The 15 Best Sketches of Saturday Night Live‘s 48th Season

Comedy Lists Saturday Night Live
The 15 Best Sketches of Saturday Night Live‘s 48th Season
Season 48 of Saturday Night Live came to an abrupt end thanks to the writers’ strike, but there was still plenty of good stuff to celebrate. Here are our picks for the best sketches of the season, in chronological order.

“ManningCast Cold Open” (Episode 1, hosted by Miles Teller)

“The show’s in a rebuilding year for sure,” states host Miles Teller, essaying a surprisingly brilliant impression of former NFL legend turned TV simulcaster Peyton Manning in the very first cold open of Season 48. With Teller’s Peyton and Andrew Dismukes’ “just happy to be here” Eli running folksy play-by-play of the first sketch from scrimmage of this greatly revamped Saturday Night Live, this was one of the most deft and hilarious starts to a season that the show’s done in years. Transplanting the brothers’ Monday Night Football lingo to the travails of SNL’s new season is inspired. “It’s a surprising fumble from the veteran Yang,” Dismukes opines after Bowen seemingly blows a line, “He was supposed to take a step up this year, but you can tell the pressure is getting to him.” In keeping with their star-studded ManningCast, the brothers then bring in three-time Saturday Night Live host and Teller’s Top Gun: Maverick costar Jon Hamm for expert guest analysis, Hamm’s high hopes for new featured player Devon Walker (who Hamm’s been scouting in the off season) dashed by the sketch’s lame stretch for viral relevance. Start to finish, this brisk and clever 7-minute sketch manages to address all the SNL elephants, old and new (the brothers bemoan the lack of crowd-pleasing political impressions, with Eli noting that the departed Kate McKinnon did all of them), promising a nimble self-awareness that energizes Season 48 right from the jump.

“AA Meeting” (Episode 4, hosted by Jack Harlow)

Historically, SNL has a deadening habit of over-elaborating its premises, something this deliriously funny sketch avoids with infectious aplomb. When host Harlow’s reticent attendee of a support group is pressed to open up, his off-topic pitch for the perfect, luggage-themed Pixar movie leaps to life on the back of his fellow members’ immediate and inspired enthusiasm. Molly Kearney, seeing Harlow’s mockup of the movie’s uptight but funny briefcase character, can’t help but interrupt their own tale of alcohol-related woe by snapping, “That’s Jason Bateman!,” and Harlow admiringly notes, “I literally write that in a Google doc.” Chloe Fineman’s meeting goer suggests a Minions-style babbling neck pillow and is immediately brought on board, while Kenan Thompson’s pitch for a female bag with boobs comes complete with his own hastily produced conceptual art. “But what about the song,” growls out Cecily Strong’s frizzy-haired, previously silent barfly, noting that Harlow’s proposed film lacks an Oscar-friendly musical number. No worries, as Strong inexplicably produces a keyboard and belts out the instant hit “Pack Yourself With Love,” with even the group’s confused moderator unable to resist joining the chorus. (“Oh, I drank recently, by the way,” Harlow states in passing.) All that’s left to bring this gloriously silly-smart spectacle home is a whopper of a celebrity cameo, with an obliging Tom Hanks popping in to note that he’s researching a role (and may also be an alcoholic) and contributing the lead bag’s ad-libbed catchphrase, “That really snags my zippers!”

“Tammy the Trucker on Gas Prices and Definitely Not Abortion” (Episode 5, hosted by Amy Schumer)

