The 15 Best Sketches of Saturday Night Live’s 49th Season

Comedy Lists Saturday Night Live
The 15 Best Sketches of Saturday Night Live’s 49th Season

Season 49 of Saturday Night Live, like last season, lost some episodes due to the writers strike that edged into the planned opening day. But the 20 episodes we did get had some delightful, weird, and/or delightfully weird stuff for the cast to work with, and us to enjoy. So here are our picks for the 15 best sketches of the season, in chronological order.

“Protective Mom 2” (Episode 2, hosted by Bad Bunny)

There were a couple of hosts who attempted the infamously difficult host/musical guest achievement this season, with only the Puerto Rican rapper/singer/occasional pro wrestler Bad Bunny truly pulling it off. (Apologies, Dua Lipa.) Bunny gets added points for doing it all bilingually, as in this recurring sketch where the rapper got invaluable backup from former host and perpetual delight Pedro Pascal. The premise saw Marcello Hernandez once more bringing his white college girlfriend (Chloe Troast) home for the holidays, this time imagining his doting aunt (Bunny) will be less judgmental than Pascal’s imperiously protective mom. Sadly for him, Pascal’s mama is visiting, so the piece becomes yet another exercise in hilariously half-understood Spanish insults (here assuming the viewer is as single-language clueless as the increasingly alarmed Troast), with the impeccably mom-costumed actors (even if neither bother to shave their beards) express their very specific brand of maternal disdain. Troast can only pick out phrases like “Trader Joe’s” and “flat butt” amidst the rapid-fire Spanish, but she gets the idea. Bunny’s great, as he was all night, but it’s once more Pascal’s sketch to swipe, as his mother furiously rebuffs Troast’s suggestion that Hernandez has depression (“He just likes the dark!,” she booms) and does a little bit of business with Troast’s proffered gift of tinned cookies that makes you want to stand up and cheer. Or at least tell stories about your own mom.

“Washington’s Dream” (Episode 3, hosted by Nate Bargatze)

Low-key stand-up Bargatze was an intriguing choice for host, but the writers seized upon his sly slowpoke Southern delivery in this period sketch where the comic’s somber George Washington addresses his beleaguered troops with his grand, idealistic dream about breaking with England to create a new land—with its own confusing set of weights and measures. A silly piece of observational comedy pitched at just the right vibration to shake us to helpless laughter, this Washington extols the virtues of gallons, miles, and tons, brushing aside his confused soldiers’ understandable objections to the vagaries and non-round numbers of the ironically named English System in his sweeping oratory. Sure, there will be no name for half a ton, but at least the new American game of football (where you don’t use your feet much) will throw over the King’s metric system to measure the rare kicking play in yards. (“There’s a little kicking,” the father of our country concedes to Mikey Day’s skeptical soldier.) Bargatze never drops his deadpan, even when soldier Kenan Thompson repeatedly attempts to introduce the issue of Black people in this new nation, Bargatze’s Washington expertly segueing to yet another example of why, for example, rulers with inches on one side and centimeters on the other “don’t line up and they never will.” Living in the oddball logic of one writer’s singularly silly idea and the underplayed brilliance of all involved, “Washington’s Dream” is SNL at its conceptual best.

“Chef Show” (Episode 3, hosted by Nate Bargatze)

Once again, the writers knew exactly how to use a host, as the perpetually deferential Bargatze’s turn as a white cooking show contestant accidentally winning a soul food competition soars the more Bargatze’s embarrassed chef apologizes. After a round of Black judges (Punkie Johnson and Kenan) extol one anonymous dish as the most authentic expression of Southern Black food culture, everyone’s horrified to learn that it belongs to Bargatze’s Rhode Island native chef and not Ego Nwodim’s odds-on favorite gourmet. None more so than Bargatze’s Dougie, who punctuates every answer to the judges’ incredulous questions with genuine regret. Head shaking in awkwardness as his name is read, Dougie responds to Kenan’s exasperated “How?!” with a genuinely apologetic, “I don’t know. I just tried my best and I, again, sorry,” Bargatze making a deliciously understated meal out of his unexpected cross-cultural victory. Saturday Night Live often books hosts with limitations they have to work around. With the drawling gentleness of Nate Bargatze, everyone showed how to play perfectly to a host’s strengths.

