Saturday Night Live typically airs 21 episodes over the course of a season, but there was nothing typical about what's happened to the world in the last few months. The show only got up to its 15th (standard) episode, hosted by Daniel Craig on March 7th, before the COVID-19 pandemic shifted everything. And although they were able to squeeze out three "At Home" episodes over the subsequent months, it had to do so without the "live" aspect, and without being able to have the cast members in the same room as one another.
While looking back over the abbreviated 45th season of the show, I was particularly struck by the question of what differentiates SNL from any other comedy show when it's not live—and I also appreciated the uniqueness, and difficulty, of pulling off that live aspect even more than usual.
Over the last couple years, the comedy landscape has shifted more and more toward pre-produced, bite-sized bits passed around social media platforms. That change has been reflected on the show via Kyle Mooney's singular creations, Pete Davidson's music videos, Ego Nwodim's influencer parodies, and more. And as great as those are, I found myself wanting to rewatch the live sketches that were aired before the shutdown more than ever.
Below, check out our top 16 favorite live sketches of the season from before the pandemic, along with the best Weekend Update guests and best monologues. If we left off your favorite, let us know in the comments. (And check back early next week for part two, which will cover the best pre-taped segments and the best clips from the "At Home" episodes.)
The 16 Best Live Sketches Of The Season
16. Surprise Home Makeover (Host Jennifer Lopez) I was not a huge fan of the Lopez-hosted episode, as it felt like a weird meta joke that 2/3 of the episode was just sketch-after-sketch of people fawning over Lopez with few punchlines. But that premise did work well here, thanks in part to Mikey Day's willingness to play the chump. His character's Smurf obsession (and tramp stamp) killed.
15. Old New York Show (Host RuPaul): Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant often do their best work together, and that was especially true in this sketch, in which they played lifelong drinking buddies Madge and Dickie. It's full of hilarious references to the Rudy Giuliani-era of NYC in particular, which seemed to go over the heads of the audience a bit.
14. Marrying Ketchups (Host Adam Driver): The Adam Driver episode was one of the sneaky best of the entire season, with lots of strange sketches that have lingered in the back of my brain. That includes this hilariously melodramatic 10-to-1 sketch, which featured Driver and Cecily Strong as the titular bottles.
13. The War in Words: William and Lydia (Host Phoebe Waller-Bridge): This was a sequel to last season's outstanding sketch featuring Claire Foy. This one has a similar letter-writing premise, but takes the absurdist word play in a different direction, involving a mysteriously missing dog and a cocktail party with Hitler.
12. Apple Picking Ad (Host Woody Harrelson): Another great Bryant/McKinnon team-up, and another great 10-to-1 sketch. It also included Harrelson's best line reading of the episode: "We found some animals...and now they’re in prison."
11. Sound of Music: Rolf and Liesl (Host John Mulaney): Mulaney is so in sync with what SNL does best, he has easily become the most exciting host of SNL in recent years, with his episodes always among the best of the entire season. He also happens to love musicals, which is why he plays Rolf to Cecily Strong's Liesl in this sketch, with both of them singing about the difference in their ages—after all, age is just a number "that the government keeps track of."
10. Love at First Sight (Host Chance The Rapper): There are a ton of talented people who work tirelessly behind-the-scenes to make SNL hum every week. But every once in awhile, despite all good intentions, everything goes completely haywire during a sketch—and that's what happened during this one, in which Cecily Strong falls in love with Chance's mysterious man and the two start floating in the air. And then they start smashing everything.
9. Del Taco Shoot (Host Adam Driver): This was the rare Beck Bennett/Kyle Mooney live sketch that actually made it to air, and featured a great, creepy Driver character. Your mileage may vary on how funny you find the phrase, "ahh man, I'm all out of cash," but the absurd, insistent repetition had me cracking up.
8. Pizza Ad (Host Will Ferrell): Some sketches are all about the writing, and some sketches are all about the performances—the fact that this sketch is as funny as it is rests on the dedicated, masterful performances of Kate McKinnon and Will Ferrell.
7. Mid-Day News (Host Phoebe Waller-Bridge): Four anchors (Waller-Bridge, Kenan Thompson, Ego Nwodim, Alex Moffat) and a weatherman (Chris Redd) report the local news while trying not to react to the race of each subject. It ends up becoming a competition with scorekeeping and gloating, which shocked and delighted the live audience at the same time.
