Saturday Night Live's most memorable moments—so far—in season 47

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Cecily Strong and Taylor Swift; Rami Malek, Pete Davidson, Simu Liu in Saturday Night Live
Cecily Strong and Taylor Swift; Rami Malek, Pete Davidson, Simu Liu in Saturday Night Live

Evaluating an entire season of Saturday Night Live is tough. With some 180 sketches (not to mention monologues, Weekends Update, musical performances, and the occasional unexpected pandemic bug-out) over roughly 20 episodes, a season of SNL can blur into a hazy wash of sound, fury, and questionably necessary recurring bits.

But with so much output, there are bound to be some memorable moments. As Saturday Night Live hits the midpoint of its latest season, The A.V. Club looks back at the sketches and performances that are destined to stand out—for better or worse—when future SNL viewers try to pin down the relative quality of this season 47.

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1. SNL inaugurates a new President

James Austin Johnson in Saturday Night Live
James Austin Johnson in Saturday Night Live

1. SNL inaugurates a new President (Episode 1, Owen Wilson/Kacey Musgraves)

Season 47 opened with a doubly refreshing changing of the guard, as newly hired featured player James Austin Johnson’s Joe Biden elbowed Alec Baldwin’s beyond-tired Donald Trump off of the cold open stage. And while SNL’s political satire continues to dish some weak sauce, Johnson’s Biden is at least as much of an upgrade as the actual Biden is over Trump. The noted impressionist’s take on the new POTUS is a masterpiece of subtle observation in comparison to the broad caricature we’ve been stuck with (in real life and as an SNL character). Johnson immediately established himself as this cast’s Darrell Hammond, a meticulous craftsman whose Joe Biden is equal parts cantankerous, folksy, and already exasperated at the parade of Republican loonies he’s suddenly tasked with corralling into some semblance of functional governance.

2. Pete Davidson and Rami Malek play the Squid Game

Rami Malek and Pete Davidson in SNL
Rami Malek and Pete Davidson in SNL

2. Pete Davidson and Rami Malek play the Squid Game (Episode 3, Rami Malek/Young Thug)

What starts out as a country music lament and concludes in an inscrutably dystopic bloodbath? Host Rami Malek and Pete Davidson find out as their pair of downtrodden and broke country crooners unwisely decide to try their luck in America’s favorite South Korean Netflix sensation, Squid Game. Donning the requisite green tracksuits and watchfully working their way through absurdist life-or-death challenges (do not break that cookie), Malek and Davidson’s contestants sing ruefully about the guards with Playstation symbol masks and that piggy bank in the sky filled with what may or may not be a lot of money. (“I’m confused by the currency,” admits Malek in song.) Hewing spoiler-ful closely to the darkly violent plot of the actual, record-breaking Netflix import, the sketch at least concludes with one final, New York sports team-centric twist of the knife.

3. “Ladies and gentlemen, international singing sensation... Angelo.”

Aristotle Athari in SNL
Aristotle Athari in SNL

3. “Ladies and gentlemen, international singing sensation... Angelo.” (Episode 3, Rami Malek/Young Thug)

With Season 47’s cast swollen to 21 members, here’s to new hire Aristotle Athari for making his mark as the white-maned, incomprehensibly magnetic Angelo. With audience members Cecily Strong (enraptured) and Rami Malek’s No Time To Die co-star Daniel Craig (confused, edging into hostile) supplying single words for him to spin into seductive gibberish, Athari’s Angelo is one of those destined-to-recur SNL characters that new cast members dream of landing. And land Angelo does, as he (joined by Malek’s equally unfathomable and watchful avant garde dance virtuoso, Todd) turns everyday English words like “bicycle” and “banana” into identical, whisper-voiced love ballads containing a word that sounds like “barfabalabas.” There’s a gentle weirdness to Angelo that, along with Athari’s clear gift for letting a joke land, suggests that, like Johnson, he’s here to stay.