Saturday Night Live’s middling courage in confronting politics has never been thrown into stark relief more than in the current right-wing assault on the very foundations of American democracy. Weekend Update, the supposed locus of SNL’s political satire, is largely a showcase for anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che’s amusing wiseassery rather than deft and insightful commentary on pressing issues. Thankfully, the now-departed Cecily Strong has seized the Update desk on multiple occasions to inject some deeply felt and brazenly funny perspective, especially on the subject of the GOP-packed Supreme Court’s ongoing attack on women’s reproductive rights. Season 47 saw Strong sneak in her own tale of safe and legal abortion in the guise of Goober the party clown, and this time around, the multitalented Strong hijacked Update once more as Tammy the Trucker (who’s there to talk about the gas crisis and definitely not abortion). Powered by a personal fury that fairly vibrates, Strong’s steamroller commentary is fueled by the premise that she’s snuck onto Update under false pretenses, her CB lingo and trucker’s patter all jettisoned the moment her broadside against Republican legislative misogyny truly gets up a head of steam. Using the bemused Jost as a foil (Strong dismissively hands off her steering wheel prop to him at one point, assuring him, “I’m Tina the Trucker, or whatever name I gave you,” this is Strong at her most slyly passionate. Sometimes, a cast member busts straight through Saturday Night Live’s practiced air of cautious comic both-sidesism, with Strong’s two abortion-related outings standing tall as one very funny woman’s fed-up refusal to play nice. With Tammy referring to “this big giant radio” at her disposal, Strong blares into her CB prop, exhorting other women to watch their six lest “some dickhead in Texas” gains access to their period-tracking apps as evidence of a crime.

“Peppa Pig Fan Club President on the Show’s Gay Characters” (Episode 7, hosted by Keke Palmer)

Sarah Sherman (aka internet provocateur Sarah Squirm) was a surprising hire for SNL, with fans of Sherman’s deliberately offbeat and confrontationally offputting comedy wondering just how she’d fit into the show’s more conventional format. And while Sherman’s made her bones mainly as herself in her Update segments manically roasting host and co-head writer Colin Jost, the comic has made some inroads toward bending SNL toward her will. In this Update piece, she’s one Trish Dale, a frantically offended parent objecting to kids show Peppa Pig’s inclusion of two gay polar bears into its innocuous ensemble. In a memorable earlier sketch in her SNL tenure, Sherman sported a pair of alarming googly eyes, but here it’s all Sherman, as her prim mom darts her wide-open peepers desperately in all directions, her akimbo arms flailing in spasmodic horror at the thought that her children’s favorite animated program might tacitly and harmlessly recognize the existence of gay people. (Or polar bears.) The rash of book-banning and right-wing censorship mania reheating once again across the redder states is a moral faux panic so easy to parody that its very irrationality becomes its comic armor. Sherman, recognizing this, comes at the issue with manic, lunatic energy, Trish Dale’s eye-bulging dudgeon gradually revealed as a frantic stew of personal trauma, misinformation, and the sort of monomaniacal sexual obsession that can only explode at a small cartoon pig. Eventually producing her own doodled illustrations of just what she imagines those polar bears get up to once they’ve helped Peppa with her homework, Sherman takes the lunacy up to 11 and floors it, her explosively funny caricature of repressed conservative bigotry the more potent for how out of left field it is.

“Kenan and Kelly” (Episode 7, hosted by Keke Palmer)

Former child stars Kenan Thompson and host Keke Palmer team up for a reboot of Thompson’s Kenan & Kel in this smartly deconstructed filmed piece. Only Kenan, appearing as himself in backstage segments, was unaware that Palmer’s plan to net herself an Emmy involves transforming the Nickelodeon-friendly hijinks of the original into a gritty showcase on the mean streets of “Chi-raq,” complete with the cameoing Kel Mitchell being graphically shot by a robber and Palmer’s Kelly revealing that her baby is Kel’s rather than Kenan’s. “I slept with him just to hurt you!” Palmer screams over Mitchell’s bloody corpse. “I think we have a tone issue,” old pro Kenan confesses in his to-camera interview, while Palmer’s own backstage aside reveals that she’d hustled Thompson into appearing in the first place. Nostalgia and comic energy combine nicely (the all-in Palmer’s a pip), and this mini-reunion apparently catalyzed Mitchell and Thompson to reunite for the upcoming Good Burger 2, for good measure.