“Make Your Own Kind of Music” (Episode 6, hosted by Emma Stone)

In another timeline, Emma Stone would have been a huge Saturday Night Live star. As it is, the newly jacketed Five Timers Club member will just have to settle for killing it whenever she’s brought back to host, as in her turn in this, easily the most ambitious and off-the-wall hilarious sketch of Season 49. Kitted out in a salt-and-pepper perm and creepily thin mustache, Stone’s music producer is matched in sheer performing talent by featured player Chloe Troast, here playing Mama Cass Elliot belting out her 1969 pop anthem, “Your Own Kind of Music.” As with some of SNL‘s greatest sketches, this seems to stem from a single piece of pop culture observational comedy (cheery old pop songs being ironically repurposed in creepy movie and TV scenes and trailers), only to break into truly bananas escalation. In this standout, it’s Stone’s quick-talking mogul assuring the nonplussed singer that, although her song will be quickly forgotten in its own time, it will find a second life in the new century as the juxtaposed score to, in order, a zombie movie, a Kill Bill-style sword-massacre revenge story, and a flick about Joan of Arc returning from the dead. Stone is astoundingly good, hurling herself bodily into reenactments of the scenes she’s envisioning (all of which end with Stone’s singing producer delivering the line “a smile on my face!” with manic glee), while the immensely talented Troast gamely croons out Elliot’s innocently positive ode to individual creativity with impeccable pipes. A funny idea already, the wraparound joke that this is all a pitch for a movie about a vengeful Mama Cass violently objecting to the misuse of her song (the carnage once more scored to her song) is loony perfection.

“Beep Beep” (Episode 7, hosted by Adam Driver)

Having an actor noted for their intensity in the studio is a gift, if the host is willing to mine the gap between silliness and their signature steeliness for maximum laughs. Adam Driver’s already shown his ability to do just that, and this sketch co-starring Andrew Dismukes is another showcase for the towering thespian to play up both aspects of his persona. As a pair of neighborhood husbands whose chipper “beep beep” excuse me catchphrase while placing holiday dishes on a crowded table give way to steely, dead-eyed malice when thwarted, Driver and Dismukes are living in their own little world of social awkwardness turned blood feud. (“Oh, I see, you want to die tonight,” Driver’s casserole-carrying host tells the similarly laden Dismukes.) Dismukes, who wrote this sketch, cites Will Forte as inspiration for his frequently brilliant portraits of the squirmy violence hidden under a veneer of chit-chat politesse, and it shows here, as the hubbies’ showdown takes their once-cheery “beep beep” warnings into the depths of stifled suburban manhood.

“Roast” (Episode 10, hosted by Dakota Johnson)

Unlike the Bargatze episode, SNL seemed unsure at how to make comedy out of similarly low-key Johnson’s signature deadpan demeanor. Thankfully, this Please Don’t Destroy filmed piece allowed the Madame Web star to reveal the claws hidden underneath her placid exterior, as she and the PDD guys (perpetual backstage punching bag writers Ben Marshall, John Higgins, and Martin Herlihy) see their initially friendly interaction transform into hilariously cutting put-downs. After Johnson confuses the guys by blandly stating that The Treasure of Foggy Mountain stars’ comedy isn’t for her, the guys team up to engage in an insult battle so targeted on both sides that it nearly redeems Johnson’s episode gig entirely. The guys get in their shots, mocking Johnson’s performances as uniformly “whispering in monotone” and threatening to change the monologue cue cards so she says the N-word. (John deadpan apologizes before asking if Johnson can introduce him to Madame Web costar Sydney Sweeney.) But it’s the coiled and unperturbed Johnson who goes in for the kill, referring to the guys as “The Lonelier Island” and calling them “the three last guys that a lesbian sleeps with,” before pulling of an exit line switcheroo, pretending to mistake the fledgeling writer-performers for another, more successful bro-comedy trio. The only truce comes from the three nepo babies (Johnson, Martin Herlihy and John Higgins) putting their signet rings together to recite the nepo baby oath, “A foot in the door and so much more.”

