Ladies and gentleman . . . the weekend, a time for quiet reflection and also the return of America’s longest-running, most polarizing sketch comedy institution, Saturday Night Live (SNL).
As the venerable show nears its 50th year of existence—this season will be lucky number 47—it’s tough to say who exactly SNL is even for anymore, beyond us comedy nerds who watch it like a sport. The teens have TikTok, while twenty- and thirtysomethings have, well, TikTok, and generally seem to prefer more niche, non-topical sketch shows these days, like I Think You Should Leave. Every demographic has endless other options for funny shows to cue up on a pandemic Saturday night, from Black Monday to What We Do in the Shadows, and beyond.
And yet SNL is still here for them all, regardless, producing enough viral videos and surfacing enough new comedic talent to remain relevant even as tastes and viewing habits continue to change.
Here are a handful of reasons to get excited about the new season, even if you checked out of the show somewhere around David S. Pumpkins.
Expect to see more from breakout talent
Over the past couple seasons, newcomers Bowen Yang and Chloe Fineman have emerged as extraordinary performers. Fineman’s flawless command of impersonations and Yang’s (Emmy-nominated) range and commitment have elevated their profiles, and now they have the titles to go with them. Over the summer, show Svengali Lorne Michaels promoted both featured players to full cast member status, meaning they’ll be making even more star turns than before. Look for more of Fineman’s Britney Spears in the days to come, as well as more incisive LGBTQ-centric sketches like the incredible Sara Lee barnburner from Harry Styles’ episode, which Yang starred in and also wrote.
Savvy choices for new cast members
Sometimes SNL has a major overhaul of its cast, as in season 39, when it brought on six new performers, and sometimes the show merely does some surgical tinkering. This year, it’s the latter, but the tinkering is top notch.
Welcome to the cast!
James Austin Johnson
Sarah Sherman pic.twitter.com/n36tKsxhRE
— Saturday Night Live – SNL (@nbcsnl) September 27, 2021
Aristotle Athari is a standup and actor, known for utilizing a wearable chair in Silicon Valley and being part of Hasan Minhaj’s Goatface collective. Sarah Sherman is an avant-garde comedian and visual stylist, better known in comedy circles as Sarah Squirm. Long before she landed a slot on Just for Laughs New Faces showcase earlier this year, she was living up to her stage name with unpredictable shows that induce laughter and discomfort. Whether SNL ends up bringing out her more mainstream instincts or her efforts merely end up making the show itself more weird, viewers will likely be enthralled. James Austin Johnson is among the new breed of hires, like Fineman, who made a name for himself with videos on social media. As unpalatable and unwelcome as the idea of Trump impersonations had become by late 2020, Johnson’s stream-of-consciousness rantings were so spot-on and so funny that Fast Company highlighted him last fall as a rare exception to the former president’s negative impact on comedy. (Luckily, he does other stuff, too.)
The first fully post-Trump season
Having perhaps the world’s finest off-the-cuff Trump impersonator on the show means we are bound to see Johnson play that role at some point during the season, probably even in the premiere. However, this is the first time in the past six seasons that Trump has neither been running for president nor been the president. No more deathly dull presidential debate sketches, no more can-you-believe-what-he-did-this-week? cold opens. The show wisely pumped the breaks on Trump after January 2021, and given the former president’s diminished profile since, that trend may very well continue.
More to criticize about Biden
At the time SNL went away for its annual summer reset, Joe Biden was riding high in the polls. Buoyed by surging vaccinations, a massive piece of early legislation, and the then-novelty of a president who isn’t belligerent on Twitter every day, he was largely celebrated. In fact, it was notable when SNL found occasion to lampoon or criticize him. At this point, however, the halo is well off. Whatever your political beliefs, it’s almost certain that Biden has disappointed you in one way or another by now, perhaps unforgivably so. The good news, at least as far as Saturday Night Live is concerned, is that Biden’s mixed-bag presidency has provided ample fodder for far spicier political comedy premises. Get ready to see some trenchant takes that will wash the stench of those “All I Want for Christmas is Mueller” days right out of NBC Studios.
COVID-19 commentary is an SNL strength
Last year, the show had the difficult task of finding ways to make a global pandemic funny. Against all odds, they succeeded. Throughout each phase of the pandemic, SNL kept coming up with new ways to address it. Not all of them clicked, but the ones that did helped viewers through some dark times with laughs and catharsis. The pandemic has drastically evolved for the worse since May—that wonderful moment just before any of us heard about the delta variant—but it may be a tiny balm to watch the show’s approach to covering the issue further evolve as well.