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In defense of SNL's celebrity guest-star addiction

  • Saturday Night Live has been criticized for depending on celebrity cameos in political cold opens and for being unable to find anybody from its largest-ever cast to play the two presidential candidates. "Yet as frustrating as SNL’s all-star novelty (and often novice) approach to political comedy has been, it has natural roots in the shifting realities of the show’s cast," says Jesse Hassenger. "For one thing, while this 20-person cast is a new peak, it’s not an anomaly. The show’s average cast size has stayed high over the past decade, in large part because people stay on the show much longer than they used to." For example, Tim Meadows set a record for 10 seasons on SNL 20 years ago, but nowadays a decade isn't that unusual on Saturday Night Live. "At the same time," he says, "these oversized SNL rosters have given the show a surprising eclecticism in recent years. While there are certain glue-like cast members who can plug easily into various types—Beck Bennett playing dads, bros, and assorted, as he’s described it, 'big dumb idiots'; Cecily Strong working equally well as normie moms or teenage daughters; Kenan Thompson killing everything from game show hosts to one-line cameos—many of them have a very particular set of skills. This doesn’t mean they’re all limited performers, just that it’s become easier to pinpoint their personal strengths and sensibilities. Aidy Bryant loves old-timey bravado and adolescent haplessness. Pete Davidson does stand-up that’s equally cutting and self-deprecating. Kyle Mooney traffics in faux-nostalgic cringe humor. Of course, plenty of past SNLers have shown off their individual styles with sometimes frightening clarity. What’s shifted over the years has been the ratio of individual oddballs to all-purpose, impression-friendly utility players...It follows, then, that a group of Saturday Night Live performers less focused on characters and catchphrases would also feel less inspired to associate themselves with that most fleeting of comic payoffs. Though sometimes political sketches hit upon genuinely influential satire, they often follow the recurring-character playbook of repetition, catchphrases, and little comedic personality outside of caricature for the sake of itself, with the added burden of attempting to summarize actual news through weak punchlines. It’s not a coincidence that Kate McKinnon is the current cast member with both the most recurring characters and the most frequent political impressions; they draw from a similar skill set...In other words, Saturday Night Live hiring famous freelancers to do the political stuff might not speak well to the self-impressed, celebrity-saturated tastes of Lorne Michaels, but it does speak well of the current cast. Intentionally or not, many of them have opted out of the show’s clunkiest style of political comedy, and the new hires, whether they become successful or not, presumably weren’t hired to perpetuate it. So when the show inevitably opens its season with a splashy political sketch with frequent applause breaks to greet a majority-guest cast, don’t weep for the regulars’ lost opportunities to play Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Donald Trump. Be envious that they, at least, can take a break and focus on weirder, funnier stuff."

    TOPICS: Saturday Night Live, NBC, Alec Baldwin, Jim Carrey