SNL Is Excelling in One Particular Way

The sketch show’s pretaped segments are outshining its live comedy.

A scene from last night's 'SNL'
Last night's pretaped sketches were so fully developed that they highlighted the ways this season’s live sketches have steadily fallen short. (Rosalind O’Connor / NBC)

The defining quality of Saturday Night Live throughout its staggering 48 years on the air has been its live factor. Where other sketch or variety shows have had the benefit of post-production—namely planning and polish—SNL’s spirit has most often emerged under the pressure of live television. You see it in the little things, like unexpected wardrobe gaffes and uncontrollable laughter; like when the actors in a Disney World–themed “Debbie Downer” sketch labored to deliver their lines in the face of her outrageous observations.

Yet this season, the live sketches are where SNL has struggled most for a spate of reasons: underdeveloped premises, writing that misses the mark, a lack of recurring characters outside of the “Weekend Update” desk, and a relatively new cast still learning to work together. The show’s pretaped segments have shouldered a lot of the heavy lifting, delivering consistently notable comedy and commentary. Last night, SNL’s post-production team—which recently authorized a strike after contract negotiations with its newly formed union stalled—assembled two of the strongest sketches. An announcement from Southwest Airlines sarcastically apologized for canceling more than 16,000 flights during the busy holiday travel season, and a State Farm commercial pursued a delightful twist featuring the fictional company rep Jake from State Farm. These sketches were so fully developed that they highlighted the ways this season’s live sketches have steadily fallen short of that goal line.

Pretaped sketches have been a part of SNL since the show’s inception. The comedian and filmmaker Albert Brooks was hired at the start to direct six short films to be dispersed throughout the first season, and since then the show has found a way to use the shorts to tell different stories. Last night’s “Jake from State Farm” premise began as a straightforward commercial before ending with Jake slowly inserting his way into a family. The first-time host Michael B. Jordan played the insurance rep, who initally helped a married couple with their homeowners’ insurance and then began shunting the husband aside, which makes him consider switching to Geico—and eventually contemplate suicide. It felt reminiscent of the 2017 commercial parody “Totino’s,” when a seemingly innocuous ad about pizza rolls turned into one woman’s discovery of unexplored desire. Though pretaped fare lacks the spontaneity and uncertainty of live sketch work, it tends to be a place where bigger concepts can flourish and surprise.

Following Aubrey Plaza’s huge success as a host last week (her episode saw a ratings bump in the 18-49 demographic), the show continued leaning into the weirder tone she encouraged with darker, more absurd ideas. In his first sketch, Jordan joined Sarah Sherman to play morning-show personalities who’d spent 19 hours stuck on a roller coaster and had to return to work early. The actors used prosthetics to show the effects of that nonstop pace, wearing devices that pulled back their lips into permanent windblown screams. “You look nuts!” Kenan Thompson (another one of the morning show’s co-hosts) remarked. The fact that SNL led with such a preposterous and gag-heavy premise suggests that the show is warming to bigger risks earlier in the night.

The only flat moment of the night occurred during the cold open, with Mikey Day depicting Attorney General Merrick Garland as a posturing nerd addressing the American public. Explaining what his team was doing to recover classified documents from a range of former and current presidents and vice presidents, Day said directly into the camera (while whip effects soundtracked the snap of his head), “Merrick Garland don’t play.” The premise took a promising turn at the end when an FBI agent (Thompson) approached Day’s Garland with a request. “Hey boss, when we done playing with these little papers, we gonna head down to Memphis and make sure justice is served down there too, right?”

The oblique line referenced the brutal killing of Tyre Nichols, whose savage beating by five Memphis police officers on January 7 was captured in full on the city’s surveillance system. SNL hasn’t done much to acknowledge police violence in this country, despite showing the capacity for mounting more emotional cold opens with regard to world events, such as when Russia invaded Ukraine last year. After the Rodney King beating, its biggest characters sang a song calling for unity, and the show was on hiatus when George Floyd was murdered in late May 2020. When SNL returned that September, it chose to do a Donald Trump sketch as opposed to addressing the story that had set off ongoing protests around the world for most of the summer. Last night seemed like a missed opportunity to do something more, something meaningful, especially considering that Jordan portrayed Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station and has experience with the subject matter of police killings on a creative level. Instead, the show gave Thompson a small line that felt fleeting.

Even with that misstep, SNL hit an impressive stride last night with its offbeat tone. The pretaped segments were bright spots that stole the show, but even though the episode was unusually fresh, SNL needs to find a greater balance between its live and prerecorded comedy. Otherwise, it risks losing what has set it apart from every other sketch show for the past five decades.