The David S. Pumpkins Effect

The return of the cheery Tom Hanks character let SNL lean into the anarchic comedy of a sketch that makes little sense.

Tom Hanks as David S. Pumpkins, with two dancing skeletons, on 'SNL'
Rosalind O’Connor / NBC

Last night, Saturday Night Live returned to one of its singular successes—the jolly, always-grinning Halloween character David S. Pumpkins (played by Tom Hanks) from a breakout sketch in 2016—and gave him the honor of a second appearance. His return felt rare. Outside of the “Weekend Update” desk, recurring characters have been scant over the show’s past few seasons. Kate McKinnon’s departure in May removed a wealth of options from rotation, and the remaining cast members haven’t yet filled that gap.

SNL is in a self-proclaimed rebuilding year, and a guest turn from Hanks, as the mysteriously cheery man in a black-and-orange pumpkin suit whose part in a scary ride makes no logical sense, infused an otherwise dull Halloween episode with some character razzle-dazzle. But it also highlighted what’s been missing from the show. Recurring characters are a significant staple: They can help a cast member gain more airtime—and notoriety—while bolstering the arc of a season, balancing fresh material with well-known fare. Smart topical sketches make the rounds, but characters—the Nerds, Wayne Campbell, Church Lady, Spartan Cheerleaders, Dooneese, Herb Welch—make an imprint, creating lasting connections to the long-running show.

The number of sketches featuring recurring characters purposely spiked in the 1990s. “Starting around ’95, Saturday Night Live became very much a performer’s show,” the veteran writer Jim Downey said in the oral history Live From New York. “Writers had to write one piece for a character and then they could write a premise piece. It was enforcing the idea that the cast isn’t here to bring to life the writers’ notions; the writers are there to supply material for the characters that the cast already does.”

That structure seems to have quieted some since its heyday. Much of the current cast’s character work takes place on “Weekend Update,” where monologues hold sway. In that spotlight, Bowen Yang has especially sparkled—evidenced by the number of fans who dressed up as his characters the Iceberg That Sank the Titanic and (with Aidy Bryant) the Trend Forecasters for Halloween this year.

Pumpkins has the making of an ideal recurring character on SNL, but it’s telling that he’s played by a guest. The original premise followed a couple on a haunted elevator ride promising lots of frights, but their fear turned to confusion after they kept encountering the besuited man and his two dancing skeletons (Mikey Day and Bobby Moynihan). The sketch quickly went viral and became a series standout, so much so that it turned into a cartoon special the following year.

The conceit worked so well because Pumpkins was an anomaly—a goof among discernibly scary scenes. Last night’s sketch couldn’t lean on the same setup, so it aimed to add to his head-scratching origin story. Pumpkins is, after all, his own thing. When the three riders (the host, Jack Harlow; Ego Nwodim; and Andrew Dismukes) tried to find out why Pumpkins was part of the “scariest ride in Fright Night’s history,” his dancing skeletons (played once again by Day and, in a special return appearance, Moynihan) explained that he’s from Ibiza. One of the riders struggled to make sense of that thin detail, only to have his friend chime in: “Yo, he said he was from there; that doesn’t mean he grew up there. Let him write his own story.” It didn’t matter that the sketch was largely the same; the idea works so well because it doesn’t try to explain itself. There’s something comforting about seeing a recurring character inhabit their own reality, as some of the best on SNL do.

Pumpkins arrived during the last third of the episode, though there were hints that he might reappear. Hanks materialized in an earlier sketch about an AA meeting turned Pixar development session, revealing that he was on hand, and Moynihan showed up on “Weekend Update” as his recurring character Drunk Uncle. Those pop-ups lessened the surprise when Pumpkins made his triumphant return, but the episode nonetheless set the stage to develop him as a recurring Halloween tradition.

Elsewhere, SNL leaned into the horror of the holiday with a film trailer that accurately captured the looming sense of dread that many Democratic voters likely feel looking ahead to the 2024 presidential election. The horror spoof “2020 Part 2: 2024” tried futilely to find a legitimate Democratic candidate who might have a viable chance at winning. As it ratcheted up its characters’ nervy fear into full-blown hysteria, it delivered the sort of surprisingly shrewd political sketch the season has lacked so far.

The moody trailer felt particularly potent compared with the episode’s weak cold open, which relied on apt but straightforward impressions of political candidates such as Herschel Walker (Kenan Thompson), Dr. Mehmet Oz (Day), and Kari Lake (Cecily Strong, returning for her first episode this season). The vibesy horror approach ultimately tapped into the same sort of laughs that David S. Pumpkins, in his sillier way, does—and that SNL should aim to capture more often: the disquieting humor of a world that’s out of our control.