SNL Is Breaking With Its Old Patterns

The show may have become less topical lately, but its earnest streak has made room for its cast to shine.

Dan Levy holds up a childhood photo in an 'SNL' sketch.
The show had a wholesome air to it this weekend, with a series of consistently earnest moments. (Rosalind O'Connor / NBC)

Saturday Night Live wants you to know that it’s still fun. “Trust me when I say this: It has only been good here at SNL,” the host, Schitt’s Creek’s Dan Levy, said in his monologue, without a hint of irony. Given the state of the world, that’s a dangerous statement to make: The show has been through a turbulent year of struggling to find humor in definitively not-good times, Dan Levy. Are you sure you’re talking about the right show?

And yet, Levy was right. SNL had a wholesome air to it this weekend, with a series of consistently earnest moments. One featured a bar full of patrons breaking out into song instead of watching the Super Bowl. The 10-to-one time slot, usually reserved for wild, eccentric swings, was dedicated to a sketch about the “It Gets Better Project,” featuring the LGBTQ cast members’ childhood photos. A segment in Weekend Update even highlighted the twin YouTubers who react to old songs with over-the-top, delighted awe. Levy helped establish the heartfelt tone from the top when he caught up with his father and Schitt’s Creek co-star, Eugene Levy, in a sweet reunion at the end of his monologue.

That the show continues to stay away from sketches focused on the week’s political headlines has made it less biting, but also more consistently funny. The lack of celebrity impersonations suffocating the space left room for precise character work from the cast throughout the night. Weekend Update again featured a few jabs at Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, but it skimmed past political barbs in favor of giving the cast opportunities to debut new guests to the desk. Though these choices may seem as if the show is playing it too safe, they slyly underline the pervasive discomfort and anxiety about the pandemic and the political moment. Sketches felt familiar in their setup, but their lighthearted tone and specificity drew attention to how unfamiliar our circumstances have been, like a modest magic trick.

Take “Super Bowl Pod,” for example. In the sketch, a group of friends gathers for a watch party and validates one another’s dangerous choices during the pandemic, insisting that they’ve been, as Heidi Gardner’s character puts it, “doing everything right.” The punch line seems evident from the first bits of dialogue: These characters will all end up infected, given that their “safe” choices have been totally reckless. Yet, just when the sketch appears to be ending, Anthony Fauci (played by Kate McKinnon) shows up, revealing the scenario to be a PSA. Fauci then trots out the South Korean “Gangnam Style” singer, Psy (Bowen Yang), to help spread the message. The cast dances enthusiastically, and the sketch draws its biggest laughs from the sweet silliness of this moment. But the message sticks for that same reason: If the sketch had solely mocked its characters’ behavior, SNL would have come off as preachy. Instead, it deployed a familiar gag—a “celebrity” guest—to make the sketch memorable, and to poke fun at the way the U.S. government, under President Joe Biden, might think that Psy, a viral star from 2012, would feel relevant enough for such a campaign.

Other sketches also used this sleight of hand, Trojan horse–ing in more incisive jokes through established setups. The pretaped Zillow ad, about how searching home listings can be a sensual activity, is perfectly funny for the way the cast members throw themselves into the bit. But the deeper joke targets the sad reality of how homeownership has become a fantasy for many, including, as Yang’s character notes, those in their late 30s. Similarly, the musical sketch “Hot Damn,” despite being a smaller-scale version of this spectacle that pokes fun at how seriously Americans take the Super Bowl, also suggests a more trenchant joke. Cecily Strong and Levy play New York City bartenders forcing their patrons to sing a song with them, and watching the rest of the cast join in on their goofy choreography is fun. But the pair are revealed to be out-of-work actors whose desperate need for a stage suggests a sadness to the proceedings. Broadway has been closed for almost a year. Of course these two would miss singing and dancing so much that they’d turn their new job into a performance.

Then again, not every beat of last night’s SNL had something more penetrating in mind. If anything, the lightness gave its writers more room to put together catchy one-liners (“former social-media influencer Donald Trump”) rather than entire concepts, and to let the jokes take precedence over commentary on today’s issues. Timely political humor often took that luxury away, leaving the cast reliant on impressions. But last night, cast members could truly perform to build characters. Joy is in short supply these days, and many of the sketches simply left a smile on my face.

If it feels unsettling for the show to take this looser tone, that might be only because it’s such a dramatic departure from recent SNL history. Playing it safe might seem like a naive move as the country transitions under a new president and struggles to achieve herd immunity. But that’s the thing: SNL isn’t actually playing it safe. The show is rejecting the habits it accumulated over the past four years, being judicious about the targets of its jokes and the subjects it highlights, and, most importantly, training its spotlight on its cast. Sketches may be earnest in tone and less explicitly topical, but they still speak to the discomfort of the moment. In Levy’s opening monologue, when he gave a backstage tour showing how Studio 8H transformed amid the pandemic, the host cheerfully pointed out pages spraying disinfectant on the cast member Melissa Villaseñor, waved to Kenan Thompson from the opposite end of a hallway, and peeked at the musical guest Phoebe Bridgers’s dressing-room door covered in plastic. “See? Still fun,” he concluded, grinning through the whole extreme process and, in a way, summing up SNL’s current MO: The show knows that things aren’t normal, but it won’t stop having fun.