Season 41 of “Saturday Night Live” has come to an end after 21 mostly mixed episodes that featured both the best and worst of NBC’s trademark sketch comedy series. While the show struggled with certain tasks — mainly, how to tackle a political climate that’s almost too weird to be parodied, along with continuing questions about utilizing such a large cast effectively and the best way to balance live-action offerings with increasingly strong digital entries — when “SNL” was on point, there was nothing better.
It’s unquestionably hard to keep up comedic momentum on a live series that eats up the months of October to May for 21 episodes that need to be conceived of and made within the space of just a week, but the latest season of “SNL” managed to turn in a number of stellar sketches that run the gamut from “pretty damn great” to “instant classic.” And, for every episode, we were there tracking the best (and, yes, the worst) of the bunch, all the better to serve up a tasty end-of-season wrap-up for your comedic consumption.
Behold, the 21 best sketches of Season 41 of “Saturday Night Live” (one for every episode, but not one from every episode), arranged in as closing to a ranking series as we’re willing to get, from best to, well, not as best (but still great).
“Farewell Mr. Bunting”
Despite the mixed quality of this season, there have been a number of truly terrific sketches that will endure long after the season wraps and “Farewell Mr. Bunting” not only tops that list, it will likely end up as one of the sketch comedy show’s all-timers. Soaking up the rarest luxury of all – that’s time on a tightly scripted show with a hard out – “Farewell Mr. Bunting” is almost all set-up, but richly imagined, weirdly compelling set-up. It’s “Dead Poets Society” with a twist, but we don’t actually know that twist for over two-and-a-half minutes of the three-and-a-half minute sketch. We know there’s going to be some punchline, but the sketch takes such meticulous time with it that, when it hits (and, boy, does it hit), there is no better response than just abject screaming and the hard-won sense that we really had no idea what was coming here.
It’s fascinating to imagine the pitching that went into the deliriously weird and seriously delightful “Mafia Meeting.” Did they start from the top — “What’s the strangest thing that could happen during a mafia meeting at stuffy club?” — or did they work backwards — “We’ve got Peter Dinklage singing a song about space pants. Where’s the wackiest place we can put him?” Either way, this sketch works, mostly because Dinklage commits 100 percent to the bit, deftly sing-screaming about space pants like he dropped out of the world’s most overlooked eighties Euro-synth band and landed smack dab in a mob hangout. It’s that commitment that makes the eventual involvement of the rest of the cast — including Pete Davidson and Jon Rudnitsky as in-over-their-heads lackeys who can’t help but forget their imminent mob murder because of the insanity playing out around them — so aces. SPACE PANTS!
“Undercover Boss: Starkiller Base”
It was a given that “SNL” would give Adam Driver a “Star Wars” sketch to play around with, though their decision to use “Undercover Boss” as an entry point was an inspired surprise. The sketch allowed known “Star Wars” geeks Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan (who also appeared to talk up their passion in Driver’s monologue) to slip into the minutiae of life on Starkiller Base, while Driver hammed it up as Kylo Ren in precisely the correct amount (other actors might have gone too broad in a, “Look! Ahaaha! I know this is funny, too!” way or hewed too closely to their original performance so as to not topple their gravy train), playing up both Ren’s self-seriousness (complete with a well-placed lightsaber throw) and the inherent weirdness of thinking about the base as a place people just go to work at.
“A Thanksgiving Miracle”
Initially, it was unclear where this Thanksgiving sketch was going to go – was Beck Bennett going to break out into his singing dad character from the Trump show? would it eschew laughs for more trenchant commentary? would it feature…Adele? – and although the final pick (Adele, it was Adele) ran a smidge long, the whole thing was so weirdly joyous and charmingly on-time that we can forgive it for running thirty seconds longer than was totally necessary. A cute nod to the evening’s musical guest, kitted out with timely commentary on the current state of the world, accessorized with so many fake nails, “A Thanksgiving Miracle” just might hold the key to saving your own holiday. At the very least, it’s a great way to get “Hello” stuck back in your head. ELLOOO ISSSS MEE.
Viewers unfamiliar with Larry David’s work beyond “oh, he’s kind of crotchety” were likely very pleasantly surprised by his turn in the very silly and very funny “FBI Simulator,” with David taking up the role of “Kevin Roberts!,” all flashy suits and utter nonsense. As Kenan Thompson’s bewildered FBI trainee attempts to gauge the threat level of a simulation that he (quite rightly) believes is not representative of a real person, David gets sillier and sillier, selling it more and more by the second.
“Bern Your Enthusiasm”
It’s a two-for-one! The wackiness of “FBI Simulator” was immediately followed by the pure genius of digital short “Bern Your Enthusiasm,” which so cleanly injected Bernie Sanders’ sensibilities into the world of Larry David’s HBO show that it made the sketch not just one of the best of David’s stellar episode, but one of the best of the entire season.
