Breaking Down the Changes at ‘Saturday Night Live’ For Its 40th Season
It was actually a little odd that we learned the fates of Brooks Wheelan, Noël Wells and John Milhiser so early, way back in July. I do wonder if Wheelan forced NBC’s hand a little bit on those announcements by broadcasting that he was off the show via his Twitter account. The names may have been a surprise, but it wasn’t shocking that something was going to change on ‘Saturday Night Live’ this season as we enter the show’s 40th season.
Lorne Michaels pretty much foretold this happening: He was fairly open about over-hiring in an effort to replace the forces of nature that were Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis, who left the show at the end of the 38th season. It was the “let’s see what sticks” mentality. Was this particularly fair to all of the new cast members from last season? Well, no. Could, say, Noël Wells have thrived on a show that had a more manageable amount of cast members, instead of the ungodly amount (17 at one point) they had last season? It’s hard to say for sure, but these people work so hard to get to this moment in their careers, it’s just a shame when the deck seems stacked against them due to the nature of a particular season. With those three moves and the departure of Nasim Pedrad for ‘Mulaney,’ the cast was down to 13.
This week brought more changes. First, Michael Che was added to the cast and will now be Colin Jost’s partner on ‘Weekend Update,’ while Cecily Strong departs ‘Update,’ but remains on the show. Also, comedian Pete Davidson has been added to the cast, while Mike O’Brien returns to the writers’ room.
First, let’s talk about ‘Weekend Update.’ Cecily Strong finally started looking confident at the Update desk by mid-January, which is completely reasonable – it’s not an easy gig. Then, her partner for those first few months, Seth Meyers, left ‘SNL’ for his own show -- so it was basically back to square one after she was paired with Colin Jost.
Jost started his ‘Update’ tenure looking nervous, with a bad habit of trying to mimic the beats of his mentor, Seth Meyers -- and, worse, there really was no chemistry between him and Strong. This isn’t either one of their faults, but it is true. Something had to change.
The Internet wasn’t thrilled about Jost remaining while Strong lost her ‘Update’ job. This is understandable, because Strong had been better than Jost. Though, looking at the reality of the situation, Jost was never going to lose that job. And since something had to change, well, unfortunately, that became Cecily Strong.
Colin Jost started on ‘SNL’ way back in 2005. (Strong started in 2012.) Remember how long ago ‘Lazy Sunday’ seems? Colin Jost was there for that. The only current cast member who was on the show when Jost started is Kenan Thompson. Perception might lead us to believe that Jost is somehow “new,” but the reality is Jost kind of runs the show. He’s the co-head writer and he’s basically second in command to Lorne Michaels. (When you attend a live show, you quickly notice that Jost is everywhere on stage during the commercial breaks. He’s obviously in charge.) Jost has been groomed for the last 10 years to, now, take ‘SNL’ into its 50th season. And Jost’s only on-air duty is ‘Weekend Update.’ If the decision was made to remove Jost from ‘Update’ after only a handful of shows, that’s a huge blow for the psyche of ‘SNL.’
I’m sure a large part of the decision-making process was “If we remove Colin, he’s not doing anything else on air. If we remove Cecily, she gets to concentrate more on sketch comedy.” And the truth is, Strong was so far was better at hosting ‘Update’ than Jost,’ but Strong’s sketch comedy work is better than her ability to host ‘Update.’
And now that former ‘SNL’ writer (and breakout ‘Daily Show’ star) Michael Che is joining Jost at the ‘Update’ desk, this completely changes the dynamic. Maybe Jost looked at the team of Meyers and Strong and thought he had to duplicate exactly what Meyers was doing. Perhaps now – now that the dynamic is completely different – Colin Jost can just be Colin Jost. (I’ve mentioned this before, but I attended this past season finale’s dress rehearsal and Jost came out to warm up the crowd. He was a completely different guy – confident and completely in charge.)
I’m going to try to take a step back from my unabashed love for the comedy of Mike O’Brien. I’m going to try and look at this objectively and concede that maybe his humor was a bit too esoteric for broad tastes. A year ago, I feel like I was writing the exact same thing about Tim Robinson, who O’Brien replaced in the cast. Now, as with Robinson, O’Brien got one season as a cast member and is now back in the writers’ room full time.
(I want to clarify, being a writer on ‘SNL’ is one of the most prestigious and sought after jobs in comedy today. Many people, including myself, have called what happened to O’Brien and Robinson a ”demotion.” I can only speak for myself, but I mean this in the sense that something was taken away from O’Brien. He still has one of the best gigs in all of comedy.)
I’m going to bet that the humor of Pete Davidson is going to be the opposite of both O’Brien and Robinson in that it will be broad and much more welcoming. When you watch Davidson’s stand up, boy, there’s just something about it -- he has it. He is a total personality. And, right now, ‘SNL’ needs a personality. That’s not to say that ‘SNL’ doesn’t have personalities – Pharoah, Killam, McKinnon, Bryant and Strong are all young personalities – but they all get lost in their characters. I mean that as a complete compliment. I suspect Davidson will be for ‘SNL’ what they wanted Brooks Wheelan to be – ‘SNL’ wants Davidson to be the star … the face of the show.
Davidson has garnered a lot of comparisons to Adam Sandler, and this isn’t totally unfair. They do have similar mannerisms in a “young punk” kind of way. The difference is Sandler, in the later years, was surrounded by fellow “stars” -- while Davidson is going to be surrounded by great sketch comedy comedians.
Anyway, the pieces are there for something special this year. The cast is at a manageable 14 members (which is what the show ran at from most of 2010 through 2013). Of course, this is all hypothetical and we’ll have to see what happens once the live shows start, but ‘SNL’ is in a much better position than they were this time last year with that bloated (and controversially white) cast. ‘SNL’ has at least set itself up for a season that its 40th deserves.
Mike Ryan is senior editor of Screencrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter. Click below for this week's "SNL," Not Ready For Primetime Podcast featuring Mike Ryan and Ryan McGee.
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