“Chelsea” (Episode 8, hosted by Steve Martin and Martin Short

The Please Don’t Destroy in-house digital video team (Ben Marshall, John Higgins, and Martin Herlihy) have planted their freak flag ably by this point, the three junior writers all mining their own positions as supposed SNL drudges and a three-headed absurdist sensibility for reliable laughs. This might be the best encapsulation of their signature brand of lightning-quick cringe comedy silliness, as Ben and Martin’s offhand rundown of the many flaws of John’s ex-girlfriend Chelsea run headlong into a series of deftly hilarious reveals. Not only is Sarah Sherman’s Chelsea revealed to be sitting in their office, she and John are getting married, her entire family (including Sherman’s real-life, tough guy dad) are watching via Zoom, a court stenographer is revealed to be transcribing all their incriminating statements, and even host Steve Martin is revealed to be perched disapprovingly on their office couch. All directed and edited with quicksilver dexterity, the two unfortunates’ loose lips continue to bury them—or rather bury Martin, as Michael Che (revealed standing behind their office door) fires just him after Martin unsuccessfully attempts to throw Ben under the bus. (“Can you not talk about Ben that way? He’s right here,” John snaps, revealing Ben now comfortably sitting between himself and Chelsea.) All that’s left is for Steve Martin to invite everyone back to his place (“You can all take one thing home with you,” he beams), at least until Sherman’s dad shows up with an extendable police baton to interrupt the bereft Martin’s impromptu song. Just about perfect.

“A Christmas Epiphany” (Episode 9, hosted by Austin Butler)

It’s a Wonderful Life gets an off-brand SNL remake in this exquisitely produced, black-and-white film short in which host Austin Butler’s soused, Jimmy Stewart-esque businessman has an angel-aided existential breakthrough, right in view of a mortified family whose Christmas dinner is interrupted by a ranting stranger seemingly screaming at them through the reflective window. It’s a lovely piece of comic juxtaposition, Butler’s straight-faced emoting about a life ill-spent contrasting with the frozen horror of the secretly unhappy family forced to watch. Finally, parents Andrew Dismukes and Heidi Gardner’s rigid terror allows them to express the buried resentments in their stifling union. (“Your mother stepped outside of our marriage,” Dismukes tells his mortified children through gritted teeth after Gardner berates him for not confronting the gesticulating loony out in the snow.) A tonal triumph.

“Film Noir” (Episode 10, hosted by Aubrey Plaza)

Host Aubrey Plaza looks great in 1940s finery and she and James Austin Johnson match clipped film noir detective movie patter with dizzying comic timing in this trim and silly parody sketch. Playing out live in black-and-white, the sketch sees Johnson’s private dick squaring off with Plaza’s black widow killer, quickly uncovering her fetish for old, soon-dead-men. “I can’t help it if the only thing that turns me on is a guy who never uses his turn signal and screams at raccoons in his yard,” Plaza’s femme fatale confesses before Johnson’s hardened gumshoe invariably falls into her clutches. Toss in an inexplicable but pitch-perfect cameo from Sharon Stone as Plaza’s equally dangerous bombshell of a mother and some knowing asides about the conventions of the genre (“I’m 33. I just look older because I’m an alcoholic,” Johnson spits in response to Plaza’s come-ons), and this one plays out in briskly loving comic homage.

“King Brothers Toyota” (Episode 11, hosted by Michael B. Jordan)