6. The Sands Of Modesto (Host Daniel Craig): Who could have know Daniel Craig's episode would be the final "normal" episode of SNL before everything changed? The show only tackled the then-burgeoning virus in a few sketches, the best of which by far was this one, which featured soap opera actors taking precautions on set. It featured some superb prop work, and a hilarious saran wrapped sex scene with McKinnon at her best.
5. Sara Lee (Host Harry Styles): A very memorable sketch about...Harry Styles getting railed to death. Two Sara Lee managers (Bowen Yang, Cecily Strong) confront the company’s Instagram manager (Styles) about all the filthy Instagram comments he's been accidentally leaving using the brand's account. It turns out that threesomes really aren't working for him anymore, and somehow, we are gifted us with the phrase "must get rid of toxic in the community."
4. Uncle Meme (John Mulaney): Mulaney was perfect playing a furious uncle who confronts his "punk nephew" Tyler (Pete Davidson) about how he turned him into a series of embarrassing memes. This truly is "not what Melania meant when she said, 'Be Best.'"
3. Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood 2019 (Host Eddie Murphy): Murphy brought back four of his classic SNL characters when he returned to Studio 8H in December, the best of which was this classic Mr. Rogers parody. Gentrification has caused a lot of changes to the neighborhood since the last time we visited Mr. Robinson, not that it's getting him down too much. Murphy's impeccable comic timing is what sold this one to me—just the way he really milked walking to the door was hilarious.
2. New Paint (Host Kristen Stewart): A perfectly-realized surreal sketch that keeps peeling back layer after layer of complex backstory anchored by an incredible, melodramatic Aidy Bryant performance. It reminded me of an I Think You Should Leave sketch—just the right mix of silly and furious.
1. Airport Sushi (Host John Mulaney): The only thing John Mulaney seems to love as much as he loves SNL is musical theater (if you haven't seen the Documentary Now! episode "Original Cast Album: Co-Op," please do so). Everytime he hosts the show now, he unveils a new elaborate musical sketch. The first time there was Diner Lobster. Last season came Bodega Bathroom. And this season, Mulaney unveiled "Airport Sushi," another surreal, ever-expanding sketch, this time about the travails of people inside LaGuardia Airport. It features a loose pigeon, Jake Gyllenhaal flying, tons of de Blasio jokes, music from Little Shops Of Horror, Phantom Of The Opera, and Wicked, all topped off with David Frickin' Byrne leading the cast in a parody of "Road To Nowhere" called "Plane To Nowhere."
Honorable Mentions: Chance The Rapper tried to avoid explaining how he died in Spooky Song, and tried to understand the deal with E-Sports. Rachel Dratch's Debbie Downer made her first appearance in over a decade in Debbie Downer Wedding Reception. RuPaul starred in Check-Splitting, a very specific and delightful parody of ’80s sitcom Designing Women. Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon's chemistry was, as usual, through the roof in The Corporal. Even though he sometimes seems like an island unto himself (or alongside Beck Bennett), Kyle Mooney has really made a niche for himself with great, strange sketches such as Dad and Kyle's Transformation.
The 5 Best Monologues
5. Former One Direction member and high-waisted pants aficionado Harry Styles has dipped his toes in the acting waters as one of several interchangeably terrified soldiers in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. But it wasn't clear whether he had the comedic chops to carry a full SNL episode like other double-duty performers such as Chance the Rapper, Justin Timberlake, Drake, Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. By the time he jumped onto the piano during his monologue, it was clear Styles's charisma was perfectly suited for the show. Especially when he did that Zach Galifianakis-esque piano routine, filled with casual, deadpan lines: “Everyone thinks the cast does a lot of cocaine, they don’t,” Styles says at one point. “That’s why the show’s not good anymore.”
4. Adam Driver doesn't often get to flex his comedic muscles in his big movie roles, which more-often-than-not lean on his intensity—it's hard to find an opportunity for silly voices in films like Silence, Marriage Story and The Report, or while playing the most emo Sith lord in the galaxy. But he's become one of the most consistent hosts in recent years, and he used his intense reputation to his advantage in his very chill and very excellent monologue. This is what movie star charisma looks like: "I look like a kidnapped person trying to send a message with my eyes."
3. As it seems to go with everything else she does these days, Phoebe Waller-Bridge pretty much killed it in her SNL debut. She was effortlessly charming during here longer-than-average monologue, and quite hilarious, whether she was explaining the motivation behind Fleabag ("It began as a way to get Andrew Scott to dress up as a priest and tell me that he loves me") or coining the term "horn-storm." "We all find weird things sexy and women can now speak openly about their desires without being burned at the stake, which is nice," she said. "Back in the day, horny women were to be feared—and now they're given Emmys!"
