This was, to say the least, a complicated season for Saturday Night Live. After Season 45 was cut short by the pandemic and the cast was forced to round out the year with a handful of self-shot at-home episodes, Season 46 began with a determination to bring SNL back to the studio, and back in front of a live audience. This was, after all, an election year, traditionally SNL's high-water mark of relevancy. And indeed, the fall was packed with election-themed sketches that featured Jim Carrey as Joe Biden, Maya Rudolph as Kamala Harris, and of course Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump. It generated a good deal of buzz and analysis, and if the last four years hadn't already deadened your soul to political comedy, that all was probably very intriguing. For the rest of us, though, this season of Saturday Night Live flourished on the margins, away from politics and towards sillier fare. The best SNL sketches of Season 46 were absurd, observant, and often a little sweet.
Before launching into our list of the season's ten best sketches, we'd first like to acknowledge the contributions of runners-up like "Pandemic Game Night" Kate McKinnon and John Mulaney doing "The Birds," Adele starring in a sketch opposite a pre-pandemic psychic with visions of a confusing future, and McKinnon again as herself, barely hanging by a thread at the Weekend Update desk as Dr. Wenowdis.
Here are the sketches that did make our list:
Bowen Yang and Kate McKinnon play the French-Canadian anchors of the Quebecois morning show "Bonjour Hi" in this sketch, with host Issa Rae playing a roving reporter constantly on the search for Drake. If you thought hyper-specific Canadian references were great, buckle in for the hyper-hyper specific Quebec references like big, weird Montreal bagels and, of course, Celine Dion.
We may be past the glory days of the Lonely Island and SNL's Digital Shorts, but we still pretty regularly get absurdist pre-recorded sketches that recall the spirit of those endeavors. So it was when Timothée Chalamet hosted in December and was called upon to sing an ode to his beloved pet … a tiny horse. It's perfect casting for Chalamet, whose angelic face and penchant for playing tortured romantics are the perfect complement for a scene where a boy must tell his itty bitty little horse to get lost, only it's so tiny that it takes a rather long time. It's all very silly, but kind of lovely too.
Chalamet is the only double-dip host on this list because we couldn't leave off this post-election sketch taking the Newsmax model of ultra-conservative, fact-obliterating delusion and applying it to sports. And not just sports, but New York Jets football, the only endeavor that failed more spectacularly than Donald Trump in the autumn of 2020. Chalamet and Pete Davidson as a pair of screaming mustachioed conspiracy theorists armed with affidavits from unbiased Jets fans hold the sketch together even better than Chalamet is able to hold his wayward stache in place.
In what was a truly standout season for Ego Nwodim, she shined as the titular character in this sketch satirizing the FX drama series A Teacher, about a teacher who has sex with her student. With featured player Andrew Dismukes playing the cocky-but-dim student looking to romance his English teacher, Nwodim shuts down that business quickly and bluntly, making it clearly she wants no part of this little twerp's limp little neener.
Our favorite SNL sketches are the ones that touch on a cultural phenomenon that we didn't think existed beyond just us. So it was with this sketch about using the real estate site Zillow as a fantasy app, browsing the kinds of homes you might be able to have in another life. Host Dan Levy sums it up pretty well when he breathily sighs, "I'd never live in North Carolina, but if I did, I could buy a big, gross mansion."
Comedy is an incredibly hard discipline to master, but sometimes the reason something's funny can be as simple as being a list of ridiculous-sounding things. That's the magic at the center of this sketch, where Regina King plays a 1970s disco diva who's dealing with the shortcomings of her green-room demands, as conveyed by her beleaguered manager Maurice (Yang). It's basically a series of rapid-fire call-and-response rundowns delivered with breakneck speed and precision, with both the writing ("baby carrots … grown carrots" is an A+ joke) and the performers needing to keep up with each other. Which is something you can do when you have multiple Emmy-winner Regina King in your sketch.
Saturday Night Live loves to juxtapose youth- or queer-appealing pop culture with the kind of bro-y straight guys who'd never go for it (like the Chris Pine-hosted sketch where a bunch of blue-collar types went in on their RuPaul's Drag Race fandom). This time, it's a bar full of pool-shooting dudes (including Beck Bennett, Mikey Day, and host Rege-Jean Page) who end up both enthralled and actively theorizing about Olivia Rodrigo's hit "Drivers License." It was the perfect sketch for the perfect song right at the time that Rodrigo was cresting into pop culture, and Kate McKinnon's old man commanding that the boys prepare for "the bridge of your lives" puts the whole thing over the top.
Maya Rudolph's many returns to the Saturday Night Live stage never disappoint, and her March hosting gig was no exception. After she spent much of the early part of the season making headlines for her portrayal of future Vice-President Kamala Harris, Rudolph stepped into one of her classic impressions for this sketch. Rudolph has been playing Beyoncé since back in the "Prince Show" days when she was a regular cast member. Here she's a guest on Hot Ones, the interview show where guests eat ludicrously hot chicken wings and try to keep their composure. Since Beyoncé is one of the most composed celebrities on the planet, you can imagine how this goes.
To mark the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, Weekend Update welcomed that infamous iceberg to the desk to tell their side of the story. Continuing an MVP season, Bowen Yang spins out a persona for the iceberg that is defensive, defiant, and ultimately ready to bitch out the boat full of Irish cacophony that was the aggressor in this particular situation. Yang's ability to hone in on hyper-specific details in his characters gives every sketch he's in the potential for greatness, and here he proves that he can turn a hundred-year-old news event into comedic gold.
Of all the hyper-specific SNL pitches we got this season, the most hyper-specific had to have been this one, which is targeted not only to indie film fans, but indie films fans who saw Ammonite. (Which, anecdotally, was not very many people!) But the type of movie being satirized here, the achingly quiet lesbian drama full of longing glances, unhappily betrothed women, and windswept cliffsides, is immediately recognizable even without the films in question getting name-checked. Carey Mulligan and Heidi Gardner play the reticent heroines to perfection, but it's Kate McKinnon as the liberated, androgynous free spirit/ex-girlfirend who steals this particular show.
It makes all the sense in the world that Keegan-Michael Key would be a great Saturday Night Live host, considering he rose to fame via his fantastic Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele. The best moment of his episode was one that might have seemed a bit dated, considering it was riffing on the ESPN documentary The Last Dance, about Michael Jordan and the champion Chicago Bulls that premiered a full year ago. But the niche appeal of the moment in the doc when Jordan gets killer-instinct competitive with the security guard over pitching quarters is perfectly sent up here, with Heidi Gardner nailing the unassuming yet doomed security guard and Key playing Jordan as peak life-ruiner.
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.
TOPICS: Saturday Night Live, Andrew Dismukes, Bowen Yang, Carey Mulligan, Dan Levy, Ego Nwodim, Heidi Gardner , Issa Rae, Kate McKinnon, Keegan-Michael Key, Maya Rudolph, Mikey Day, Pete Davidson, Regé-Jean Page, Regina King, Timothee Chalamet