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10 Best ‘SNL’ Sketches, Season 42: From Trump to David S. Pumpkins

From Alec Baldwin’s killer POTUS impersonation to a perfect ‘Black Jeopardy’ commentary – the highlights of the show’s historic year

10 Best 'Saturday Night Live' Sketches, Season 42: From TK to TK

From Alec Baldwin's killer Trump impersonation to 'David S. Pumpkins' – the 10 best 'Saturday Night Live' sketches from Season 42.

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It was the show’s best of times, it was the world’s worst of times – going into its 42nd season, Saturday Night Live knew it had plenty of fertile comic ground to till. To throw a few more metaphors into the mix: The show also had a chip on its shoulder over the accusations that it had helped normalize a certain noxious, campaigning candidate when it let him host SNL back in 2015, which made folks wonder whether they writers’ room might have something to prove. And – let’s keep going with those metaphors, shall we? – they also had an ace up their sleeve, in that they had recruited a frequent guest host/bona fide movie star to play The Man Who Would Be(come) POTUS when it returned in October.

The rest is history: off-the-charts ratings, Op-Ed pieces, angry Trump tweets, viral clips galore, surprise special guests and the occasional genuinely devastating bullseye. Political humor with the volume turned up to 11 snuggled up to David S. Pumpkins. Blistering monologues bled into gentle love taps at some public figures and scorched-earth takes on others. Those 90 minutes happening right in the middle of the weekend had unprecedented cultural currency, Leonard Cohen sing-alongs and a podium that could attack press corps at will. And, right in the center of it all, there was a man with pursed lips and a bright orange glow. It was the season of the Smart Alec.

Looking back at the agony and the ecstasy that was Saturday Night Live in Trump Year Zero, three things became clear: Despite the fact that “live” remains a key element, this was the year that the post-Lonely Island era pretaped bit really came into its own. You didn’t have to be a cast member to have a recurring key spot in the show every week. And Kate McKinnon is God. Here are our picks for the 10 best sketches of SNL 42. Any questions?

(We’re not counting any “Weekend Update” segments or monologues here – though it should be noted that the incredible monologues by both Dave Chappelle and Aziz Ansari will be pored over and discussed long after their episodes have been forgotten, and long after the man whose presidency fueled their remarks has left the building.)

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10

‘The Bubble’

“It’s a planned community for like-minded free-thinkers … and no one else!” You heard the phrase “the bubble” being bandied about a lot in the days following Trump’s election, a catch-all phrase for the feedback loop that helped folks on the right (Fox News, Breitbart) and the left (NPR, The Nation) live in their own closed-off opinionated worlds. You also heard a lot of folks wishing they could find an alternative to the nightmare scenario of Trump’s New America. Cue SNL‘s modest proposal of a solution: a “fully-functioning city-state” of farmers’ markets, used bookstores and hybrid cars that’s literally protected from the rest of the country by a plastic sphere. It’s a smart dig at freaked-out progressives just as guilty of blinkered perspectives (“a wide array of viewpoints” equals one hipster saying something and the other going, “Yes! Totally! Right?”) and the notion that “your America” is the only right one. And you don’t need to live in a trendy neighborhood to feel the sting of “It’s like Brooklyn, with a bubble on it!”

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9

‘Actress Round-Table’ (Featuring Margot Robbie)

You could argue that these recurring “Women in Film” sketches – in which Kate McKinnon’s Debette Goldry tells Golden-Age-of-Hollywood horror stories (“They used to pay me in broaches”) to a panel of modern-day actresses – are simply a variation of the show’s “Close Encounter” bits, which also hinge on the SNL heavy hitter being equal parts clueless and outrageous. But then you’d be ignoring how pound-for-pound hilarious she is in these sketches, especially the first one – we sympathize with Margot Robbie, who has a hard time keeping it together. For all of the attention paid to McKinnon’s mimicry skills this season, this skit reminds you that she’s the show’s reigning first-rate caricaturist and can turn a line like “I ended up flapping my toots for a buncha Krauts” into pure poetry. And that chimp anecdote at the end is Emmy-worthy.

