We've become quite accustomed to the season finale of Saturday Night Live serving as a kind of unofficial homecoming for recent SNL graduates. As soon as Andy Samberg was announced as the host for this season's last episode, we knew what we were likely to get. And even though Justin Timberlake was touring, there were enough cameos — Maya Rudolph, Seth Meyers, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, Paul Rudd — to more than make up for it. What that meant for the rest of the SNL cast members, particularly the seven freshman whose fates for next season are all in some stage of limbo, is something else entirely. But if you look to SNL for 90 minutes of variably successful sketch comedy rather than a semi-weekly political struggle for dominance ... well, for one thing, who are you and what is life like through your eyes? But also, this episode was probably a far less fraught affair.
Samberg himself admitted in his monologue that his seven-year SNL experience was far more heavily weighted to digital shorts than actual live sketches, so it's not surprising that this episode went to the digital well twice. Easily the best of these was the bass-drop tease DJ Davvincii, building up to an EDM crescendo that was particularly explosive.
Less great was the Lonely Island's return with "Hugs," yet another semi-successful attempt to convince the universe that Jorma Taccone is an awkward dork who can joke around with the rest of us instead of an uncommonly handsome man trying to slum it among the rest of us shlubby grotesques. Twinkcore Comedy strikes again.
As for the influx of alumni ... it could have gone better. (It has gone better. See Maya Rudolph's hosting effort from two seasons ago.) Rudolph as Beyonce was welcome but perfunctory, and hopefully it didn't distract from Sasheer Zameta's season-best work as Solange voicing over the actual events of that elevator video ("Foot five!"). Paul Rudd showing up on Weekend Update simply to serve as straight man to Samberg's Nicolas Cage was probably the most clear-cut example of a celeb straight robbing screen time from a real cast member. And then there was the welcome-and-then-a-question-mark return of The Kissing family, which attempted to tie things in to current events by having the family tsk-tsk ironically at Michael Sam at the NFL draft, all while making sure to code Taran Killam as gay by dressing him up as a tablet of Pepto Bismol.
Bummer for you, Brooks Wheelan, John Milhiser, and Mike O'Brien. Really hope your last episode as an SNL cast member wasn't spent watching Paul Rudd just sit there and Fred Armisen barely attempt to read his lines. It's not like Kristen Wiig tried any harder, but her low-key line-readings as the Lorax-lookalike half of conjoined twins at least fit the aesthetic of the latest incarnation of the porn-actress spokesmodels. Let's all work harder to build a world that properly accommodates Vanessa Bayer next year, though, huh?
2nd Runner-Up: Kyle Mooney
As we've alluded to, this was not an episode that particularly relied on the 17 current cast members (boy, we must be in for a bit of a culling over the summer) because there was so much time devoted to old friends stopping by. And perhaps that serves as an apt metaphor for some of the problems for this season as a whole. SNL brought in a lot of interesting talent, and some of it got more chance to shine than others. Kyle Mooney has earned friends and foes ("Hey." —JR) as he and Beck Bennett tried to slip into the digital shorts realm, but he’s certainly been one of the most-featured new players, and he had one of the night’s most memorable bits as crappy stand-up Bruce Chandling.
This is one of the first bits I remember Mooney doing on the show—it’s a revival of a character he did at the UCB, I believe, and operates on that edge between anti-comedy and more SNL-friendly material that Mooney has toed all year. Chandling does his usual crappy comedy plus epic eyerolls, and then he takes a darker turn and shares his fears with Cecily over his looks and fear of advancing age. For me, it was one of the biggest laughs of the night. For others ("Hey." —JR), it was probably very skippable. I’ll say this for Mooney—at least people have a strong opinion on him one way or another. —DS
1st Runner-Up: Jay Pharoah
As new cast members vied for screentime this year, occasionally seeming lost at sea, it must be somewhat inspiring to look to the example of Jay Pharoah, who really struggled in sketches in his first year but has grown into a crucial and seasoned member of the ensemble. He turned in solid work in multiple sketches, including his cold open as Jay-Z and the return of the Kimye chat show. Pharoah has always been a strong impressionist, but (despite a couple flubbed lines) I like the character he’s carved out for his Kanye impression, a man utterly convinced of his godly status on earth with Kim Kardashian as his one blind spot. It’s oddly sweet, in a depressing sort of way! Props too to Nasim Pedrad, who will be on Fox’s Mulaney next fall and has been a wonderful and underrated cog in the cast for five years now. Nothing’s been made official regarding her exit, though, so you never know what kind of trick Lorne will end up pulling. —DS
MVP: Andy Samberg
This MVP distinction is less of an honor for Samberg's performance and more of a resigned admission that nobody else really got to do much. Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon continue to do great work together, as in their kids' camp sketch, but they're too often drowned out by noise (and by "noise," in this case we're once again referring to the Kissing Family). Samberg was a great supporting cog in that camp sketch, though, acting as the platonic ideal of bored-older-brother types that crop up ever so often on this show ("Girlfriends Talk Show," I'm thinking).
I could have taken or left Confident Hunchback (classic Samberg exaggerated d-bag), and the less said about Legolas at Taco Bell (half-a-joke premise found scrawled on a scrap of rolling paper in the corner of the writers room from 2003), but the better but his monologue of intentionally scattershot impersonations was fun enough. This MVP is more of a declaration of "Uncle!" than anything else. You've won this season finale, SNL Alums! The full-timers will have to fight all the harder next season.