During a sketch about alien abduction — LOL? — Ryan Gosling was tasked with playing one-third of a small-town trio that was temporarily stolen by aliens, before being returned to the planet and swiftly snatched up by some very concerned FBI agents. Both Gosling and Cecily Strong had mega-super-awesome experiences with their new extraterrestrial friends, all of whom were very nice and lovely and sweet to their guests. Kate McKinnon, however, did not have a nice time, apparently taken by some bottom-tier aliens who were only interested in watching her pee and slapping her boobs around. That’s the joke, and it’s a fine enough one at that, but it was soon hijacked by a giggling, shaking, red-faced Gosling, who simply couldn’t hide his glee. The giggles spread like wildfire, and soon even Kate McKinnon — consummate everything! — couldn’t hold back. The joke is funny, but the sketch is an instant all-timer.
“Near Death Experience”
Looks like Kate McKinnon has another new character to add to her already-full ranks. We previously met her ill-fated and disaster-prone Ms. Rafferty during the Ryan Gosling-hosted show back in December (when she cracked up just about everyone on stage, though no one as much as their newbie host, who looked like he was going to pass out from choked back laughter at any second), and while she was a standout then, few people expected to see her again. Turns out, Ms. Rafferty’s issue isn’t just that she gets the short end of the stick when it comes to alien abductions, but any unexpected near-death experience.
As Larson and Cecily Strong wax poetic about their experiences being ushered to Heaven by personal angels, McKinnon breathes vivid, raunchy life into how things went down with her. Accompanied by a lower-tier angel named Keith and culminating in a shocking display of “Donald Duck-ing it,” Ms. Rafferty’s story is a narrative delight with lots of delightfully horrifying wordplay and McKinnon holding steady while everyone struggles to hold it together around her (check out Aidy Bryant, who routinely seems to close her eyes and take a breather, lest she fold).
“Meet Your Second Wife”
“Saturday Night Live” rarely gets this gut-bustingly nasty, but “Meet Your Second Wife” went there, then went there again, then went there again. Framed up as a classic “hey, look, it’s just a game show,” “Meet Your Second Wife” managed to be funny on all cylinders. From tiny touches (Amy Poehler isn’t playing herself, but Tina Fey is) to increasingly horrified facial expressions (Kenan Thompson really brought this one home) to a late reveal almost too dark to be funny, “Meet Your Second Wife” has already joined the pantheon of all-time great “SNL” game show sketches. (It’s okay if you want to turn away.) (Also, please stay away from kayaks.)
“High School Theatre Show With Elizabeth Banks”
This is the third installment of “High School Theatre Show” to appear on “SNL” over three seasons and, despite its repetitive formula, it continues to be one of the best recurring sketches the current crop of stars has offered up yet. Most importantly, it’s rooted in undeniable truths: Teenagers are awful, high school theater is horrifying and even the best of intentions can go hideously awry. The key to any good “High School Theatre Show” – past sketches have starred Reese Witherspoon and Cameron Diaz – is to open with a banger of a punchline, one that will endear old fans to what’s to come and instantly telegraph to newbies what’s going on here. Taran Killam’s plaintive cry of “THE EARTH” did just that, setting up this showcase for another entry for the ages.
Guns appeared in the later half of this particular show, thanks to a segment on “Weekend Update” and a sneaky bit during the “City Council Meeting” sketch, but they were the focal point of an early sketch, and the best of the night: “Guns.” Utilizing the tried-and-true fake commercial launching pad, “Guns” craftily moves from a sketch that could be about anything – was this another drug sketch, like last week’s “Abilify for Politicians”? maybe some kind of household product, a little “CNN Pregnancy Test”? – to being pointedly about guns and their place in American culture. As biting as last year’s ISIS-centric “Father Daughter Ad” and with a more clever premise, “Guns” wasn’t just the best part of a very good show, it was the most necessary bit the series has done in years.
“Star Wars Toy Commercial”
“Or leave them in the box and never touch them!” It’s funny because it’s true. With a new “Star Wars” movie mere days from opening, fans of the series have spent the last couple of years gearing up to re-embrace their childhood obsession. Kids? Sure, I guess kids might also like a new movie, but this one is for the fans who have been there, well, probably too long. Does much of this strongly resemble things that happen in my own home with my own “Star Wars”-obsessed boyfriend? I can’t say, but I can tell you a thing or two about why it’s so hard to find original Leia dolls in good condition (it’s the hair, always the hair).
“Abilify For Candidates”
When this sketch first aired, the presidential election was still over a year away, but “SNL” is had already started doubling down on its politically-leaning offerings, including a special guest appearance from Hillary Clinton herself, the reemergence of Kate McKinnon’s impression of the former Secretary of State and a brand-new version of Donald Trump from Taran Killam. Still, it’s hard to beat the charms of a well-done “SNL” commercial, and “Abilify for Candidates” marries the classic format with some trademark bite. The joke is an easy one – who the hell are these so-called candidates who actually seem to think they’ve got a place in the race – but it’s beefed up with some commercial magic, imagining a product that can be prescribed to these big dreamers in order to end their White House-inspired dementia. Bonus: Killam breaking out a glassy-eyed Rick Santorum impression just minutes after debuting his Trump.