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8

‘Pepsi Ad’

People tore into Kendall Jenner for what was, at best, a tone-deaf Pepsi commercial (and at worst, it was a crass, commercially motivated trivialization of everything from BLM-era activism to modern-day racial strife, which can apparently be solved via a single can of soda). What this standout SNL sketch reminds us, however, was that this was not the idea of one pampered celebrity; there was a whole marketing and creative team that conceived, signed off on and shot the damn thing. Anyone doubting that Beck Bennett has become a stealth comic weapon on this show should watch his facial expressions right after he excitedly explains the ad’s concept to folks; his slow oh-fuck-what-have-I-done realization is what sells the piece. It’s a deft little nugget of car-wreck comedy doubling as drive-by commentary – a lovely instance of the show’s ability to instantly react to a screw-up with a short, sharp jab.

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7

‘A Day Off’

Yes, it’s been a season filled with celebrity impersonators – but is there a man, woman or beast that does not think Kate McKinnon was, hands down, the MVP of SNL 42? Her Hillary will be remembered as iconic; her Jeff-Sessions-as-Forrest-Gump was clever (though you wish the writers had stepped it up a tad with that sketch); her “Hallelujah” rendition gave us goosebumps; and there were any number of bits that she either singlehandedly saved or elevated to delirious heights (see No. 9). But her Kellyanne Conway was, for our money, the genuinely inspired McKinnon highlight, and her second appearance as the White House Counselor was genius: A “day off” which still required Conway to do damage control on CNN every five minutes. The show would be accused by some of acting like Trump’s media spinmeister was a mere innocent caught up in the chaos as opposed to someone continually adding to it … which slightly dates the skit. But just watch the exasperated-yet-vacant look McKinnon gives when she explains that Trump did his “deaf voice” at a rally “so that deaf people could hear him too.” That’s timeless. 

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6

‘Republican Movie Trailer’

How better to call out the spineless GOP politicians who refused to stand up to President Trump than with a fake movie trailer? An action-filled thriller sets viewers up to think that finally, a brave conservative is willing to put partisan loyalty aside and do what’s best for our ailing democracy – at which point an announcer notes that the hero of this particular blockbuster is “TBD.” (His inspiring slogan that rallies all people, and his message that demonstrates he’s a man who truly cares about the people of this nation? Also TBD.) It’s a beautiful flipped bird to the Republicans who’ve become Trump’s enablers. And on a personal note, thank you for giving Rolling Stone the quote that this movie “is definitely not about Paul Ryan.”

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5

‘Complicit Perfume’

Scarlett Johansson’s Ivanka Trump is all cheekbones and vacant stares, a sort of glamorous mannequin sashaying blissfully ignorant through a room – and in a season filled with celebrity guest impersonators, you could see how something high-concept like this (ScarVanka!) might have been the beginning and end of it. But what’s great about this perfume-ad sketch is that it’s not about her impersonation at all; it’s merely a short-sharp-shock vehicle for calling bullshit on the younger Trump’s claims that she’s either clueless or the resident progressive in the POTUS’ inner circle. “She knows what she wants – and knows what she’s doing,” says the announcer. “A feminist, an advocate, a champion for women … but, like, how?” The shot of her looking in a mirror and seeing her dad’s puckered mug staring back at her says it all. You’re fooling nobody. ma’am.

