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Grading the Players: SNL Begins its 41st Season

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snl-logoThe first two eps of season 41 of Saturday Night Live are in the bag. How was it, do you think? Some decent stuff?  Even though we’re only two in, however, it’s never too early to start speculating about the cast’s potential. After all, SNL is nothing if not fairly consistent in that it’s easy to gauge who might get the lion’s share of playing time in season 41 from early episodes. So let’s speculate away, shall we, and hand out some grades to this season’s cast?

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Taran Killam
Outlook: Very strong. Look, Killam is clearly the glue man for this season. Like Phil Hartman before him, he shows up in almost every sketch and he’s as solid as anyone on this cast. Killam also has some great breakout characters, including poison-tongued critic for all seasons Jedediah Atkinson and effeminate southern husband/talk show host Cory Chisholm. Plus, his Trump is really strong. I’ll admit to first being disappointed that Daryl Hammond wasn’t going to return in that character, but I can see now how Killam wrestled it away from him. Smart money says Killam stays in the picture in a big way again in season 41.

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Kate McKinnon
Outlook: Very strong. It’s probably blasphemy in certain circles to say what I’m about to say, especially since she was such an SNL darling, but here goes: I think Kate McKinnon will be bigger than Kristen Wiig. Wiig was fantastic, but McKinnon brings something so absurd to everything she does that she demands your notice. From her Russian peasant lady to her turn as Ingrid Bergman in the “Casablanca Alternate Ending” sketch from season 40 (for my money one of the most solid SNL sketches in fifteen years, and you can watch it here), McKinnon is fearless and weird and a real SNL gem. Plus, her Hillary Clinton is only going to get more fun as the campaign progresses.

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Vanessa Bayer
Outlook: Solid. With the exception of her Miley Cyrus, Bayer spent her first couple of seasons at SNL largely playing straight (wo)men, but she’s starting to come into her own in her third and fourth seasons on the cast. As one of the aloof porn star pitchwomen she gives us a reason to often stay until the ten-to-one sketch, and her “theater kid” child actress Laura Parsons is a great caricature of a real archetype. Bayer got LOTS of time in the Amy Schumer episode — probably because she’s tight with Schumer (she co-starred with the comedian in this summer’s Trainwreck) and it served her well because she had a comic partner to work off of, which was fun to see. We’ll continue to see her prominently featured, though more often than not still as the foil.

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Aidy Bryant
Outlook: On the rise. Aidy Bryant has a fantastic comic energy and a really natural comedic timing, which continue to up her stock at SNL. She and McKinnon should do more together as when they do, it’s comic gold (see season 39’s “Dyke and Fats”). Bryant, like McKinnon, has a thing for histrionics that makes her a blast to watch, and her lineless role as Kim Davis in the season opener brought the room I was in to tears without saying a word. Bryant’s very funny and continues to be on her way.

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Bobby Moynihan
Outlook: Consistently awesome. I love Bobby Moynihan. I love that he doesn’t look like a traditional person who’d be on TV, I love how he chooses to play his characters outside of what you’d often expect, and I love it when he pops up even with two lines to kill it in a sketch. Someday Moynihan will be a cast footnote, like Horatio Sanz, but even more than Sanz he’s so reliable and strong in any sketch. Moynihan is that SNL star that unexpectedly continues to have a great career after he’s gone just by simply showing up in tons of stuff (Bill Hader has made himself a superstar by doing precisely that, by the way). We’ll see Moynihan around for a long time. Likeability in spades.

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Kenan Thompson
Outlook: Holding Tight. Kenan Thompson is in his thirteenth season on SNL (closing the gap; Seth Meyers was there for 13 as well, and Daryl Hammond holds the record at 14) and as long as he chooses to stay, it seems there are writers who will continue to write for him. Good stuff, too; Thompson very consistently gets the laugh lines in many a sketch and the vet remains an invaluable go-to utility guy. Smart money says he’s gone after this season — he reportedly struggled with whether to come back this season — but if he decides to, there’s no question Lorne will hold the door open for him.

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Kyle Mooney
Outlook: Good, but good enough? Of the more recent male newcomers, Kyle Mooney seems to have his own thing going the most, having taken over the Digital Short mantle with co-cast member Beck Bennett through a series of short, droll and bizarre films that often air in the last half-hour. To me, these short filmed sketches have been the best thing about some episodes, and it’s clear that Mooney works well with Bennett (they should, they come from the same comedy troupe). He just seems a little more original than many new guys and brings to the table something a little more unexpected, even though no one called him on the fact that in the season premiere he played an Argentinian pope as Italian. Forgive and forget. Mooney may be on the cusp, but he’s definitely a unique voice.

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Jay Pharoah
Outlook: Best impressionist in the cast. SNL went a long time without a guy like Pharoah, who can morph into a million different personalities; the last truly strong impressions guy was Daryl Hammond. Pharaoh has a real Eddie Murphy quality to him that you’d be best to take note of; he’s sharp and funny and at some point could really break out on SNL and create a career for himself after the show. His impressions are spot on (Stephen A. Smith, Denzel Washington) and his independent character work is confident as well, a taste of which we saw in the Schumer episode with Pharoah’s “Aww, God Dang” travel correspondent Solomon. A versatile cast member looking for his hole to break through.