As manically brilliant as Dan Aykroyd at his prime, this commercial for brothers Andrew Dismukes and James Austin Johnson’s failing Toyota dealership sees the desperate pitchmen rattling off their Hail Mary sales pitch in rat-a-tat comic unison. See, there’s this new chicken restaurant whose drive-thru line is cutting off traffic from the nearby Exit 260, leaving the brothers overstocked with unsold cars and ranting futilely against the business-welcoming practices of local councilman Hugo Gallegos. The brothers, in full-on breathless local commercial mode, intersperse their praise for the vehicles idling in their lot with a series of asides and attacks on the evils besetting their livelihood (including that “villainous patron” of trendy drive-thru chains everywhere, Hugo Gallegos), Dismukes and Johnson unerringly channeling their rage into the staccato cadence of the used car huckster. The brothers even wheel out host Michael B. Jordan as their secret, Toyota-affiliated weapon Brian Pattimore, who ominously threatens to reveal one ingredient of the chicken chain’s special sauce per hour until they leave town. (“Don’t believe me, check this out—ketchup,” Pattimore glares before stomping offscreen.) With Johnson’s salesman bemoaning the family events he’s missed as he and his brother try to keep their business afloat (including his young son’s turn as Nathan Detroit in an all-child version of Guys and Dolls) the brothers’ salesman’s banter never wavers, even as Johnson relates how his daughter (a junior college Classics professor) has described their plight as “a funhouse mirror held up against the American dream.” Johnson’s “I don’t know about that, baby girl, all’s I know is I’m getting f-ed in the a by councilman Hugo Gallegos!” is the perfect capper, both actors’ commitment and the sketch’s bizarro specificity a jolt of comic energy from start to finish.

“Jake from State Farm” (Episode 11, hosted by Michael B. Jordan)

Jordan’s smiling beefiness is put to perfect use again in this Saturday Night Live parody of those ubiquitous insurance ads where an unfailingly helpful young salesman inserts himself into the harried lives of unfortunate customers. Here, the ever-beneficent Jake from State Farm’s unexpected appearances in the home of marrieds Mikey Day and Heidi Gardner gradually turn into a miniature horror movie, as Day begins to (rightfully) suspect that the burly and pleasant Jake’s presence in his home is slowly edging him right out of the picture. With Jordan never wavering in Jake’s always on-script salesman’s patter (the sketch does gets docked points for obvious product placement), the piece is a little masterpiece of escalating comic menace, with Day’s increasingly frantic husband watching this hunky corporate spokesperson taking over his life, all without once dropping his corporate-mandated friendliness.

“Lisa from Temecula” (Episode 12, hosted by Pedro Pascal)

Sometimes it’s just about the giggles on Saturday Night Live. While this extended bit of physical comedy from Ego Nwodim and unapologetic breaking from host Pedro Pascal and Bowen Yang, Molly Kearney, and Punkie Johnson will hardly lay claim to being the best written sketch of all time, it’s still one of the highlights of the season on the sheer amount of goodwill the wobbly enterprise manages to generate. When Nwodim’s brash diner starts sawing at her requested extra-extra well-done steak with an inadequate table knife, it sends her suspiciously bountiful helping of peas (and a perilous pitcher of sangria) into chaos, and the cast and audience into helpless hysterics. It’s not poetry, but it’s infectious, silly, and the sort of live TV spectacle only SNL can give us. (Sadly, SNL went to the Lisa well again later in the season, to severely diminished effect.)

“Two Men Speak in the Most Beautiful Gym in the World” (Episode 13, hosted by Woody Harrelson

An exercise in languorous silliness, this two-hander between Bowen Yang (in tuxedo) and host Woody Harrelson (in crushed velvet) trading equally velvety come-ons in their favorite luxury gym is as deliberately paced as it is hilarious. The fey duo’s banter is all deadpan absurdity, as Yang’s revelation that he’s just fled his own wedding (“Her name’s Ashley or something”) butting up against Harrelson airily asking Michael Longfellow’s tux-clad gym pianist what he’s playing. (“A big piano sir,” Longfellow responds with matching nonchalance.) All while Yang and Harrelson effortlessly lift tiny gold-plated weights in serene unison, the jokes emerge not so much as quips as the blessedly weird products of two detached weirdos. Asked about his favorite machine, Harrelson dreamily responds, “The one that makes the toast,” while Yang’s definition of going “beast mode” on the rowing machine means bringing along a single rose under a glass dome. In its unhurried loopiness, this is a near-perfect 10-to-one Saturday Night Live sketch.

