A Return to the Freaky, Awkward Glory Days of SNL

Thank goodness for Molly Shannon.

Molly Shannon and the three Jonas Brothers in matching red pantsuits
Will Heath / NBC

When Molly Shannon auditioned for Saturday Night Live in the mid-’90s, she received some appallingly bad advice. A scout warned her against doing the character Mary Katherine Gallagher—a geeky teenager who stuck her hands in her armpits and smelled them when she got nervous—because the show’s executive producer, Lorne Michaels, wouldn’t like it. “He’ll think it’s weird, that dirty little character,” Shannon recalled being told. Despite listening to that guidance for her first round, Shannon surfaced Mary Katherine during her second, and Michaels saw the potential. Which is why last night, more than 20 years after her last appearance on SNL, we got to see Shannon as host teaching the Jonas Brothers how to smell their armpits. And though Mary Katherine didn’t make a full appearance, Shannon’s episode was a striking reminder that character work was once essential to SNL’s success.

When Shannon joined the cast in 1995, the show was attempting to correct the previous year’s slump. Characters were a way forward, and Shannon became a major player. In many ways, she was the character queen. There was Mary Katherine, of course, but she also introduced viewers to a wealth of other weirdos who paved the way for the likes of Kristen Wiig and Kate McKinnon to chase their ideas down more outrageous paths. Along with her fellow cast members Cheri Oteri and Anna Gasteyer, and the writers Paula Pell and Tina Fey, Shannon began to shift the notion of SNL as a boys’ club and reveal new possibilities. Her often extremely physical comedy reveled in excess, challenging cultural expectations of what women in the industry should and shouldn’t do. She created characters who were, more often than not, too much: too strange, too brash, too subdued.

On a variety show that changes every week, characters establish familiarity and consistency, helping determine viewers’ favorite eras and cast members. After Shannon’s departure in 2001, new cast members developed a fresh array of peculiar personalities. Yet, outside of Ego Nwodim’s Lisa from Temecula sketch, this season of SNL feels noticeably light on the sorts of characters who have helped it become a comedic institution.

Thank goodness, then, for Shannon, who reprised two characters from her collection last night: the aging performer Sally O’Malley and the dreadfully bad stand-up comic Jeannie Darcy. As Shannon recently shared with Jimmy Fallon, “I actually did [Jeannie] toward the end of my SNL run ’cause I was like, Uh, it’s so hard to be thinking about making stuff funny all the time that I thought, I want to do something that’s really dull.” Pursuing dullness seems antithetical to SNL’s purpose, but part of what worked when Darcy first appeared was the live audience’s strained response. The jokes, and Darcy’s painful delivery of them, were meant to be so bad that they forced an awkward laugh. Unfortunately, last night’s Jeannie segment (a satire of Chris Rock’s live Netflix special) was pretaped, which felt more regimented and robbed the bit of the real-time non-reactions that fuel Shannon’s zany energy.

At the end of the show, Shannon let loose as the 50-year-old O’Malley, who had been tasked with helping the Jonas Brothers’ choreography team (Chloe Fineman, Bowen Yang) reimagine their upcoming Las Vegas residency. O’Malley’s aging perspective (“I got half a century of sizzle in my lady schnizzle”) and high-riding pants, which she took her time pulling up higher and higher up to create a noticeable camel toe, caused both Fineman and Yang to break. “Okay, you know, I’ve engineered my entire life so I would never have to see what I just saw,” Yang’s choreographer cracked. The sketch felt designed to create a viral moment when the Jonas Brothers finally joined O’Malley. Dressed in her signature red pantsuit, they mimed her kick-lunge-kick routine while she coached them. “Let’s put some bone-as in your Jonas,” she said.

Throughout SNL’s history, the biggest breakout performers have tended to be those with the largest—or loudest—arsenal of characters. In recent episodes, both Nwodim and Yang have generated viral or near-viral moments thanks to some characters that have seemed to have the potential to reappear: Barry the midwife, the no-nonsense upstairs neighbor Mrs. Shaw, and even the recently deceased Glenda. Whether they’ll return remains to be seen. But revisiting some of Shannon’s more eccentric personas last night felt like a throwback to the show’s glory days, when characters weren’t an anomaly but an expectation.