When you tell people you watch Saturday Night Live, there's inevitably someone that will mock you for watching it. They'll say something along the lines of, "That show isn't funny, and has never been funny!" Or, they'll confess to once liking the show, but insisting that it's been going downhill for years. None of these complaints are new. None of these complaints are true.
For one thing, the halcyon days of the show really only exist through rose-tinted memories. That's not to say the show wasn't good in the 1970's, 1980's, or 1990's. It's just that the show has never been as good or as bad as commonly perceived, when viewed on the aggregate. The show's not-so-dirty secret is that it's always been inconsistent, and that's due in no small part to its insistence on starting fresh each Monday without a clue as to what will air that Friday. It's not an inherent bug that the show sometimes crashes and burns; it's an outright miracle that it often doesn't.
All of this is a way of saying this season's finale, hosted by alum Fred Armisen, is the show at its best. It's the same cast and crew that produced some spectacularly mediocre shows this year. SNL is 40 percent talent, 40 percent hard work, and 20 percent luck. Sometimes, all the ingredients are there for success and absolutely nothing works. Other times, everything falls into place. It's what makes the show magical for some and maddening for others. It can't be as good as it used to because SNL wasn't as good (or as bad) as everyone seems to remember. But it can always be great, and that's why we watch. Here are the three greatest sketches from the finale.
Fred Armisen One Man Show Monologue
One of the more unfortunate trends of this season has been the marginalization of the monologue. It has felt more like an afterthought this year, something done out of necessity rather than desire. And that's too bad: It's a great opportunity for the host to really set the tone for the show, and a great monologue earns enough good will to push the audience through any suspect material that may emerge in the early half of the episode.
Well, Armisen earned enough good will to carry over into Season 42 with this brilliant parody of a one man show. From changing into the same jacket that he already owned, effortlessly mimicking the beats from self-indulgent theatre, and mocking a nervous audience member in the sweetest way possible, everything from top to bottom clicked. Here's a guy who knows what it takes to put the audience of Studio 8H in the palm of his hand, and it was a perfect example of how the monologue, when used correctly, is one of the most important parts of "SNL."
Farewell, Mr. Bunting
When historians look back on this season to find its best sketch, they'll probably look here. If you placed any amount of money on a parody of Dead Poets Society being the most explosively funny thing on SNL in the 2015-6 season, well, I would like to invest my life savings with you. For the rest of us, this served as one of the best surprises of the year, and something that will stand out for years to come.
Everything about this sketch relies on the build-up, which is so painstakingly dull that it creates its own form of tension. Its structure screams that it's building to something, which puts audiences on the edge of their seats. Now, if the payoff had been weak, this would have been simply an interesting exercise. Instead, it's the funniest blood-soaked moment since the Mad Men episode "Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency."
It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that anything, no matter how vile, can be funny if the concept and execution are funny enough. The sheer escalation of the violence, choreographed to perfection, took the scene to increasingly ludicrous levels. By the time the student's severed head re-splatters against the window after being run over by the unseen riding lawnmower, I gave into its macabre genius. This was just a brilliantly conceived and executed sketch on every level, from production, acting, and editing, and shows just how much life is left in a show people constantly want to write off as an antiquated dinosaur.
High School Theatre Show With Fred Armisen
Every era of SNL has a sketch that exemplifies the cast of that time. "Two Wild And Crazy Guys," "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood," "Wayne's World," and the Will Ferrell/Cheri Oteri Cheerleaders are a few examples of this. They are byproducts of the particular mixture of cast, writers and culture of the time. It's not that these sketches could only arise when they did, but they could not have arrived more perfectly conceived and suited to the times in which they did.
My proposal: the series of high school theatre sketches is this era's exemplary sketch. It utterly defines this iteration of the cast and its importance in the overall continuity of the show. Not only are the students themselves becoming more well-defined with each subsequent sketch, but even the parents (perpetually played by Kenan Thompson and this season's most underrated cast member, Vanessa Bayer) have developed over time. It's a sketch that skewers hyper-serious teenagers in a way that's universal yet specific to this point in the twenty-first scenery.
Making a fundamentally silly sketch sound so serious probably makes me as pretentious as these students, but underneath its surface lies an astute analysis of the performativity of sensitivity. This phenomenon has always existed, but is particularly amplified in a world in which social media replaces most actual interaction. SNL is at its best when it can tap into the world around it and reflect those energies back to its audience through its own prism. It's been doing so for 41 years, and it looks like little will stop it from doing so for the next forty one as well.