“Why’d You Say It?” (Episode 11, hosted by Ayo Edebiri)

It’s the mark of a so-so season that there are two recurring sketches in this year’s top 15. Still, funny is funny, and the can’t-miss premise of this game show (unsuspecting contestants are called upon to explain their Instagram comments) gets big laughs again. A part of that is Kenan riding herd as the show’s smugly delighted host, first springing the show’s concept on the unwary players (“Ohh, no thank you,” Mikey Day’s contestant dips immediately, before being replaced). Old pro Kenan (in his 21st season) is so great at these sorts of potentially thankless roles—he just makes it all look much easier than it is as his host displays one bitter, sleazy, or downright hateful comment for his victims to explain away. Episode host Ayo Edebiri is just as good as a player forced to explain why she wrote “Die,” under a video of Drew Barrymore enjoying a rainstorm, finally working through her transparent lies to admit that she posts abuse online to fill up the emptiness she feels each day, all with Kenan’s beaming host underplaying the set-ups to traps he knows are about to be sprung. (Edebiri gets caught making fun of Kenan’s young son online during the game, winning with the simple confession, “I cannot change.”)

“Bank Robbery” (Episode 14, hosted by Josh Brolin)

The imposing Brolin is another host, like Driver, who brings a lot of gravitas to the stage and once more, Saturday Night Live knows just what to do with him. Brolin, for all his fame at playing tough guys and the occasional purple universe conqueror, seems at heart to be a big goof, a trait evidenced best in this sketch. While he and wife Heidi Gardner find themselves in the midst of a bank hostage situation, the couple’s obviously long-simmering and recently renegotiated sexual boundaries emerge in escalating explicitness, much to the chagrin of their fellow hostages and even the gun-wielding robbers. A lot of the jokes involve cutbacks to see the couple suddenly having stripped to their underwear and inexplicably tied up, with their sexual fantasies irrepressibly leaping into this fraught situation. Gardner keeps fixating on robber Marcello Hernandez as a “barely legal Latino” (“I’m 31,” he recoils), and Brolin hoisting his haunches up on a ready table to show off how his recent pilates regimen will make the robbers’ inevitable violations hurt them more than it hurts him. Brolin and Gardner go huge with their repressed marrieds’ eagerness to play out their sweaty fantasies with these deeply uninterested criminals (Gardner can hoist her rump helplessly up in the air like a champ), and the whole scene is played at a very funny fever pitch.

“Go-Karts” (Episode 16, hosted by Kristen Wiig)

Saturday Night Live icon Wiig often unpacks a handful of her go-to SNL characters when she comes back to host, but this sketch, in keeping with the episode as a whole, refreshingly allowed Wiig to shine in an original concept alongside stealth Season 49 all-star James Auston Johnson. The most enduring SNL performers are the ones who carry dramatic chops in their back pockets—they bring depth to the necessarily short-form storytelling, and the simple knowledge that they have that versatility in their back pockets elevates everything they’re in. Wiig was like that, and Johnson matches her here as a pair of parents unsuccessfully hiding the prospect of some very bad news from their kids as they prepare for a go-kart race during an amusement park family outing. Again, underplaying is pivotal here, as both leads fend off the increasingly alarmed questions of their offspring after the Johnson’s dad puts on a brave face to tell his son, “Enjoy the go-karts son, let’s all have fun on the go-karts. ‘Cause after the go-karts… your mother and I have something terrible to tell you.” What that thing is is never quite revealed, although the parents do wonder aloud if they should bring someone named “Shiela” should really be on hand for the terrible thing, and Johnson brightly asks his kids at one point, “Hey, I have a question—how would you all feel if I started drinking again?” (There’s also a killer comic reveal midway through the sketch that’s icing on the comedy cake.) The old cliché is that comedy is harder than drama, but mixing the two so expertly is a master class.

