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The ‘Saturday Night Live’ Midseason Cast Check-In

Hey, Studio 8H. We’ve been watching you.

This Saturday, SNL returned from a four-week break with the ever-spirited Kevin Hart as host. That marked the 11th episode of the season, bringing us approximately just past this landmark 40th season’s midway point — as good a time as any to take the Internet’s usual obsessive-compulsive relationship with the show and ramp it up a few notches! So, how are our beloved Not Ready for Prime Time Players doing so far?

Surely, we’ll have forgotten some of your favorite sketches/monologue guests/mess-ups/moments of perfect yet unspoken chemistry. As per tradition, feel free to yell about it on the Internet. Oh, and by the way, shout-out to the comprehensive snl.wikia.com, an excellent source for raw info that includes such data points as Nov. 1 — “Goodbyes: Colin Jost is visibly angry.”

OK, on to the breakdown!

Vanessa Bayer

In her fifth year, Bayer is one of a handful of tried-and-true cast members — including folks like Bobby Moynihan, Taran Killam, and, above all, Kenan Thompson who’ve gotten enough reps by now that you can count on them for ballast in the shakiest of times. It shouldn’t sound too harsh, then, to suggest that Bayer’s time with us has plateaued or, perhaps, even begun to dip.

Her Miley Cyrus Show bit had to be phased out a while back, partially due to exhaustion, mostly due to Miley Cyrus becoming associated with a wildly different set of cultural signifiers. She’s still got “Jacob the Recent Bar Mitzvah Boy,” a reliable, welcome number (Yankee yarmulkes for everyone) that perhaps has grown a bit creaky; and Miss Meadows the poetry teacher, which always felt tossed-off. This season, though, when Cameron Diaz showed up to recite some sexy verse about wanting to sleep with the UPS guy, that was pretty good.

Bayer has always had a few gears she can hit: repressed suburban mania, utter insanity, and goofy harmlessness, as in rom-com expert Daisy Rose, who promptly fell in love with Michael Che.

She also has remarkable chemistry with Cecily Strong, and the two regularly team up to pull dead-eyed magic together. As ex–porn stars, they did one hell of a job selling those Sunseeker Yach-ets.

When all’s said and done, Bayer might go down like Chris Parnell: a steady type with an ever-lurking streak of insanity — the owner of a sneakily good run that’s destined to be underappreciated.

Cecily Strong

In 2012, with “Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party,” Strong arguably came on too strong. The bit got her on the “Weekend Update” desk, a coveted role that was never quite right for her. Smartly, she was rotated back into gen-pop, where she could go after the shine that was so rightfully hers. Which, slowly but surely, more or less, is exactly what has happened. All hail the wise man on the mountain, Lorne Michaels.

“Girl You Wish” was only trotted out once, in the season’s first episode; the rest of the time, Strong has flexed range.

A couple of times, she’s been the object of desire on twisted game shows. Technically, in these bits, the focus is elsewhere: once, on a trio (Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, and Killam) of Affliction-bedecked morons outdoing each other to declare their horniness — until it turns out that host Woody Harrelson is her dad; the other time, on Jim Carrey as a criminally insane, wheelchair-bound, Luke Skywalker robot-handed, possibly-secret billionaire. But Strong, the Alpha and Omega of vocal-fry inanity, always steals the spotlight.

In the “James Franco is a bridge troll and also maybe gay” sketch, she pulled, and nailed, a classic Wiig-esque weirdo …

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… in the Serial parody, she divined a pitch-perfect Sarah Koenig, anchoring a bit that had a high degree of difficulty. Just, like, seriously: a satire of a podcast? A satire of a podcast?!

And the rest of the time, she has played ball, regularly teaming up to great results with the aforementioned Bayer and her fellow young blood Aidy Bryant, along with the occasional spot work with Kate McKinnon. Right now, she probably has most in common with Killam as a natural, smiley star with the chops of a utility player.

Strong and McKinnon seem like they should be owning the show on a regular basis. The SNL process is inherently democratic. But if they felt like force-feeding those two in the paint a little bit, we wouldn’t complain.