“Kids Choice Awards”
Ariana Grande displayed an ease with laughing at herself early on (remember, a song about needing an adult scandal?), and the show’s first live sketch post-monologue took that to logical extremes, framed up around an “orange carpet pre-show” for Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards, an event Grande has appeared on ad nauseum in the past. Vanessa Bayer and Taran Killam are perfectly cast as hyperactive hosts whose energy wanes into hysteria as the show goes on, with Grande playing a ditzy backstage reporter with something approaching actual restraint. The gag here is a good one — countdown misunderstandings and mishaps and whip the beleaguered on-camera crew into an absolute frenzy over the course of just a couple of minutes — and the three-man cast plays it to the hilt. When that damn countdown clock starts blinking “12:00,” just try to hold back your laughter.
Mike O’Brien may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the writer turned cast member turned basically free agent has a worldview and a humor that’s unique, genuinely strange, often charming and like nothing else on the rest of the show (though Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett occasionally hew closest to it, more on that to come). How refreshing than that a mostly flat show ended with a brand-new Mike O’Brien short, setting him up as the star of perhaps the world’s worst-conceived Oprah Winfrey biopic. O’Brien has done this sort of thing before, including a sketch that saw him starring as Jay-Z, and while the premise might sound ripe for insult, the joke is always on O’Brien. Wide, goofy smile in place, slight bewilderment leaping off his every move, O’Brien is always ready to hang the joke on his own discomfort, before jumping out to hammer home some hilariously true points (O Magazine, anyone?).
“God Is a Boob Man”
Despite a lack of bite and originality when it comes to most political and political-leaning issues this season, “SNL” has occasionally unleashed its teeth on big issues, including a commercial earlier in the season that tackled gun control with verve and an actual point of view. Something similar is at play with “God Is a Boob Man,” dressed up as a trailer for a movie about a baker who refuses to make a cake for a gay couple. The commercial gleefully pokes holes into a number of arguments that, taken out of context, are truly, deliriously out of touch. Vanessa Bayer never cracks (and, yes, that this is another pre-recorded bit that surpasses the rest of the live show is curious) and delivers her lines with a plain-faced determination that’s both very funny and totally terrifying.
“Astronaut Jones: The Martian”
Combining Tracy Morgan’s Astronaut Jones with “The Martian” is an obvious marriage of beloved character and topical news item (despite the film’s dominance at the box office, this was probably the last week that “SNL” could play it up for humorous effect, so the timing here was especially good), but that doesn’t dilute the absolute glee with which Morgan took to prancing back around on stage, singing about rockets (sorry, it’s stuck in your head now, no escape) and heading off to the great wilds of space. Even Matt Damon didn’t have this much fun making the real “Martian,” and that’s saying something.
“The Day Beyonce Turned Black”
The pre-recorded “The Day Beyonce Turned Black” was funny, well-made and something that effectively skewered white culture and the prevalent makeup of the show itself. Politically charged and heavy on the messaging, it was also just plain clever, outfitted with impressively recreated movie trailer tropes and a series of stand-out gags from the cast. (Cecily Strong screaming against a glass wall is already an unshakeable memory.)
“Voters for Trump Ad”
This political season ended up being a rough one for “SNL,” as the show proved to be unable to amusingly and cuttingly top the real-life drama playing out on the campaign trail by way of sketch comedy. It was hard to blame them in the early days, however, because who could have possibly seen this wild race coming? And then continuing? And then, somehow, continuing still more? Now, it’s just bad form. The world has had months and months to deal with the latest round of political insanity, and it’s about time “SNL” caught up to it. When they’ve dumped the run-of-the-mill, forward-facing bits like “here is a politician sitting by a fire and saying weird things” and “here is everyone yelling during a debate,” there’s been hope, but the majority of the show’s political coverage has, sadly, been lots of fireside-sitting and debates. This race demands more.
And, damn, here it was with a campaign commercial that targeted the widely echoed question, “Who the heck is voting for Donald Trump?” and did it guns blazing: racists, Nazis, white supremacists, etc. Biting, bruising and quick, it was the first time in a long time “SNL” has shown any teeth when covering the campaign. The only real problem? This would have stuck so, so much better if “SNL” hadn’t used Trump as a host just four months prior. That casting decision was ill-advised at the time, and became ruinous to a show trying desperately to bounce back into the political game.
::gunshot noise:: ::siren:: Drake and the cast (even Lorne Michaels) put their own spin on rap battles – apparently very fickle, who knew? – with Drake going HAM on anyone and everyone who disrespects him in even the slightest of manners. It’s a smart idea played up by Drake’s almost unholy ability to switch between nice, happy, great-to-be-here guy and a very serious rapper dude in a matter of seconds. Here’s Drake strolling down the hall, happy as a clam, here’s Drake singing about offing you, rinse and repeat. It’s a good idea, well done. (And with a catchy as hell tune.) “Good job, that’s it? I’m doing great, you bitch!”
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