling card, and it should be no surprise to regular Paste readers that there isn’t a single political sketch on our list of the season’s best.
Our stance has been clear all season: Saturday Night Live’s political comedy is bad. Some of our Facebook comments have accused us of saying that because the show is critical of or “mean” to Donald Trump—as if there’s any possible way to be too mean to that ruinous fraud. No, we’re not anti-SNL because we’re pro-Trump. SNL’s political comedy is bad because it never says anything, never has an actual point of view, and rarely shows any kind of actual effort on part of the writers or performers. This is the show whose big Mueller investigation sketch was a callback to the 18-year-old movie Meet the Parents. With every cold open the show continues to confuse cheers of recognition for Baldwin’s lifeless, stultifying impression as actual excitement from the audience. Instead of writing insightful or incisive political satire, SNL knows all it has to do is bring an unannounced celebrity on stage as the latest cartoon character from Trump’s orbit, recite some lines that often aren’t recognizable as jokes in any way, and then wait for every website ever to post it as soon as it’s online. We’re guilty of that too, of course. But the result isn’t just political comedy devoid of actual comedy; it’s an anchor dragging the entire show down week after week, and a great way to undermine the regular cast in the eyes of the viewers.
Enough about that elephant in the room. We’re here to write about what we liked about SNL this year. It was another down year for the show, but it still featured a handful of strong hosting jobs (Chance the Rapper, John Mulaney, and Black Panther stars Sterling K. Brown and Chadwick Boseman were all especially good) and a number of memorable sketches. Our tastes run towards the more absurd, and we clearly get more into pretaped segments than live sketches, but overall this list is a good overview of what SNL did right this past season.
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.
Chance the Rapper hosted one of the best episodes of the season, and this smart sketch is the best thing 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.
Mashing two unrelated trending topics together doesn’t always create good comedy, but SNL, among other shows, is constantly doing it, anyway. “A Kanye Place” is the rare recent example that doesn’t feel forced, combining the shock of Kanye West embracing Trump, the “shut up or die” world of the box office smash A Quiet Place, and the pointless and addictive nature of social media into a timely commentary on our shallow national dialogue.
There are no politics here, no social commentary, no stab at significance or relevance. It’s just a realistic premise—a cheesy entertainment news show interviewing the creator of a cheesier ‘80s sitcom that’s being revived for a modern audience—that takes an unexpected turn. It works so well because it reins the absurdity in—every subsequent joke builds on that one revelation, adding in more and more details without losing focus. The writing is surprisingly sharp, but it still needs John Mulaney’s crisp performance to become truly great. As funny as it is, this wasn’t even the best sketch from what wound up being the best episode of the season.
SNL’s Black Jeopardy sketches find new angles with each installment. Previous versions have featured a well-meaning white man afraid of seeming racist and an openly racist Trump supporter who’s revealed to have a lot in common with his black opponents. This time Boseman plays T’Challa (aka Black Panther) as the wise and respectful leader that is he in the Marvel movies, answering questions like “why is the cable bill in grandma’s name” in the wholesome and positive way you’d expect from the resident of a utopia like Wakanda. Of course that makes his answers the exact opposite of what the show expects them to be; he guesses that the cable bill is in grandma’s name to honor and respect her memory and importance to the family, when the correct answer is because she’s going to die soon and won’t need that good credit anymore. Black Jeopardy hasn’t worn out its welcome as a recurring sketch because of details like that—despite the identical format and unchanging characters played by Thompson, Leslie Jones and Chris Redd (and Jay Pharoah and Sasheer Zamata before them), the third contestant always has a fundamentally different relationship with black people and black culture, and that lets the sketch keep not just its jokes fresh but its commentary on racism, as well.
This cut for time video comes in at over five minutes long. It’s like Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett stopped even trying to make stuff for TV somewhere along the way. There’s no fat to cut in “Fish Dreams,” a sad and sweet parody of down-on-their-luck celebrities narratives. The Fish Man from Shape of Water enters a long downward spiral fueled by pride and artistic pretension, while his friend Roger (played by Mulaney) sees his own career surge. It’s a beautifully shot piece of ridiculousness that actually feels a little poignant in spots.
Last year 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 season. 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.
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.
Last season it was “Wells for Boys.” This season 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 last year.
The episode hosted by John Mulaney was the best of the season, and one reason might be because the former SNL writer was able to rescue great old ideas that were originally shot down. “Sitcoom Reboot” was written in 2009, and “Diner Lobster,” the best sketch of the season, was written by Mulaney and Colin Jost in 2010. This elaborate musical lament about a customer ordering a lobster from a Greek diner injects a mundane bit of observational humor with unexpected weight and depth. Part Les Misérables parody, part commentary on the odd overabundance of menu items at Greek diners, “Diner Lobster” is one of the weirdest and funniest SNL sketches in years.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.