Last year, Saturday Night Live said goodbye to Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg, two of the major performers on the show over the past couple of seasons. Samberg and his cohorts from The Lonely Island brought the show into the viral media age with their Digital Shorts, and for better or worse, Wiig was the show’s dominant performer. The loss of the show’s most recognizable stars seemed to portend an uncertain time in SNL’s history, but despite the hires of a few new faces and the dismissal of another player (Abby Elliott), the 2012-13 season didn’t seem to have a feeling that there was a void the show was desperately trying to fill.
A lot of the credit belongs to the new performers hired as featured players, particularly Cecily Strong; she established her place on the show quickly and firmly, in a way not seen since Amy Poehler. Kate McKinnon (a late-season addition for 2011-12), was also fairly prominent, owing to having similar strengths as the departed Wiig. While Aidy Bryant and Tim Robinson are still waiting for their breakouts, both show promise and distinct sensibilities that the show could mine to its benefit. I do feel the long tenures of some players like Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen and Kenan Thompson tend to hold the show from developing some of the new cast, but in three seasons alone, Taran Killam seems ready to take over as SNL’s alpha male next season. Jason Sudeikis and Bill Hader provided a solid backbone for this season. Bobby Moynihan had his best year ever. Vanessa Bayer rebounded from a confidence drop that plagued her in 2011-12, and Jay Pharoah taking over the Obama impression helped establish his place in the cast. Only Nasim Pedrad feels particularly misused, mainly getting stuck with “little kid” and “old lady” roles.
The writing staff was mostly stable this year. There were a few departures: Christine Nangle and Weekend Update writer Jessica Conrad did not come back this season, and John Mulaney joined Paula Pell as a part-time contributor. One writer returned to the show after a seven-year absence (Joe Kelly, most recently a writer/producer for How I Met Your Mother). Neil Casey and Josh Patten joined the staff, and, beginning in February, a slew of guest writers were brought aboard for brief stints, including Chelsea Peretti, Cora Frazier, Michael Che, Edi Patterson, Monica Padrick and Kids In The Hall alum Kevin McDonald (Che was later added to the regular roster for the May shows).
The season was fairly uneven, though, with more pronounced highs and lows than SNL’s experienced in a few years. There were a greater number of outright duds this year (the Mountain Pass sketch from Louis CK comes to mind), yet the stumbles felt more like the show was losing its fear of failure that made the last couple of seasons a little too safe and antiseptic. In a way, this actually came off as promising. There were also enough flashes of inspiration (“Sad Mouse”, two-part sketches like “Z Shirts” and “Darrell’s House”) that imbued this season with a freshness not seen in a while.
The show has always had castmembers come and go to varying levels of fanfare, but it seems that the big emotional farewell has become de rigeur for a departing castmember in recent years. Phil Hartman’s 1994 send-off featured the show’s recurring characters performing a variant of “So Long, Farewell” from The Sound Of Music. Will Ferrell’s 2002 departure was marked by the cast (except for Tracy Morgan) speaking out-of-character about how he’ll be missed. What turned out to be Darrell Hammond’s final show didn’t have an explicit tribute, but the cameo-filled full-cast “Goodnight Saigon” performance felt uncharacteristically emotional to be just a random Will Ferrell sketch. The Kristen Wiig “graduation ceremony” at the end of Mick Jagger’s show last season seemed to outdo all these earlier goodbyes; despite Wiig being such a divisive castmember for a lot of fans, the emotional displays of from her colleagues made her swan song all the more moving.
I touched on the news of Bill Hader, Fred Armisen and Seth Meyers’ departures from SNL in my last post. Hader and Armisen both got their goodbyes last night; unlike Wiig, both performers chose to say their goodbyes in character. Hader’s farewell was one last Stefon appearance on Weekend Update, culminating in a pre-taped segment of Seth Meyers racing through New York to stop the club promoter’s wedding to Anderson Cooper a la The Graduate. Armisen used the show’s 10-to-1 to perform an understated farewell tune as his Thatcherite punk character Ian Rubbish, with Hader, Killam and Sudeikis as the Bizarros, and cameos by Aimee Mann, Michael Penn, J. Mascis, Kim Gordon, Sex Pistol Steve Jones, and Armisen’s Portlandia collaborator Carrie Brownstein. SNL is not a show that often features genuine emotion very often: when it does, such as last night, the results are amazing and devastating.
With the departures of Hader and Armisen, Meyers’ impending move to the Late Night desk, and the rumored exit of Jason Sudiekis, last night’s show truly felt like the end of an era for Saturday Night Live. Even if Meyers sticks around to ease the transition to the next Weekend Update anchor and head writer, he will seem more a vestige of a prior version of SNL than a full-fledged member of the new guard.