Saturday Night Live Needs to Fix Its First 15 Minutes

Why are the cold open and the monologue consistently the weakest parts of each episode?


Saturday Night Live had another fairly strong episode this week, the latest in a surprisingly consistent season that has seen standout editions hosted by Harry Styles, Chance the Rapper, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Last night’s emcee was Will Ferrell, a beloved alumnus of the show who joined the “Five-Timers Club” with this appearance, and he rose to the occasion by doing solid work in the sketches, none of which relied on nostalgia for recurring characters from his SNL tenure. But if you had tuned in for just the first 15 minutes of the episode—the political cold open and Ferrell’s opening monologue—you’d have seen only the worst SNL has to offer, a problem that has become a pattern in recent years.

The political cold open is a time-honored tradition for SNL, a chance to run at the week’s topical news head-on before announcing the show with “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” During election years, it can be the program’s biggest ratings booster, with audiences tuning in primarily to see Tina Fey’s latest Sarah Palin impersonation or, indeed, Ferrell’s storied work as George W. Bush. Now SNL has Alec Baldwin, who pops in every so often to play Donald Trump and should be a similar draw. But these segments seem hastily written and ill-conceived, existing only to let Baldwin squint and mug at the camera for a few minutes while wearing his blond fright wig.

This week’s opening sketch was a particular misfire, ostensibly about Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s testimony in congressional impeachment hearings, but mostly a farce in which Baldwin-as-Trump pretended not to hear reporters’ questions over loud helicopter noise. The entire experience was so stilted and joke-free that I spent most of it trying to figure out what one eager extra playing a journalist had written on his notepad. Ferrell was even included, wearing a bald cap to play Sondland, but his involvement didn’t extend beyond indicating his loyalty to Trump with lines like “Oh right, keep the quid pro quo on the low-low, got it!”

Ferrell’s opening monologue eschewed the “Five-Timers Club” tradition of being presented with an ostentatious smoking jacket. Instead, audiences were treated to an interminable and bizarre sequence in which Ferrell kept tripping over his own words because the actor Ryan Reynolds was sitting calmly in the audience, assuring Ferrell that he was in town just to see the show, not to be a part of it. Reynolds is, in general, a bit overused as a cameo artist—his uncredited appearance in this year’s Hobbs & Shaw was particularly grating—but he can’t be held responsible for this mess. Unless the guest host is a comedian who’s happy to do a few minutes of stand-up, the monologue is usually an awkward and wishy-washy affair.

In the past few years, this formula has evolved into SNL’s status quo. The political material has never found its footing in the Trump era, despite the initial boost provided by Baldwin’s casting. The opening act almost always relies on surprise appearances from glitzy stars and friends of the show (this week it was Reynolds; last week it was Jon Hamm). Rarely does it use the opportunity to be genuinely inventive and to show off the core cast’s talents, which is a shame, given how excellent the rest of SNL has been in this 45th season.

The new cast member Bowen Yang has proved himself an instant star, making dynamic appearances on Weekend Update and highlighting his unique voice as a writer (last week’s Sara Lee sketch being a great example). All of this week’s best material came in the last hour of the show, including a surreal Wizard of Oz spoof and a fake pizza ad that was reminiscent of some of Ferrell’s best family-dinner-table sketches from his time as a cast member. Even the other political sketch, a recounting of the latest Democratic debate, was far better than the cold open, with the more reliable guest stars Woody Harrelson and Larry David dominating as Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

So why does SNL insist on starting so slowly? Even though the show is an elaborately choreographed production with many beloved rituals, it has also shown a willingness to shake things up when necessary; by now, it’s clear that something needs to be done to give proceedings more of an opening punch. After a couple of rocky years, the broader situation at Saturday Night Live finally seems optimistic: The core cast is a trustworthy bunch, with plenty of up-and-comers like Yang and Ego Nwodim primed for bigger roles when long-standing stars start to depart, and most of the sketch writing is the best it’s been in years. At the very least, the political satire needs to feel like more than transcription of the week’s events.