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Sasheer Zamata

Should we be concerned about Zamata? She can’t seem to stick in sketches, and she hasn’t seemed to figure out her lane.

In the Chris Rock episode, she played a young girl streaming to YouTube, with unknown sexiness, over the protestations of her dad. It was uneven, but, as Rock explained in THR, it was important: “When I was on Saturday Night Live a few weeks ago, we did a sketch where I was Sasheer Zamata’s dad and she had an Internet show. Twenty years ago when I was on Saturday Night Live, anything with black people on the show had to deal with race, and that sketch we did didn’t have anything to do with race. That was the beauty.”

But her most notable moment of actual comedy of the season came on “Update,” railing against the true injustice of the lack of emoji diversity.

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That was feisty as hell and totally great, and hopefully she’s got more bullets like that in her chamber. Because we don’t want to be worried about Sasheer Zamata.

Aidy Bryant

Bryant is one of two cast members toward whom this recapper has an affinity presumably atypical of the population at large (who’s the other one? You’ll have to keep reading! Or I’ll just tell you now! It’s Kyle Mooney!). I don’t know what to say, man: A couple of sassily self-deprecating shoulder shakes from lil’ Baby Aidy, and I’m in the bag.

With the “Girlfriends” talk show, she’s got a recurring bit, with legs, that perfectly sums up what she does — walk a fine line between preposterously disproportionate self-esteem and deep mental anguish (word to Strong once again, who happily plays the straight man in that bit while occasionally popping in with stuff like, “Every Sunday I go to the dock and stand on a shrimp cage and eat a lobster roll while [my boyfriend] watches from a tiny porthole”).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QB3kuGrW0Ds

As Tonkerbell, Bryant salvaged a wayward number with sheer joie de vivre. Flirting with Chris Pratt in the charged-up vernacular of kids these days, she committed her heart out. And selling us water beds, she played a character with a backstory that might just explain every one of her starry-eyed nutbags: “She was a stay-at-home mom for the past 20 years, but recently, she got called up as a volunteer at a local magic show. That little taste of the spotlight made Janeen realize she was born to be a star.”

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Taran Killam

It’s totally unfair, considering how much he does for the show — all manner of topical impressions, and straight-faced news anchors, and catch-all handsome dudes — but I’ve never particularly been into Killam. Overcoming a checkered pedigree (MADtv, MADtv, MADtv), he has now been on the show for five years; he’s as integral to ensuring execution as anyone outside of Kenan. And yet I’ve never felt a warmth.

That said — we come here not to bury the dude but to praise him.

His McConaughey was impeccable:

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And his Charles Manson, with blushing bride, was a season highlight.

“We finish each other’s sssen …”
“ … ssspider penis!”

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All in all, it’s been a stereotypically steady half-season from Mr. Killam.

Bobby Moynihan

On the B.S. Report, Michaels gave Moynihan a nice little shout-out. Highlighting Moynihan’s turn as Chris Christie in a cold open, Michaels praised Bobby as subtly crucial: He’s not getting all the big laughs, but you throw him out in that cold open, and you know he’s gonna get you going. He’s a pro, and he’s been on the show since 2008, and there’s not much new to say. But the coolest thing might just be his general sense of awe. After all of these years, he still seems almost overjoyed and shocked that he’s on SNL.

Also, Drunk Uncle! “Is this GoPro farm to table?” Good question, Drunk Uncle.

Jay Pharoah

Pharoah as Obama has always been a reliable if not transcendent prospect, and this season has been no different. That said: Barack getting blasted with Mitch McConnell was something special, and Barack shoving Kenan-as-immigration-bill down the Capitol steps again and again was a lot of fun.

Really enjoyable was the Lonely Island–esque “Office Christmas Party” with Pete Davidson. This seems like a possibly fruitful lane for Pharoah to head down. The boss is making it rain gift cards! Panera bread!

Pete Davidson

Speaking of Young Petey — how can you not love Young Petey?! His best moment is still probably his first, when he popped up on “Weekend Update” and stole the show with a bit of meandering stand-up on performing certain sex acts for money.

