With ten seasons and six episodes logged on the show, Cecily Strong is the longest-tenured female performer in show history.
Not counting Weekend Update anchors, a third of the 18 cast members who have served for eight or more seasons — Kyle Mooney, Beck Bennett, Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, and Pete Davidson comprise six of the longest — are recent departures.
Recently, Lorne Michaels changed policies to let cast members stay on the show until they practically qualify for a NAARP membership and expanded the cast to gigantic levels. Since the mass exodous this past season and a cast size that’s significantly smaller, it seems like the end of an era.
So without further ado, let us recount this reviewer’s subjective opinion of producer Lorne Michaels’ greatest mistakes and smartest moves of the last 10 1/2 years:
Mistake: Hiring a Musical Guitarist and Not Letting Him Sing a Song
In 2017, Luke Null was added to the cast on the basis of his clever musical bits. Null got bit parts and the lead in three sketches throughout the season.
Outside of that, he was so scarce that if a missing person’s report had been filed to the Manhattan Police while the show was airing, they probably wouldn’t have found him.
Worst of all, Null never got to show off his original music at the update desk. Obviously, this was a blow for Null, but wouldn’t it have been in the show’s interest to fully utilize the talent you’ve hired?
At the very least, Null used the experience for the hilarious number “I Got Fired from TV” off his following comic album. He deserved more.
Strength: Continuing to Bring Ideologically Diverse Guests
Despite outside pressure that certain hosts should be canceled, Lorne Michaels has continued to book hosts that come with a dose of controversy. As long as the hosts don’t mistreat the cast and crew, I’m for it.
Obviously, there’s a line. Political candidates (hint hint: media darlings like Donald Trump) should not be on the show as they benefit directly from the exposure in unfair ways.
But Saturday Night Live has always had a tradition of bringing in a variety of voices and challenging conventional wisdom. Smart viewers know that just because a show invites a guest star, it’s not a hearty endorsement of everything they say.
SNL didn’t create the popularity of figures like Bill Burr, Elon Musk, or Dave Chappelle, and it’s not the show’s job to regulate them. Just as the show benefits from more diversity in its guest and cast members, it benefits from more ideological views in its guests.
Weakness: Letting the Cast Go Beyond 18 People
When the 2013 cast reached a new high water mark of 17, the media created a firestorm.
By golly, how things have changed. The 2020 to 2021 cast ballooned to 20 members and 21 the following year. SNL had about as many cast members as a third-grade class in most suburbs.
The good news was that Michaels was being more generous with cast members in letting them do side projects. The bad news was that the pipeline that traditionally allows new cast members room to shine was broken.
As a result, casualties like Laura Holt and Aristotle Athari did not get a fair shake at proving what they could do in uber-crowded circumstances.
Weakness: Giving in to Diversity Concerns Too Fast
When Jason Sudeikis, Fred Armisen, and Bill Hader departed in 2013, the show had pretty big shoes to fill. The following season, they hired five White men and one White woman and sparked a media uproar over the gender and race of the new hires.
The show has not always had a lot of racial diversity, but it made complete sense to hire five men at once, considering that three very prominent men had just departed.
Furthermore, the cast was already up to 17 people, and Michaels could have at least waited a year before springing one more new cast member into the mix.
The new hire, Sasheer Zamata, was a strong actress, but she didn’t have a chance to make a strong impression mid-season and soon became overshadowed by Leslie Jones.
Out of the seven newbies of 2013, only Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney lasted long on SNL. The rest clearly had talent (as their further screen credits have shown), but it was mismanaged by Lorne, who sought an immediate solution to quell outside complaints rather than standing by and developing his cast.
Strength: Hiring Ego Nwodim and Punkie Johnson
While the show rushed the hiring of Sasheer Zamata and doomed most of the newbies of 2013, hiring Leslie Jones alongside Zamata was a first. The show has rarely had any Black female cast members, and now it wasn’t afraid to take two.
This policy of not restricting cast members by race has allowed Ego Nwodim and Punkie Johnson to join the cast in 2018 and 2020, respectively, and both have been very strong additions.
Nwodim is a versatile character actor, whereas Punkie Johnson is a stand-up who can steal a scene with her comic persona.
Excessive Cast Cameos
Considering Jim Carrey hasn’t done sketch comedy in forever, there’s something delightful about watching him playing Joe Biden. It’s also nice to see 1989 SNL failure Ben Stiller redeem himself by playing Michael Cohen.
Beyond that, I can certainly see the appeal in big names like Robert DeNiro and Alec Baldwin playing big roles. It gets the in-studio audience excited and helps light up the show’s profile.
But do we need Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig showing up every three episodes in random parts?
When Tina Fey played Sarah Palin, or Maya Rudolph played Beyonce, it made sense because they were dead ringers for those parts. The excessive cameos as of late by cast members served little purpose other than taking airtime away from a crowded cast.
Weakness: Letting Alex Moffat and Chris Redd Go
Melissa Villasenor had a lovable personality, but she didn’t add much utility to the cast outside of an impression or two. Letting her go after six seasons made sense. She can do more on the stand-up circuit.
Alex Moffat might not be a star, but he has proven reliable at delivering laughs and has had few detractors. There was every reason to believe he would grow this year, with so much airtime opening up. He was reportedly let go.
It is reported that Chris Redd left on his own accord at the very end of the summer. This might be true, but Michaels should have lobbied him extra hard to stay, knowing that there would be big holes in the cast.
Redd is capable of everything from musical interludes to impressions to supporting bits. Like Moffat, he would have had even more room to grow if he had stayed, and it’s our loss that this season is so thin without him.
Strength: Letting the Show’s Weirder Voices Go Unfiltered
In the history of sketch comedy, most troupes have often tried to find people who have similar chemistry and develop rapport.
Saturday Night Live started with a relatively homogeneous cast while adding Al Brooks and the Muppets into the mix. Since then, there’s been a healthy mixing and matching of different kinds of styles, but the variation of comic styles in the past decade has been through the roof.
Pete Davidson’s overly personal deadpan delivery, Leslie Jones’ loud open mic energy, Heidi Gardner’s valley girl characters, and especially Kyle Mooney’s TGIF-inspired homages are all from different planets of comedy than one another. That’s a good thing.
This also doesn’t count the stylings of writers like Julio Torres (who would later co-create “Los Espookys” with Fred Armisen), sketch comedy group BriTaNiCk, and Please Don’t Destroy behind the scenes.
Orrin Konheim is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow him on Twitter and his personal blog at Medium.