Season 40 of Saturday Night Live, it seems, is going to be all about the girls.
After season 39’s massive cast reboot and the off-season's bloody layoffs, there was a lot of pop-culture handwringing about whether a largely fresh-faced cast would be able to find its voice for the show's historic season. After Saturday night's premiere episode featuring host Chris Pratt and musical guest Ariana Grande, it became clear: not only has the show found its voice, but that voice is higher, funnier, and more feminine than we might have expected.
And if the level of comedy that the show's strong female ensemble served up Saturday night is any indication, that's a great thing.
The season's inaugural “Live from New York…” moment was, fittingly, given to Aidy Bryant, who began what would become maybe her biggest episode yet on SNL moderating a cold open about the NFL's recent player drama as cable news talking head Candy Crowley. The sketch riffed on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s (played by jittery Chris Pratt) clueless non-apologies for his dealing of his players’ transgressions. Bryant's Crowley also interviewed Ray Rice (Keenan Thompson) and Shannon Sharpe (Jay Pharaoh) about their past misdeeds, though each refused to engage in the conversation for fear of losing their commentator jobs. The sketch was smart and funny, but it was, unexpectedly, Bryant's self-effacing, almost Cathy-esque (“Ack!”) spin on Crowley that landed the most laughs.
Chris Pratt continued his Guardians of the Galaxy charm offensive with a goofy, if only mildly funny, opening monologue that hit on all the major talking points that have become the essence of Chris Pratt since his marathon press tour began earlier this summer. He referenced his drastic weight gains and losses and the fact that he's married to Anna Faris, because apparently if Pratt doesn’t mention either of those things in a public appearance a wormhole opens and sucks him into outer space.
But the usually effortlessly funny Pratt receded to the background in most of the sketches, allowing the cast members to step in and shine—something the girls did in spades. Heck, Chris Pratt was put in a loincloth to play He-Man in a sketch in which he touched Taran Killam’s penis repeatedly, and still, somehow, it was a handful of line readings from Aidy Bryant in her very limited screen time that completely stole the sketch.
And Bryant’s star turn continued in what was the night's strongest sketch—a ladies’ night at the bar where Bryant’s girlfriends encourage her to flirt with Pratt. “You know how to do this. You’ve watched music videos,” they tell her. Accordingly, she walks up to Pratt and begins rapping her flirting in the terrifying cadence of Nicki Minaj. He flirts back with a sort of muted DMX aggression. The back-and-forth, especially after Bryant’s girlfriends tell her to stop harping on her “big fat ass” in her raps, was comedic perfection. Bryant does this sort of coquettish sexual comedy—the buttoned-up housewife or seemingly moral conservative unleashed and raunchy—so well.
An early sketch starring Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, and Taran Killam as secretaries at the world’s worst veterinary hospital was especially reminiscent of the days of Cheri Oteri and Molly Shannon, where the comedy of the sketch came less from the premise and more from these characters they create that are riffs on the everyday weirdos we encounter in real life: outlandish enough to be sketch comedy, but nailing the very human quirks and tics of people we observe everyday in a way that makes the humor even more funny because it’s so real. Strong and McKinnon’s hilarious Southern drawls and faux-warm colloquialism as they told the vet’s patients that their animals had indeed died made a one-joke sketch (Hi, your pet has died) something with endless comedic mileage in it.
Strong’s biggest moment, however, came with her triumphant return to the Weekend Update desk, which she had been fired from after one season in order to let her focus more on character and sketch work. It’s a decision that, after Saturday night, we should be grateful for, as she shined in every sketch she was in, but it’s also one that several critics were quick to point out reflected a perceived frat culture that rewarded men over women at SNL. It might be easy to argue that when you look at the show’s casting decisions—swapping Michael Che in for Strong at the Update desk, for example—but certainly not if you look at the ample opportunity given to the show’s female cast members to shine in the premiere.
Strong seized her opportunity, and then some, wringing a laugh out of nearly every single second she was sitting at the desk as the world’s most vapid and misguidedly judgmental party guest. Her take on the Ebola epidemic in Africa: “These people aren’t even sick of the Ebola. They’re sick of the hypocrity [sic].” And on the diversity of society: “We’re living a post-facial society. There are babies in China who don’t even know they’re adults. And then it’s like ever five minutes, a whole ’nother species.” If removing Strong as Update anchor means The Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With gets to make more appearances, then it might be one of the wisest decisions Lorne Michaels has ever made.
As for Che, who made his debut last night, he was a great foil for the more milquetoast Colin Jost, landing jokes with a wilier and more dangerous edge than his counterpart—though he needs to work on a crisper delivery. In the spirit of SNL’s big Ladies’ Night, it was also a treat for so much screen time to be given to writer Leslie Jones, who found herself mired in controversy last season for a racially-themed Weekend Update monologue that mocked slavery. All was forgotten, however, by the end of her rant about being single Saturday night, which drew rousing hoots and hollers of appreciation from the audience at the studio.
The most telling indicator of just how strong the show’s female ensemble is this season was that the show’s two most talked-about stars from last season, Emmy nominee Kate McKinnon and Sasheer Zamata, were given so little to do. McKinnon was stellar in her vet sketch, and Zamata was a solid utility player in some later-in-the-night bits, but it’s a testament to how deep the talent spreads this year (Vanessa Bayer, too, deserves mentioning for a delightfully absurd night-ending sketch about randy video game characters) that the show’s buzziest stars don’t even need to carry the show (the way that, say, Kristen Wiig did in her later seasons) for an episode to be funny.
There’s been a recent trend that the show’s biggest breakout performers are its female players (Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig…). Season 40, it seems, will continue to see that trend through. Saturday night is ladies’ night, and we couldn't be happier about it.