“Jumanji” (Episode 16, hosted by Kristen Wiig)

Another Dismukes sketch, another chance to plumb the depths of the whitewashed shell of neighborly niceness. Here, Dismukes is holding a game night, only for visitor Wiig to steadfastly refuse to play on the off chance she will get Jumanji-ed. The name of that beloved book/movie about being sucked into a board game gets turned into a verb with increasing frequency and volume, as Dismukes and Wiig argue over the definition, frequency, and likelihood of being Jumanji-ed. Their superficial game night niceties devolve into an absurdly specific deconstruction of the true nature of the event, with Dismukes ultimately exploding into the virtuoso rant, “What even is Jumanji to you, lady? Because it sounds like you think that getting Jumanji-ed is going into Jumanji. But in JumanjiJumanji comes out. The kids don’t go into JumanjiJumanji comes out of Jumanji!” Wiig responds that Robin Williams actually did get Jumanji-ed into Jumanji, leading to the antique, train-based board game (which, it turns out, Dismukes did buy from a creepy old lady’s estate sale) indeed Jumanji-ing everyone but Wiig. (Dismukes’ hero Will Forte was born to play a mysteriously malign old train conductor.) If there’s a consistent knock against Saturday Night Live‘s vision of sketch, it’s that everything must begin and end in normalcy. Here, the events start out that way but spin into weirdness and never feels the need to drop us off comfortably at home. The show could use more of that.

“Beavis and Butt-Head” (Episode 17, hosted by Ryan Gosling)

Honestly, I was not as enamored of this immensely popular sketch as the rest of the world. But leaving it off this list would likely start a riot, so I’ll say that a funny trainwreck of a sketch is at least something you can only get on Saturday Night Live. In an episode marked by host Gosling’s inability to keep his giggle-puss in check, this was the big hit, even if it was Gosling’s mostly straight-faced antics breaking up Heidi Gardner that truly made this the most-watched YouTube clip of the season. As Heidi’s interviewer attempts to keep her talk with Kenan’s expert on artificial intelligence professional, the lurking appearance of a pair of audience members (Gosling and Mikey Day) who bear a resemblance to the animated characters Beavis and Butt-Head quickly buffets things off the rails. Kenan’s straight-laced and understandable bafflement at the live-action B&B being in his eyeline is what the sketch was going for, and that would have been fine on it’s own. But it was Gardner’s unaccustomed inability to keep it together that spun the sketch into viral fame (along with the outstanding prosthetics work). Again, funny is funny, and it’s tough to imagine anybody making it through this sketch without losing it too. But the juxtaposition of Gosling and Day’s outlandish-looking but utterly ordinary acting dudes looking around in confusion as Kenan was what the sketch was built upon, and the crowd-pleasing debacle it became is an example of something being irresistibly funny for the wrong reasons. That said, it is hilarious.

“Get That Boy Back” (Episode 17, hosted by Ryan Gosling)

The exquisitely mounted music video parody is an art form nobody does better than SNL, and while a few others might have represented this season (“Lake Beach,” “Tampon Farm“), there’s something transcendently dark and catchy about this country ode to wronged women’s revenge that stands out. Ego, Chloe Fineman, and sketch star Chloe Troast belt out the title tune with gusto (it really is a banger), where cheating boyfriends get traditional comeuppance like keyed pickup trucks. At least, until Troast’s verse, where her jilted cowgirl reveals a vengeance plot so elaborately psychological that her song mates can’t help but recoil in horror. After hearing what she thought was boyfriend Chris Stapleton (the musical guest adding to the country verisimilitude) chatting with another woman, Troast’s gal gleefully sings about changing out his shoe sizes over a period of months, haunting his elderly mother by disguising herself as the wallpaper, and eventually even seducing Stapleton in disguise before one day pretending that she only speaks Romanian. Throw in a rap verse by Gosling as Troast’s ex-CIA brother bringing in professional methods of mind games (swapping in an unsolvable Sudoku puzzle book would work very well) and the kicker that Stapleton wasn’t cheating after all, and this is pure musical parody perfection from start to finish.

