When Leslie Jones made her first on-camera appearance on Saturday Night Live in 2014, she was a breath of fresh air for a creatively stagnant show. Discussing People magazine’s recent choice of Lupita Nyong’o as the most beautiful woman in the world, Jones dug into the beauty standards that society often applies to black women, and into her pride and insecurities about her own self-image. “I’m waiting for them to put out their Most Useful list, ’cause that’s where I’m gonna shine,” she joked to the Weekend Update host Colin Jost. “I’m six feet tall and I’m strong, Colin, strong!”
Jones had been hired as a writer midway through SNL’s previous season, its 39th, after cast complaints about the lack of black women on the show’s staff spurred the producer Lorne Michaels to address the issue by holding special auditions. Sasheer Zamata was initially the only person hired to be on camera, but Jones distinguished herself in the 40th-season premiere and was added to the cast three episodes later. This week, Jones confirmed reports that she would be leaving the show after five years, and while her career has skyrocketed since her on-air debut, it’s dispiriting to note just how little has changed for SNL at large.
There’s been some cast turnover, but much of the 40th season’s ensemble will be the same for the 45th, which begins later this month. Michael Che and Colin Jost will continue to host Weekend Update; mainstays including Cecily Strong, Beck Bennett, Aidy Bryant, and Pete Davidson are still around; the longest-serving castmate, Kenan Thompson, seems happy to stay forever; and even Kate McKinnon will be staying put despite rumors that she’d leave after her contract expired this summer. Stability is not an unusual concept at the long-running sketch show, but it is surprising that Jones’s departure isn’t being accompanied by other shakeups thus far.
There’s still time for Michaels to overhaul the cast—though the host and musical guest of the 45th season’s first episode on September 28 (Woody Harrelson and Billie Eilish) are already set. New cast members have been known to join at the last minute, or even during the season as Jones did, and SNL still has a strong pool of writers who could easily make the leap to performing. But with McKinnon and many of her contemporaries sticking around, and Alec Baldwin likely to reprise his recurring role as President Donald Trump (despite the actor’s continued public grousing about it), SNL figures to stay relatively static going into a big election year.
If that’s the case, Jones will be especially missed, since she was such a vital spark plug for the show. Her Weekend Update appearances, which served as extensions of her stand-up comedy, were welcome bits of provocation that frequently got a rise out of Jost (a host who sometimes struggles to gin up onscreen chemistry with his castmates). Her sketch performing was shaky at first, with Jones occasionally flubbing lines or missing cues, but she quickly settled in as a fan favorite, parlaying the experience into roles in major movies such as Ghostbusters.
Jones thrived most in pre-taped digital-video sketches, including a celebration of the Upper East Side and a Naked and Afraid parody with Peter Dinklage. That material always had a good mix of energy and whimsy, channeling her raw enthusiasm for the topic at hand (that vigor was also evident in Jones’s public adoration of Game of Thrones and the Olympics). She was happy to poke fun at her reputation as a firebrand within the cast, crafting elaborate oddball narratives like her sincere desire to play Donald Trump on the show (a sketch that featured Michaels playing himself as a dismissive buzzkill).
Most of Jones’s best material, though, came from her bullish monologues, like an ode to the film Hidden Figures, or an impassioned defense of women who are often called, in her words, “crazy bitches.” After controversy followed Jones’s first Update appearance, she defended her comedy forcefully online, tweeting, “If Chris Rock or Dave [Chappelle] did that joke ... they would be called brilliant.” Similarly, when Jones was the subject of online trolling and hacking efforts, she returned to the Update desk and spoke her mind as only she could. “If you want to hurt anybody these days you’re going to have to do way more than leak their nudes or call them names. You can’t embarrass me more than I have embarrassed myself,” she joked. “The only person who can hack me is me!” That candor was what made her stand out on SNL from the beginning—and what will be sorely missing when the new season begins.