SNL Has Returned to Its Strengths in 40th Season

February 13th 2015

Alicia Lutes

It's easy to crap on NBC's longstanding sketch comedy stalwart Saturday Night Live — easier than it is to champion its greatness, at least. But in last season and this year's 40th, with a cast and staff that's more diverse than it has been in years, the comedians and writers are doing some of their best, most progressive work. In fact it is because of that diversity they're able to achieve so much. And we're fairly certain that, as this season increases in age, so too will the respect for the comedy they created.

Technically a "rebuilding year" for the longstanding sketch brand, SNL's current roster did not have an easy road to get to this point, having come under fire after the 38th season for the lack of both racial and gender diversity on-screen and in the writers' room. Thankfully, those complaints were heard and addressed, with Lorne Michaels adding Sasheer Zamata, Leslie Jones, Michael Che, and Pete Davidson to the mix on-screen and Natasha Rothwell and Alison Rich on the scribe side. And, so far, every single one of those additions has proven only to strengthen the impressive talents of Kenan Thompson, Kate McKinnon, Taran Killam, Cecily Strong, Vanessa Bayer, Jay Pharoah, Aidy Bryant, Bobby Moynihan, Kyle Mooney, and Beck Bennett.

Because the more varied points of view you have, the more nuanced and unique the comedy.

Seriously, take a look at those cast member names again. Every single one of them has name recognition right now thanks to the work they've done on the show. Not one of those names has been a backseater — like some of the cast the series recently let go. That's not by accident — each one of the comedians has found a space to occupy on the series that is wholly their own, and largely thanks to their own viewpoints and diverse backgrounds. Just look at a sketch like the season 39 highlight, "Dyke and Fats."

Using an oft-parodied (and typically very stereotype-fueled) 1970s buddy cop show format, Bryant and McKinnon are able to satirize the genre and in turn lambast the more negative labels oft thrust upon women like them (McKinnon is an out lesbian and Bryant is not a size 0). Making a mockery of the unbelievable feats achieved by the cops on this show, the duo frame the absurdity of both negative stereotypes of women, but also the environment in which they're created. And it's all really, really funny to boot. And making fun of themselves is one of SNL's greatest strengths. Like in "Whites," where the — putting it lightly — the show's complicated relationship with race makes for some truly amazing comedy.

You know what makes a sketch like this not just succeed but triumph in both its comedic and societal commentaries? Input from those who are NOT white, who can often see far more clearly what the specific absurdities and privileges white people occupy in today's society.

Finally, the series can talk about race again in a meaningful way.

In one of Saturday Night Live's most iconic and memorable sketches, Richard Pryor is seen playing a game of word association with a potential employer (played by Chevy Chase), skewering — satirically — the racial tensions of the time and our obsession with words in general.

The sketch was racy, bold, and ahead of its time. It's a piece that, in 2015 unfortunately, never make it to air (or, at least, it feels safe to assume that). To make a cutting mark in today's far more reactionary media environment is a big challenge for writers and performers. And yet this new crew rises to the challenge time and time again. Sure, not all of its great, but there's a lot of intelligence happening in the comedy.

Like in this season's "39 Cents" sketch. It accomplishes a lot in a short amount of time, in a smart and funny way.

Not only does "39 Cents" highlight the absurdity of the "for just pennies a day" campaign on which so many international relief organizations rely for their plights (to say nothing of the fact that the amount is almost offensively low), but it also highlights people's general ignorance about Africa. And Hader's character does an excellent job of portraying the high-and-mighty Heroic White Man Who Knows Best mentality. "That's all these people need to survive," he passive aggressively hisses. "And they'd be so so lucky — and appreciative — to get it!" And we laugh, because we understand all of that in less than three minutes. Not too shabby, eh?

The show's ability to target the nuance in aggravating subjects like Hollywood's whitewashing problem has also never been more spot-on, either.

With a wealth of new viewpoints, SNL has come out stronger and better equipped to handle the tough, sensitive subject matters a lesser group of writers and actors would bungle. Like in "Black Jeopardy." Oh white people, always thinking they know so much.

It is from looking inward and shining a light on their own differences — and the show itself being open to criticism of its failings — that SNL has grown even stronger. And it proves the argument of so many — that diversity doesn't matter so long as they hire "the best writer/actor for the job" — to be wrong. It's not just the Best of the Best we need (and what is that anyway, if nothing more than another matter of opinion?), it's a little bit of everything. In time, this iteration of SNL will go down as one of its strongest — just wait and see.