The Saturday Night Live finale was always going to be great. First of all, SNL finales are almost always great. But the writers and producers treated themselves to a "home game" of sorts this week, inviting back former cast member Andy Samberg to host.
That meant a cavalcade of friends of SNL stopping by to help out—Maya Rudolph, Seth Meyers, Bill Hader, Martin Short, Kristin Wiig, Fred Armisen, Pharrell, Lil Jon, and the Lonely Island guys (but not, as Samberg was sure to caution our expectations from the start of the episode, frequent collaborator Justin Timberlake). And selecting Samberg as host meant that, perhaps more than other SNL alumni, it was going to be more offbeat episode of SNL.
The season finale of Saturday Night Live was great. But it was also really weird—in the best, Samberg-iest way possible.
It all started with the incredibly strong cold open in which Jay Z (Jay Pharoah) and Solange (Sasheer Zamata) explained what really happened the night Solange attacked Jay in an elevator after the Met Gala. They even provided us with the original audio from the leaked surveillance tape. Did you know that Solange was just trying to kill a spider that was crawling on Jay?
The Jay Z-Solange-Beyoncé elevator drama was one of those rare pop-culture moments where you read the news and think, "I can't wait to see what SNL does with this," and the show really delivered. Its success, though, was mostly owed to the SNL class reunion that started early, with Maya Rudolph cameoing as Beyoncé. She was giving her own take on what happened that night, speaking in catchphrases from her hit songs, and it was maybe the funniest 45 seconds of the entire show.
Not that the rest of show wasn't funny. Samberg was a great host, bringing with him a confidence and gameness that made several of the sketches that otherwise would've been disasters with other performers actually kind of work. Still, you're forgiven if you were a little bit concerned at the idea of him as a host. As the Brooklyn Nine-Nine star joked about himself in his monologue, it always seemed like he "appeared in upwards of 100 digital shorts and six live shorts." His assessment: "So this going to go great."
And it did. His opening monologue was breezy and quite funny, with Samberg trying to prove that, though he was never known for his impressions, he was as good at them as former cast mate Bill Hader—who was legendary at them—by doing a lightning round of celebrity impressions, with Seth Meyers as prompter. (Naturally, Hader arrived to show him up, as did, for some odd reason, Martin Short. Like I said, weird show!)
They probably weren't the most broadly funny sketches SNL has ever produced, and maybe weren't even the best two of the night, but my favorite sketches from Samberg were the two most peculiar ones—the ones that only someone like him who could've pulled off.
In the first, "Confident Hunchback," he played an overconfident version of Quasimodo, who cruises a bar hitting on girls out of his league with cheesy pickup lines. ("I got a hunch I'm going to be making you breakfast tomorrow.") The other was called "Legolas From The Hobbit Tries to Order at Taco Bell." It was exactly what it sounds like.
There was a sort of Steve Martin-like quality to Samberg's performance in these sketches, where they were so weird and had the potential to be incredibly off-putting and even bad, but worked because Samberg's goofy charm sells them. You could almost see him in the writer's room pitching these sketches and cracking himself up, just saying to everyone, "Trust me guys, this is going to be funny!"
There were two to Digital Shorts on this episode, too, satisfying Samberg fans who salivated at the prospect of the viral-ready clips' revival when the star was announced as the finale's host. The first, "When Will the Bass Drop," was the better of the two, again, because the humor behind it was so absurd. A DJ taunts dancers at a club by building the beat up to the point where the adrenaline is uncontrollable, delaying "dropping the beat" for as long as possible. "Get turned up to death," guest star Lil Jon calls it. When he finally does drop the beat, the dancers explode.
The other Digital Short featured the return of Lonely Island, who did one of their old-school hip-hop songs about hugs. It wasn't the group's strongest outing, but it was the kind of situation where it was just a blast to see them on SNL again.
The callback sketch that got the night's biggest response though was the return of the Kissing Family. Wiig, Armisen, Paul Rudd, and Hader all came back to star in the sketch about a family that is grossly over-affectionate: the son motorboats his mom while the brother frenches grandma kind of over-affectionate, and a wet willy means tonguing someone's ear.
It's one joke. It's always been one joke. The joke isn't that funny. But this has always been one of the best SNL sketches, for the sheer enthusiasm the cast brings into it. It's a group of friends who are also comedy enthusiasts just playing with each other, and, as evidenced by the fact they can't even get through the sketch without erupting into laughter, they are having a blast. Fun is contagious, and watching it is just fun for audiences.
There were a few stinkers in there ("Blizzard Man," about a white rapper, just wasn't funny, while a sketch about a summer camp talk show just wasn't inventive enough to compete with the rest of the episode). But all in all, it was one of the season's more solid runs.
There's a knee-jerk reaction among people when you bring up SNL, where they interrupt your sentence to scoff, "Oh, SNL's not funny anymore." Then you ask them when the last time they saw SNL was, and they say, "Oh, I haven't watched it in years."
The truth is, there's a lot of unevenness about every season of SNL, stretching back to the classic days. People tend to forgive that unevenness when they look back nostalgically at their favorite SNL class, which is almost always the class that was performing when you were a young teenager (let's face it, this level of humor is typically pandering to that demo—did you see "Kissing Family"?). Those people will say that class was the best class and SNL hasn't been as good since.
But of course it has. And pretty reliably so over the years.
This was definitely a rebuilding year for SNL, with an overwhelming number of new cast members to get used to and performers who have only been on for a handful of seasons being asked to rise to leadership positions. But those performers have—Taran Killam has proven unique in that he's ably filling the holes left by both Jason Sudeikis and Bill Hader, while Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong raised their game to show that, along with Vanessa Bayer and Kate McKinnon's consistently strong work, we could be set for another female SNL renaissance. And Colin Jost has finally developed the sense of quirky mischief that is necessary in a Weekend Update, but takes a few goes at the desk to develop.
It's a bit unfortunate, relating to this discussion, that SNL chose an alum to host this finale, as former-castmember hosted episodes typically feature the kinds of revivals of old sketches and visits from other former cast members that make viewers decry how the show was so much better when those performers were on it. And maybe it was. But this season of SNL showed, in my mind, real promise: from its brilliant, self-aware, and always button-pushing skewering of its own racial politics, to its handling of the Rob Ford drama, right down to last week's breakout sketch "The Beygency," which could and should go down as one of the show's best sketches ever.
Revisiting all that, it's safe to say that it was a weird year for SNL—which makes it all the more fitting that Samberg helped close it out with such a delightfully weird episode.