“Mother’s Day Monologue” (Episode 19, hosted by Maya Rudolph)

Is there any Saturday Night Live alum more talented, versatile, and beloved than Maya Rudolph? Well, inevitable debate aside, SNL certainly treated the returning star like the queen she is when the Loot actor came back for her third go-’round, putting on a lavish, celebratory musical number rightfully extolling the Mother’s Day host as “Mother of the House of Rockefeller” (at least according to Kenan’s hype man, Infinity Decor). Stripping off her suspiciously poofy hosting gown to reveal a hip-hugging stained glass-sequined bodysuit, Rudolph then rocked the joint with a studio-ranging, “Vogue”-style euro-rap that paid equal homage to all the funny SNL women past, present, and future, as well as the “I’ll turn this car around if you don’t stop hitting your sister” awesomeness of moms everywhere. Pulling out all the stops for someone as universally adored and brilliant as Maya comes across as merely her comedy birthright, the present cast’s worshipful dance steps and concluding tableau a triumphant beginning to an all-timer reclaiming her throne.

“NYPD Press Conference” (Episode 20, hosted by Jake Gyllenhaal)

Sometimes a sketch hits a viewer like it was written specifically for them, so forgive me if this oddball sketch about imperiled character actors bumped one of your faves. Gyllenhaal’s mustachioed police spokesperson announces new measures to ensure the safety of New York’s most irreplaceable “that guy” actors after the spate of seemingly random attacks on the likes of Rick Moranis, Michael Stuhlbarg, and the then recently sucker-punched Steve Buscemi on the streets of New York. It’s all about the choice of actors, really, with Gyllenhaal singling out for protection such big and small screen stalwarts as William Fichtner (“he’s usually, like, the villain”), Judy Greer (“She’s funny”), the suddenly ubiquitous Walton Goggins, “and, of course, Stephen Tobolowsky.” The embroidery of the joke is stellar, with Gyllenhaal’s no-nonsense copper announcing a security detail being dispatched to Stephen Root, urging caution to anyone who ever played a girlfriend on Seinfeld or a boyfriend on Sex and the City, spotlighting anyone with 100 IMDb credits who only have a first name, and admonishing Paul Giamatti to shelter in place. Toss in a cameo from a worried Jon Hamm (“You’re fine,” Gyllenhaal’s cop assures), and some hilariously specific asides from reporters debating just who qualifies as a character actor (“I’m not saying he’s Brad Pitt!” Andrew Dismukes explodes at Heidi Gardner questioning whether Giamatti’s reached leading man status) and, again, this one is the perfect sketch—for the people it’s perfect for.

“Snake Eyes” (Episode 20, hosted by Jake Gyllenhaal)

It’s a happy coincidence that the very last sketch of Season 49 should make this list, but this brisk and economical bit of 10-to-one silliness exemplifies the spirit of the finale better than any sketch of the year. The last sketch of any show is often tarred as a dumping ground for lame ideas, but it’s the part of any show I look forward too most, as this seeming afterthought slot is sometimes where a writer or performer’s goofiest and most go-for-broke oddball concept can shine. The bills are all paid, half the audience has gone to bed, and that’s where a piece like “Snake Eyes” can shine, especially as a final Season 49 showcase for James Austin Johnson. The well-worn setup sees Gyllenhaal’s barroom tough guy making a pass at Sarah Sherman’s biker chick, which makes everyone in the place freeze at the prospect of her boyfriend, the feared Snake Eyes’ revenge. When Snake Eyes enters looking like Motörhead’s Lemmy, we’re prepared for a real battle, only for our (but not the onlookers’) tension to blow away once Johnson opens his mouth. He’s not playing the unexpectedly high-pitched and Sunday school-catty Snake Eyes as gay. It’s more like this is a world where a drawling, prissy, sputteringly inarticulate dude can be a town’s legendary bully. Gyllenhaal doesn’t back down, agreeing to Snake Eyes duel of goofy faces and over-the-shoulder looks (complete with bullet sound effects) until the unexpectedly defeated Snake Eyes lies inexplicably bleeding out while urging his vanquisher to marry the pregnant Sherman and raise the son as his own. Not to belabor the point, but Saturday Night Live too often rushes to over-explain a premise so nobody gets to uncomfortable or confused. A 10-to-one sketch like this one offers up a glimpse of the weirder (and funnier) show SNL could be with a little more boldness.

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. ClubUltimate 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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