This dude was front and center in the rise of Saturday Night Live this season.
This dude was front and center in the rise of Saturday Night Live this season.
Photo by Marco Torres

SNL Did What It Had to Do This Season

Even those who aren’t particularly familiar with professional wrestling are likely familiar with WrestleMania. Essentially the Super Bowl of sports entertainment, the annual event takes place in early April and routinely packs football stadiums in major metropolitan areas like Dallas/Fort Worth, New York, and even Houston. In short, it’s a pretty big deal.

Part of WrestleMania’s appeal not only lies in its status as a must-see event with more than 30 years of history, but also the stars it showcases. In addition to current World Wrestling Entertainment superstars like John Cena, WrestleMania routinely serves as a showcase for former stars and part-timers like Goldberg, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (we’ll get to him in a bit) and Brock Lesnar.

These guys make the event feel special, mostly because they rarely step in the squared circle anymore. In short, star power is what separates WrestleMania from the myriad other pay-per-views and other special events staged by the WWE throughout the year.

So what does WrestleMania have to do with Saturday Night Live? Well, other than the fact that The Rock hosted the most recent season finale over the weekend while Cena hosted in December, not a whole lot on the surface. However, both have essentially maintained or re-established relevance not because of their more obscure bit players, but because major stars showed up to give each a big event feel.

This hasn’t exactly sat well with everyone, as SNL recently concluded its 42nd season. Some have pointed to SNL’s over-reliance on all things Donald Trump in reclaiming its status as must-see late-night television. On that note, many have argued that a show designed to showcase the talents of a batch of “not ready for prime-time players” has instead morphed into a vehicle for two actors who have certainly proven themselves more than ready for prime time.

Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy have easily been the highlights of SNL’s most recent season. Baldwin’s portrayal of presidential-candidate-turned-President-Elect-turned-President Donald Trump has essentially blurred the lines between where Baldwin’s Trump ends and the real Trump begins. McCarthy, meanwhile, has been a revelation as beleaguered White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.

Have featured cast members like Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Kenan Thompson, Bobby Moynihan and Cecily Strong had their moments? Of course. But, as far as the most recent season of SNL was concerned, Baldwin and McCarthy’s renditions of the President and his Press Secretary, respectively, are what audiences will remember.

And, sure, SNL’s placing more emphasis on two people whose careers are more established – not to mention two people who aren’t, you know, actual SNL cast members – has turned off a handful of critics and viewers. But here’s the thing – SNL head honcho Lorne Michaels and his crew’s approach has more than paid dividends.

According to the AV Club, SNL is enjoying its highest ratings in more than 20 years. Its viewership has grown by nearly 20 percent among the coveted 18-49 demographic and has experienced a jump of more than 20 percent in total viewership this season. In fact, the penultimate episode of this season — hosted by McCarthy, coincidentally enough — drew 10.3 million viewers and was the show’s highest-rated May episode in seven years.

Now, not all of this success can be attributed directly to Baldwin and McCarthy. Rather, SNL recruited an absolutely stellar lineup of hosts this season. In addition to aforementioned hosting gigs from wrestlers/actors Johnson and Cena, other A-listers to host SNL this season included Tom Hanks, Dave Chappelle (man, what a fine episode of television this was) and Scarlett Johansson. Of course, prior to the season finale, two of the three highest-rated shows of the year happened to be hosted by, you guessed it, McCarthy and Baldwin.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as is the case with WrestleMania, where appearances from the likes of The Rock and Brock Lesnar give younger or less notable superstars a chance to shine, the same holds true on SNL.

This season, while Baldwin and McCarthy grabbed all the headlines, “Weekend Update” hosts Michael Che and Colin Jost absolutely hit their stride. In fact, the two — after a somewhat shaky start in 2014 — have a rapport audiences haven’t seen since Tina Fey and Amy Poehler ran the news desk from 2004-2006.

They aren’t alone. Kyle Mooney and Leslie Jones’ pre-taped skits revolving around their fictional relationship were a welcome piece of surreal, offbeat comedy. McKinnon was her usual MVP self with portrayals of everyone from Hillary Clinton to Attorney General Jeff Sessions to pop star Justin Bieber. Newcomer Melissa Villasenor had her moment in an October skit revolving around Netflix’s Stranger Things, and Beck Bennett more than held his own playing Vladimir Putin.

Will SNL ride the Trump phenomenon to more record ratings in Season 43? It’s tough to tell. Baldwin has been noncommittal on future appearances, and McCarthy’s movie-star schedule no doubt has her availability somewhat limited. Plus, there’s something to be said for the law of diminishing returns. At some point, no matter how much Baldwin and McCarthy take command of their performances, and no matter how well-written the material they’re given, audiences will tire of the same old joke. It happened with Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, and Trump fatigue on SNL will no doubt set in soon enough.

But Lorne Michaels and SNL powers-that-be can worry about next season’s ratings when next season rolls around. In the meantime, they’ve done the improbable; they’ve taken a 40-plus-year-old, somewhat fatigued property, and made it matter again. It simply took a few part-timers to do so.

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