The just-completed 47th season of Saturday Night Live will probably be seen as a landmark season for years to come as it bids farewell to at least four core cast members — Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, Pete Davidson, and Kyle Mooney. One aspect of the season that hasn't received nearly as much notice is that the show went heavier on first-time hosts (and lighter on returning hosts) than it has since the 2002-2003 season (with the exception of the strike-shortened Season 33). In all, the 21 episodes of the 2021-22 season welcomed 17 first-time hosts, while bringing back only four: Paul Rudd, John Mulaney, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
The past two seasons of Saturday Night Live (31 first-time hosts to 10 returning) stand in stark contrast to a decade-long trend that saw a near-equal balance between new hosts and returning favorites. However you want to define the era stretching from 2009 until 2020 — roughly from the departures of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler until the pandemic-shortened Season 45 — it was a time of frequently recurring guest hosts. During that span, Tina Fey and Melissa McCarthy hosted 4 times each; Emma Stone 4 times; Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd 4 times; Jon Hamm, Anne Hathaway, Justin Timberlake, Kevin Hart, Zach Galifianakis, John Mulaney, and Kristen Wiig three times; and the yikes-y trio of James Franco, Louis C.K., and Alec Baldwin 4 times apiece. It was a chummy era, one where guest hosts felt like semi-regulars and people like Fey, Bladwin, Maya Rudolph, and Larry David recurred as frequently as some cast members.
It wasn't always this way. Prior to 2008, SNL generally kept to a ratio of two-thirds new hosts and one-third returning hosts, with some outlier years in there (the 1992-93 and 1996-97 seasons each featured more returning hosts than new ones). But this year's 17 new hosts to four first-timers is as unbalanced a ratio as we've seen in quite a while, with the show testing the sketch-comedy chops of serious actors (Oscar Isaac, Willem Dafoe, Rami Malek), musicians doing double duty (Billie Eilish, Lizzo), members of the SNL family who hadn't yet hosted (Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte), hot young talent (Ariana DeBose, Jonathan Majors, Simu Liu, Zoe Kravitz, Jerrod Carmichael), and others who surprisingly had never hosted before (Owen Wilson, Natasha Lyonne). It'll be interesting to see which of these first-timers will be among the first to get invited back, perhaps as soon as next season (it's been five years since an SNL season hasn't repeated a host from the previous year).
Before this year, the most recent season to see four or fewers returning hosts was the 2002-2003 season. That year, 17 of the 20 guest hosts were first timers. Only Sarah Michelle Gellar, Christopher Walken, and Ray Romano had hosted before. That season notably featured debut hosting gigs for Matt Damon and Robert De Niro, the one and only SNL hosting appearance of Dan Aykroyd, and some famous (or infamous) hosting appearances from the likes of John McCain and Al Gore.
Of course if you go far back enough into SNL history, the number of returning hosts per season drops since there was a significantly smaller pool of former hosts to pick from in those early years. The 1980-81, 1981-82, and 1984-85 seasons each featured two or fewer returning hosts. Curiously, though, this season's four returning hosts put it at fewer returnees than Seasons 2 through 5 of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players. Back in the early days, the show liked to dip back into their recurring favorites, like Steve Martin, Buck Henry, Candice Bergen, and Elliott Gould. Even the very first season featured three returning hosts, as Bergen, Henry, and Gould all pulled double-duty that year.
The tally resets this fall when SNL returns for its 48th season.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.