“Family Meeting” (Episode 14, hosted by Travis Kelce)

James Austin Johnson has been an invaluable addition to this SNL cast, his facility with high-profile impressions only matched by his ability to imbue a sketch character with an indefinable inner life. Here, he’s paired wonderfully with Ego Nwodim as their older parents break some difficult news to their adult kids in the form of a smooth soul ballad. That news: they’re now in a loving thruple with a towering ex-con named Sucre Wolodarsky (host Travis Kelce), have spent all their grandkids’ college money, and, as the couple croons happily, Sucre routinely pleasures Nwodim between bouts of Streets of Rage handheld gaming while Johnson—as the song’s chorus stresses—watches from the corner. Is it Johnson’s peerless, Michael McDonald-esque beard and vocals that makes this so funny? Or is it Nwodim’s beaming, unapologetic answering harmony as she rhymes “felon” with “he explores my whole body like Magellan”? Maybe it’s the fact that the couple reveals the loss of the college funds only after a rocking Johnson guitar solo, or their subsequent bananas explanation of why their three children are all different complexions. Regardless, it’s the sort of elaborately silly concept that a couple of truly talented comic performers can run with.

“School vs. School” (Episode 15, hosted by Jenna Ortega)

Kenan Thompson has been so good for so long on Saturday Night Live (that’s 20 seasons and counting), that’s it’s easy to overlook his contributions to any given show. In this variation on the venerable (not to say overused) game show format, Kenan’s host shows off the actor’s matchless ability to underplay in the face of escalating craziness, here in a competition between two high schools where one is clearly the X-Men. The craziness comes from Mikey Day and episode host Jenna Ortega, who take to their Professor X and Rogue analogues with appropriately high-pitched Marvel mutant melodramatics, Day’s bald-capped headmaster responding to Ortega’s complaint about not being allowed to unleash her powers with an imperiously booming, “Because you cannot yet control them child!!” Through it all, Kenan’s host rides herd with an unflappable professionalism, even when a stray exhibition of Ortega’s mutant ability seemingly fries opposing teacher Punkie Johnson’s brain. (“Now I just got blasted, hit in the face, with what I can only describe as electric wind!,” Kenan scolds.) With the Marvel universe so ingrained in the public consciousness, it’s also a treat to see a Saturday Night Live sketch trust in us to get the joke even without using the actual characters, even if Molly Kearney’s mega-armed Knockout can’t help but destroy the set in the end.

“Traffic Altercation” (Episode 16, hosted by Quinta Brunson)

An elaborate piece of comic staging energizes two electrically physical performances by Mikey Day and host Quinta Brunson in this loudly pantomimed tale of a road rage gone wrong. Trapped in bumper-to-bumper traffic, Day berates Brunson’s motorist for supposedly cutting him off with a series of simultaneously shouted and sign language-aided insults that she reciprocates in increasingly exaggerated ways. The joke of the duo’s byzantine pantomimes is one thing (and Day’s teen daughter Chloe Fineman ups the ante with a bit of alarmingly graphic sexual technique), but it’s the way that Day and Brunson manage to communicate some subtle intricacies of their furious argument that sustains the sketch. Day has to concede that his initial objection to Brunson miming a hand-cranked window actually reads better in practice than his automatic window button move. There’s a joyful string of comic reveals throughout, as Day’s accusation that Brunson’s mother would be ashamed of her sees Ego Nwodim’s mom popping out of the back seat to retort with some choice gestures of her own. And the final turn, where a seeming rapprochement between the two recently divorced drivers appears headed toward a dinner date only for Brunson to blow Day up with one final pantomimed zinger, is the sort of sketch ending Saturday Night Live writers dream about.

Dennis Perkins is an entertainment writer who lives in Maine with his wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, (Special Agent Dale) Cooper. His work has appeared in places like The A.V. Club, Ultimate Classic Rock, and the Portland (Maine) Press Herald. You can find him on Twitter, where he will anger you with opinions, and Instagram, where you will be won back over by pictures of Special Agent Dale Cooper.

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