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4

‘Haunted Elevator’

We could have populated most of this list with the October 23rd, 2016 episode hosted by Tom Hanks – it’s easily one the strongest sketch-by-sketch shows in ages. (We’ll admit that we still watch this one’s “America’s Funniest Pets” skit at least once a week because, to quote Hanks’ Ron Howard, “it make me giggle!”) Still, if you’d told us that the season’s most viral non-political sketch, the one that people would be talking about for weeks, would involve the star of Philadelphia in a pumpkin-covered suit slapping B-boy skeletons on the ass … we’d have been skeptical. But a perfect storm of pre-Halloween timing, Hanks enthusiastically selling this frizzy-haired entertainer with great fashion sense and the sheer WTF-ness of it all made this a huge hit, as well one of the most inexplicably funny SNL oddities ever. We think Beck Bennett speaks for all of us when, upon hearing Pumpkins’ signature line (“Any questions?”), he replies “Yes! Several!!” His return appearance during the season finale was way, way too brief.

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3

‘Trump vs. Clinton: Third Debate’

Arguably the highlight of SNL 42’s great double act, this third debate has it all: Baldwin’s Trump impersonation, firing on all cylinders (the explanation on how he’ll defeat ISIS is a perfect sniffly-Donald riff); MacKinnon’s Hillary, who gives great reaction shots here; the “Trump Bingo Card”; a cutaway to the entire planet of Earth laughing as the republican candidate says that no has more respect for women than he does; Tom Hanks’ Chris Wallace saying “Oh no, not again” when Trump asks what Clinton has been doing for the last 30 years; the “Nasty Woman” mug; and a quick lesson on the art of pivoting. It has everything, in fact, except for any idea of what would happen a little less than a month later. But the show was not trying to be a Cassandra, just a well-oiled comic machine, and this debate sketch demonstrated how, when all of the right ingredients were in place, it could reflect Our Insane Toxic Campaign Season of Hate (Trademark!) and refract it back to us for laughs. How were we to known those laughs would eventually stick in our throat?

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2

‘Sean Spicer Press Conference’

Melissa McCarthy described the experience of being in this sketch in The Hollywood Reporter‘s SNL cover story: “There was this weird, great delay … first people figure out it’s
Spicer and then they figure out it’s me. You could just feel it in the
room.” The White House Press Secretary had just started to make his presence known as a bellicose, belligerent mouthpiece for the administration. And unlike Baldwin, who’d been publicized as a guest impersonator before the season began, McCarthy’s participation was not announced in advance; no one knew that she would be the one in the bald cap and boxy suit. Watch it again, and you can audibly hear people realizing that it’s the Bridesmaids star beneath the prosthetics right around the 22-second mark. The surprise has barely worn off before she starts nailing Spicer’s antagonistic attitude to the press (“Now let me wave something shiny in front of you monkeys!”) and his sheer aggressiveness – and that’s what turns this into one of the most jaw-dropping political caricatures since Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin. The shock may have subsided, but the sight of McCarthy pouring gum into her mouth and chewing it into a giant wad will still leave you gasping for air.

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1

‘Black Jeopardy’ (Featuring Tom Hanks)

This go-to game show premise had already been showing slight signs of wear by the time it was brought back for Tom Hanks’ ninth go-round as host. But what the creators of this sketch did here by switching the usual focus from how black America is different from white America to how the idea that there’s no class system in America is a fallacy is, frankly, a stroke of genius. Not that it gets rid of race at all – the bit still underlines the point that a cultural perspective on everyday life is not a one-skin-color-fits-all prospect, and watch what happens when Kenan Thompson goes to shake the hand of the guy in the red ballcap.

But the more it gives Tom Hanks’ rural Trump supporter and the African-American contestants and host common ground – scratch-off lottery tickets, distrust of the government and the voting process, a mutual love of Tyler Perry movies – the more you realize how this skit has been deployed to get at something deep in our national soil. We’re really not that different after all, it suggests … before deploying a killer final punchline that sadly returns us back to the country’s insurmountable reality.

We’d rank this among the top 10 best written sketches ever in the show’s history. There’s not a false moment. There’s not a bum joke. It’s both painfully funny and painful. There’s enough optimism to suggest that if we just talked to each other, we could actually bridge the gap. And there’s enough wisdom here in this smart bomb of a sketch to know that even that is still not enough.

Watch the best ‘Saturday Night Live’ political sketches.