Coming into its 39th season, Saturday Night Live is a bit of a question mark. Following the departure of such mainstays as Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, Fred Armisen, and the demotion of Tim Robinson to the writer’s room, not to mention losing Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg the year before, it seemed like there was no singular standout player on the SNL roster. Still, this is not the apocalyptic scenario many have called it, and the overreactions thus far are unwarranted, as the show still employs some very funny and capable comedians. Consider this a fresh start as the show undergoes a transitional period, and Saturday night was the first look at a reinvented classic.
Beginning the show was a cold open featuring Jay Pharaoh’s infallible impression of President Barack Obama with testimonials of everyday people singing the praises of the Affordable Care Act aka ObamaCare. This would have been a clever way of introducing the new cast members to the audience, and allowed them to get their feet wet, yet only one new face appeared, and one Aaron Paul, surely promoting Breaking Bad’s series finale. Paul played “Jesse from New Mexico,” celebrating the new law that will prevent others from cooking meth to afford their medications.
Rather than introduce the new cast members during the opening, host Tina Fey brought the six new cast members onstage during the monologue for their inaugural embarrassing dance number, a sort of initiation for the new members. Surely this was more embarrassing for viewers to sit through, and it was the first miss of the night.
Calling on Tina Fey to host the premiere was an ingenious move, as coming into a year with so many uncertainties it’s useful to have a dependable host. It’s doubly helpful that Fey herself was once head writer on the show and knows the routine. Though her monologue was taken over by the new cast members, she showed her worth in sketches throughout the night, ably getting a laugh with every line.
The real show began with them poking fun at themselves with a game show sketch entitled “New Cast Member or Member of Arcade Fire?” Host for the game Kenan Thompson’s faux rage was great, as the cast members unabashedly complemented Fey, leading Thompson to berate and shoo them offstage. The sketch was also noteworthy for the rare Lorne Michaels on-air appearance, where he was to guess which was the new cast member and which was a member of musical guest Arcade Fire, the joke being he thought Thompson was new despite his being on the show for a decade. Perhaps this was a bit of social commentary as many have questioned why SNL hired so many identical looking white guys, and so few women and minorities, but whether it was or not, it drew a laugh, and was a great exercise of self-deprecation.
The second pre-taped segment of the night, following a parody of HBO’s Girls, came in the form a fake commercial for e-meth, mocking the latest electronic cigarette craze, with, of course, another appearance by Aaron Paul, championing the blue meth with his famed catchphrase included.
Possibly the most anticipated moment of the night came during the revamped Weekend Update, which welcomed Cecily Strong, who presumably will take over full-time when Seth Meyers leaves SNL for his own iteration of Late Night in February. An immediate natural at the desk, if not somewhat nervous, Strong utilized her sarcastic line readings to mock headlines already lampooned on other shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, but no matter, “Weekend Update” is SNL’s longest running sketch for a reason as they put their own spin on the news. Though there won’t be any more of Strong’s recurring character, Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation with at a Party, on Update this year, she showed signs of it during her O.J. Simpson aside (“Stay strong, Juice”), and Strong was a great fit her first night at the desk.
Everyone’s favorite recurring character, Drunk Uncle, showed up at the desk with his sister’s kid, Meth Nephew, another appearance by the aforementioned Aaron Paul. Drunk Uncle has appeared so often, but he’s yet to lose his appeal, due entirely to Bobby Moynihan’s hilarious performance of the character time after time, wholly committing to the act, making it easy to forget it’s all just a routine. Few things are funnier than Drunk Uncle’s incoherent rambling tangents, and Moynihan is consistently great at it. With some old faces gone, now is his time in the spotlight, and so far he’s embracing it with ease, making every sketch he’s in automatically funnier. Moynihan and Strong are the cast members to watch this season, and perhaps the two best, and once again “Weekend Update” was the best sketch of the show.
The final sketch of the night was one of last year’s stronger recurring sketches, in which Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong play former porn stars now selling cheap jewelry and other assorted items usually found on early morning infomercials. Their absent-minded gazes and ditzy line-readings (“You can wear these shoes during…your First Amber Alert!”) are great, and including the host in some capacity every time is a smart way for them to get one final laugh to end the show on.
The show closed with the cast goodnights, prominently featuring the newbies front and center, and though they had little to do on night one, maybe the new blood will invigorate everyone involved to reach the heights of old. Though not as strong as last year’s premiere, or even last year’s finale, and the loss of Bill Hader was immense and felt often, the changes should make for an interesting season worth watching.