Don’t look now, but this most recent version of Saturday Night Live—the one that began when hallmark 21st century cast members like Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Andy Samberg and Fred Armisen all left within a couple years of each other—might finally be figuring itself out. Since the major cast turnover in 2013, SNL has been consistently inconsistent. There have been a few high points, but overall the show’s felt flat and oftentimes disappointing, the shadow of eras past too big to get out from under. But the show’s last three episodes—hosted by Elizabeth Banks, Matthew McConaughey and Ryan Gosling—might be a sign that all the cast-shuffling and fine-tuning over the past two years has worked, and that Lorne Michaels and co. finally got this iteration of SNL to click. And the final piece of the puzzle may have been getting Colin Jost to step down as co-head writer.
I’ve never been a big Jost fan, from the moment he stepped out of the writers room and into the “Weekend Update” anchor’s chair. Not just because he’s smarmy, alarmingly corny and surprisingly bland as one of the voices of “Update,” but because he just legitimately isn’t that funny to me, as a whole. Like, read this thing from The New Yorker. What is that? I’m so confused.
The head writer of SNL (past head writers include Seth Meyers, Tina Fey, and Adam McKay) guides the ship, makes sure everything is sharp, fresh, and oh yeah, funny. The quality of the writing isn’t entirely on their shoulders, but it’s up to them to be difficult and kind of an asshole if the rest of the writing staff isn’t bringing the heat. And honestly, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me that with Colin Jost at the wheel, SNL as a whole had been feeling just as bland and unfunny as Jost often is on “Update.”
And it doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me that three of the four episodes this season without Jost as a head writer have been the funniest, most consistent episodes in years.
Jost stepped down on Oct. 20, ceding the head writer positions to Rob Klein and Bryan Tucker (it should be noted that Klein and Tucker too have been head writers during this rough period). The episode immediately after that was hosted by Donald Trump. It was terrible, and terribly embarrassing that a show as iconic as SNL was stooping down to Trump’s level and abandoning their left-leaning ideals all for some bigger ratings. But no one really expected the Trump episode to be good, no matter how many “Hotline Bling” parodies they shoved him into. Trump may have been rock bottom for this era of SNL, and I had pretty much given up.
But then Elizabeth Banks came in on Nov. 14 like a light had been switched on. The skits felt brighter and more pointed. “Black Jeopardy” and “Ghetto Brunch” both successfully (and humorously) commented on white privilege and racial divide, while “The Adventures of Young Ben Carson” was one of the first times this era of SNL has been able to pull off political humor. And when it came to “Weekend Update,” co-led by Colin Jost, the jokes were fiercer, unafraid and more willing to cross the line. “This week, Jeb Bush said he would go back in time and kill Adolf Hitler as a baby, a move that would have left Germany in the weak, bumbling hands of Adolf’s brother, Jeb Hitler!” Michael Che joked. And that was before Pete Davidson showed up to do some stand-up on prejudice against transgender people.
The Matthew McConaughey episode a week later, while slightly not as strong, was still more of the same. The Adele-Thanksgiving skit went viral, the show went in on that weird group of people who post hateful opinions on things they have no knowledge of with “Should You Chime In On This?,” and once again “Weekend Update” was satisfying (thanks in large part to Kenan Thompson’s David Ortiz impression). Now look, I’m not saying SNL is back in the Chris Farley-era groove, or even the groove it was in when it had Wiig and Samberg and Hader, but I’ve laughed more and harder in the past three weeks than in the last two years combined.
Ryan Gosling’s episode this past weekend was proof of something else falling into place for SNL: cast chemistry. The skits and jokes were tight again, but during this episode more than ever I got the sense that these people actually really like performing together. How else do you explain Aidy Bryant and Bobby Moynihan breaking over Kate McKinnon testifying that a group of aliens watched her “while I peed… I don’t think I was dealing with the top brass.” The energy was so high that Gosling was reduced to a giggling little child. Breaking on SNL isn’t my favorite thing—I kinda feel the same way about it as Tracy Morgan, who once told Jimmy Fallon “not to do that shit in my sketches”—but it does have its benefits every so often (hi, Stefon), and in this case it helped point out how much fun the entire cast is having right now. That sort of thing transfers to the audience.
Saturday Night Live’s numbers might still be somewhat mediocre (aside from that Trump travesty), but the quality is going up. By the time Tina Fey and Amy Poehler host on Dec. 19, Season 41 of SNL could be in the middle of a face-melting hot streak. This is how it always goes with SNL, or at least its most successful periods—the audience rebels against the newly formed cast, there’s a downswing, and then something clicks and before you know it people are wondering what will happen when [ENTER NAME HERE] leaves, just as they did with Will Ferrell, and then Tina Fey, and then Kristen Wiig. If SNL keeps bringing it in 2016 like they have lately, that’s what’s going to happen with this cast—they’ll have put themselves in the same conversation with SNL’s all-time best casts. Maybe that’s Colin Jost stepped down, maybe it’s not. Who cares? All I know is I’m happy the show’s worth watching again.