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Leslie Jones
Outlook: One note, but it’s a good note. Leslie Jones is a definite type of cast member that has never been seen on SNL in the past, and as such it would seem obvious that the writing staff are probably clamoring to write parts for her — Leslie Jones as Annie, Leslie Jones as a Hee Haw cast member, Leslie Jones as a woman marrying a tiny man — but the problem is that if Jones doesn’t start showing other dimensions she’s going to start wearing on audiences. She kills it in this role, but she needs to start finding other ways to get laughs. I’m not bagging on her; I think she’s great. I just think we need to start seeing another side of Leslie Jones in season 41. Or maybe at least season 42; I’ll let her have another year of playing the angry screaming lady.

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Pete Davidson
Outlook: Hang in there, buddy. Pete Davidson has a lot of charisma. As one of the youngest cast members in history (at almost 21 he’s fourth behind Anthony Michael Hall, Eddie Murphy and Robert Downey Jr.), Davidson exudes an appeal that makes him accessible and likeable. The problem is that he can’t keep relying just on great Weekend Update pieces to get by — at some point he’s gonna need to find his footing in sketches, and if this season’s premiere is any indication it would seem that he’s going to be competing against new featured player Jon Rudnitsky (see below) for a host of dude-bro/stoner/young-person-stereotype roles. My advice to Davidson is this: get yourself an indispensible recurring character or two and you’ll be set. That’s what young Jimmy Fallon did and look how he did. Never underestimate the power of the recurring character.

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Cecily Strong
Outlook: Just okay. I’ll be honest; I’m not the world’s biggest Cecily Strong fan. I don’t fault her — I think they put her at the Update desk way too early and tried to force her into a Tina Fey slot before she’d had time to figure herself out, and as a result she’s playing catchup with a lot of characters which, quite frankly, aren’t that funny. Her trailer park lady is pretty rough, and she’s not even the best thing about the “Girlfriends Talk Show” sketch she heads up (that would be Bryant, and it’s not even close). Since leaving the Update desk she’s had some strong guest pieces there, and her Sofia Vergara impression is jaw-dropping; I just don’t know how well Strong stacks up against the rest of this cast. She’s flexible, though, so there’s still lots of time for her to find her sweet spot.

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Beck Bennett
Outlook: Still searching for his role. When Beck Bennett first joined the cast he did so on the heels of the very funny, deadpan AT&T commercials he filmed with children, leading me to posit that he’d be a shoe-in for a Weekend Update spot someday. I’m not sure now that that’s his future, and if it’s not Bennet needs to figure out where he fits into this cast. So far he really only plays businessmen and frat guys — and while those archetypes are consistently employable in sketches, we need to see more from Bennett. He’s in much the same boat as his longtime colleague Mooney in that both need to step up and make their marks or at least one of these guys is gonna be gone.

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Michael Che
Outlook: Good? I guess? Comedians LOVE Michael Che. Like, they REALLY love Michael Che. This leads me to believe that Michael Che is a great talent, which makes me want to give him the edge. So far, however, he’s not yet found a way to bring a lot of his personality to the Update desk. I think he must have a ton of said personality, so I hope that he’ll hang on until he figures out where his particular Update voice lies. So far, however, Che has been funny but fairly underwhelming. Like Bennett and Mooney, Che needs to figure out how he’s going to make his mark in that role, which has traditionally produced anchors who really made it their own.

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Colin Jost
Outlook: Agreeable, if Bland. If Michael Che is still looking for his Update voice, Jost has probably found his already — the problem is that it’s really safe. There’s no more sardonicism in Jost’s delivery than has already been done by Seth Meyers, Tina Fey or Norm MacDonald before him, and that’s the problem. You can’t just mimic those guys, you have to bring something new to the table. The interaction between Jost and Che is improving, and the jokes are there, but as of now I’m not sure they’re indispensible as Update anchors. C’mon, dude. You can do it.

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Sasheer Zamata
Outlook: Hanging by a thread. If we know anything about SNL by now, it’s that the best way to get your stuff on-air is to team up with writers who can write great stuff for you. Sasheer Zapata really needs to find her writing team, and fast. Her vlog-running “Janelle” character is generally pretty slow and was, if we’re being honest, already done much better with Fallon and Sanz. Outside of this, and the occasional lukewarm Update appearance, Zamata tends to be an extra in most sketches. That’s a shame, because her Michelle Obama is amazing, and she only has one season left to do that (why isn’t she doing that, by the way?) If Zamata can’t find her groove, we may not see her in season 42.

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Jon Rudnitsky
Outlook: TBD. Rudnitsky, mainly a stand-up comic, has really only showed up in two sketches in the first two episodes — one as an annoying millenial (he was fine) and another as an all-american high school teen set upon by a worldly Miley Cyrus (also, fine). So I guess Rudnitsky is fine so far? We’ll have to find out what his “thing” is — I suspect it will be digital short films — but until then, good luck buddy. SNL’s a tough landscape. After all, everyone with an internet connection and a blog wants to evaluate your performance.

Article written by C.M. Tomlin

All I want is a HI-C and a turkey sandwich. @CM_Tomlin