He has come back to the “Update” desk a couple of times to try the same thing, with lesser returns. And that’s certainly not cause for concern for a kid who at one point looked due for a breakout (which the show still sorely needs). But he’s still wide-eyed and eternally amused by everything that’s going on around him. Let’s give him time. I’m never disappointed to see Young Petey.

Kenan Thompson

Al Sharpton, Suge Knight, a host of an animal show that’s had his nuts and dong ripped off by a monkey — look, Kenan’s been a stalwart, calming force, and the eternal gamer, as always, and there’s not much new to say about him, either, so let’s listen to co–head writer Bryan Tucker: “Here’s a secret. If you’re a Saturday Night Live writer, and you want to get an extra laugh in your script, just add this line: ‘KENAN REACTS.’”

Unofficial word is he’s ready to go after this season — well, actually, supposedly, he was ready to go before this season, but Michaels talked him into one more. So let’s enjoy him while we have him.

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Actually: Kenan, man. Don’t leave? Kenan. Kenan? Don’t leave.

Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney

Both members of the Good Neighbor sketch group, Mooney and Bennett came on the show together and have been linked together since. They seem to have inherited the Digital Short realm, and their best stuff has come pretaped, from the friendly bank robbers to that surreal and unsettling sitcom parody. Then there’s the flat-affect SoCal stuff, which is subtly brilliant. Once again, FULL DISCLOSURE, I stan (inexplicably or otherwise) for Mooney. But Andy Rydell (not at all) getting the whooping he so richly deserved was one of the best sketches of the season. ([Sob.] “We should do pills together sometime.” [Sob.])

They still seem like a niche taste, and it’s hard to see them breaking out wider anytime soon. Their sensibilities are just a little too strange, a little too quiet. Bennett has gotten himself some solo shine with the CEO-with-the-body-of-a-baby stuff. But ultimately they do seem destined for cult Studio 8H status.

Leslie Jones

Jones has to be the most pleasant surprise of the season. After a few spots on “Update,” she officially got bumped from the writers’ room to the cast for the Jim Carrey show and has provided much-needed jolts of energy ever since.

The “Relationship Expert” stuff is solid, but I’m not a huge fan of her aggro-flirting with Jost, which comes off more like forced fast-track bonding. All very good, though, is the ghost skeptic who turns out to be super scared of ghosts …

… the real Black Annie …

… and, best of all, her unlikely nuptials to Bilbo Baggins himself …

Congrats on the quick come-up, Leslie Jones. You earned it.

Michael Che and Colin Jost

These two have been harangued aplenty, and rightfully so. For a while, there seemed to be just a serious lack of professionalism: They were flubbing lines; they were missing beats; they just seemed scared. In the last few weeks, though, the dust appears to have settled. Jost seems to have figured out what his thing is: the handsome guy who’s a little creepy, like he’s on the lacrosse team and has a lot of friends but he’s also maybe a murderer? Holding stares a smidge too long, staying just a touch too still — it works great! The sharper and odder the better. Meanwhile, Che just seems more comfortable — more comfortable to riff, more comfortable to stretch lines out, more comfortable to let words linger. As with all things, maybe we should just give them more time.

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Kate McKinnon

McKinnon’s another one I feel great affinity for, but I presume I’m not out of step with my fellow Americans on this one? Yes? Every bug-eyed facial expression is a gift?

Clearly, she operates best on a higher level of mania. So, a Sia dance-freak-out with Jim Carrey — why not. A Jane Lynch–hosted “dumb celebrity” game show bit, for sure. But it’s the inexplicably strange stuff that’s best.

In McKinnon’s hands, Angela Merkel is a a secret libertine dying to throw off the shackles of German propriety, and also the top of her skirt-suit …

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And the strange lady in the apartment building is a genius of passive-aggressive notes …

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SOof26mraYQ

And Justin Bieber is … ah, just watch.

Give McKinnon the rock, dudes. Just give McKinnon the rock.