2. Right from the start of the monologue, Eddie Murphy reminded everyone why, as Chris Rock once said, he was the biggest star to emerge from Studio 8H. There are few comedians who are both universally charismatic and subtly confrontational at the same time, while still being able to come across like he's having the most fun of everyone on stage. He assembled an all-star group of comedians to begin, with Tracy Morgan, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle all appearing and getting some good lines in. The whole thing was topped off by a hilarious (and very brief) Beck Bennett cameo, followed by Kenan Thompson, SNL's longest castmember, joining the other four as among the greatest living black comedians.
1. This was John Mulaney's third time hosting SNL in three consecutive years, not that's he done much since his last appearance: "I'm also the first host to ever do the least between his second and third time hosting. I have nothing coming up. I'm here to promote the month of March." That's somewhat of an understatement, since he did produce the Netflix special John Mulaney & The Sack Lunch Bunch, an existential children's show which featured the inimitable David Byrne and Jake Gyllenhaal. But his lack of upcoming projects only made his monologue, which touched on his friendless father and a Make-A-Wish experience, all the better—Mulaney hosts because he loves the show, the formula, and the unlikely comedic magic that sometimes emerges from Studio 8H when the writers and performers and audience are in sync.
The 10 Best Weekend Update Guests
10. Beck Bennett's Jules Who Sees Things A Little Differently made his third ever appearance to discuss the holidays (and drop the detail that he lives in his dad's pool house now due to a “cocaine misunderstanding”). This was my favorite part: "The holidays shouldn't be about consumerism, they should be about can-user-ism. I can use everything around me and turn it into art! The last autumn's leaf dangling on a tree branch, an old Native American woman on the subway who I take by the hand and say, 'Stand up, dance for us like you once did on this land before my disgusting ancestors stole it from you!' She responded, 'I'm Filipino.' And I said, 'No, you're free.'"
9. Mikey Day's frankly adorable character Supercentenarian Mort Fellner shared some news about America's oldest citizens and their incredible achievements (and also, their inevitable deaths).
8. Kyle Mooney unveiled a new character, exasperated Dean Foods' milk distribution president Scooter Rineholdt, in Harry Styles' episode. It included some hilarious milk-related spit takes and over-the-top rage. And it hits the sublime with Mooney's line reading of "I'd rather drink my own piss!"
7. SNL rookie Chloe Fineman got her breakout Weekend Update moment in Chloe Fineman on The 2020 Oscars, showing off her expansive and truly impressive range of impressions, including Scarlett Johansson, Ana De Armas, Renee Zellweger, Timothée Chalamet and more.
6. In another Oscars-related bit, Melissa Villaseñor got a wonderful showcase to perform a great song about what united all the Oscar nominees: white male rage.
5. It's been years since Cecily Strong played her breakout character Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation, but having her on to babble nonsense about coronavirus was brilliant.
4. Eddie Murphy's Gumby interrupted Weekend Update to complain about being forgotten and under-appreciated in his incredibly unique manner (as one person put it: "an old Jewish man wrapped in a kosher pickle"). Murphy had a fantastic time yelling at Michael Che and Colin Jost, getting off tons of killer lines at their expense: “You know why you sit behind a desk? Because your jokes don’t have legs, you schmucks!”
3. Kyle Mooney, bless him, played a horrifying-looking and hilariously egotistical Baby Yoda, and I pray he comes back to the show again.
2. Cecily Strong doesn't get enough credit for her range on SNL. She is as good at playing straight dramatic-leaning roles as she is the silliest characters. At this point, my favorite thing she does might be her incredible Jeanine Pirro impression, which always includes tons of physical comedy. She popped up at least twice on Weekend Update this season, which you can watch below.
1. Bowen Yang was arguably the breakout new castmember this season, and his best moments seemed to come on Weekend Update, where he unveiled two characters: Bottle Boi, who seemed to be channeling Daniel Craig's character Benoit Blanc from Knives Out, and Chen Biao, the Chinese "trade daddy" who immediately stole the show in his first appearance in October, and ended up showing up in no less than THREE segments this season.
And as a final bonus, Colin Jost and Michael Che did their always-hilarious annual Christmas Joke Swap 2019. Jost got Che with the herpes joke, but as ever, Che won the swap with the Babe Ruth joke and the cameraman one.