4. Cecily Strong clowns the anti-abortion Supreme Court

Cecily Strong, Colin Jost, Michael Che in SNL
Cecily Strong, Colin Jost, Michael Che in SNL

4. Cecily Strong clowns the anti-abortion Supreme Court (Episode 5, Kieran Culkin/Ed Sheeran)

For all SNL’s cautiously crafted cold opens, the show’s most effective political material can frequently be found when a Weekend Update bit gets raw and personal. That’s where Cecily Strong came in, dressing in garish clothes and spinning bow tie as “Goober The Clown Who Had An Abortion When She Was 23.” With the conservative-packed Supreme Court having recently allowed to stand Texas’ draconian anti-abortion law (the one with the bounties), Strong penned a lacerating broadside, delivering the barely veiled story of her own abortion in the guise of a flower-squirting, no-worries clown. Joking that the only way to make the subject of “clown abortion” palatable is to couch it in baggy-pants antics, Strong’s Goober laid out some plain, deeply personal facts (like how one in three women have abortions), and asserting, voice squeaky yet defiant with helium, “I know I wouldn’t be a clown on TV here today if it weren’t for the abortion I had before my 23rd birthday.”

5. James Austin Johnson scores again as another president

James Austin Johnson in SNL
James Austin Johnson in SNL

5. James Austin Johnson scores again as another president (Episode 5, Kieran Culkin/Ed Sheeran)

James Austin Johnson was hired in part because of his viral Donald Trump, an improvisational spot-on vocal impersonation of the former president yoked to a stream-of-consciousness monologue consisting of whatever nonsense Austin imagined is continually rattling around in Trump’s head. With Trump out of the White House and SNL’s steadfast adherence to cue cards, however, there was some question about how and when Johnson’s Donald would appear on the show. Thankfully, Johnson and company struck upon a fitting framework, as Johnson’s Trump made his Season 47 debut in support of Cecily Strong’s ever-stellar Jeanine Pirro, popping into Fox News to ramble away on the topics of the day like some sort of weatherman for crazytown. Johnson’s Trump is as exact as advertised, and his Trump’s discursively narcissistic screed is more comically illuminating than four full years of Alec Baldwin making funny Trump faces.

6. The Please Don’t Destroy guys are “Three Sad Virgins”

Martin Herlihy, John Higgins, and Ben Marshall in SNL
Martin Herlihy, John Higgins, and Ben Marshall in SNL

6. The Please Don’t Destroy guys are “Three Sad Virgins” (Episode 6, Jonathan Majors/Taylor Swift)

As if SNL’s current cast weren’t bursting at the seams already, new writers Ben Marshall, John Higgins, and Martin Herlihy (who came to the show as the package comedy troupe Please Don’t Destroy) have successfully made their pitch as the new in-house video stars. The SNL tradition of letting a couple of writers screw around with a video camera has paid big dividends over recent years (The Lonely Island and Good Neighbor come to mind), and Please Don’t Destroy’s efforts have leapt right into the rotation (with a couple of dress rehearsal near-misses along the way). In this one, Marshall, Higgins, and Herlihy are thrilled when star Pete Davidson wants to work with them, only to gradually realize that the resulting music video, “Three Sad Virgins” (featuring a withering verse from musical guest Taylor Swift), sounds awfully like some spot-on hazing of the new kids.

7. Taylor Swift’s epic performance of “All Too Well” stops the show

Taylor Swift in SNL
Taylor Swift in SNL

7. Taylor Swift’s epic performance of “All Too Well” stops the show (Episode 6, Jonathan Majors/Taylor Swift)

Taylor Swift brought along her 10-minute short film and a whole lot of powerfully written musical heartbreak for her performance of the searingly autobiographical “All Too Well.” Starring actors Sadie Sink and Dylan O’Brien as stand-ins for the younger Swift and the charming but self-involved older actor who broke her heart but kept her glove, Swift’s multimedia showcase was the sort of Saturday Night Live musical highlight destined to go down in best-of lists forever. Giving over 10 full minutes of the show to a single performance is an honor SNL doesn’t just hand out, and singer-songwriter superstar Swift seized the opportunity, belting out a wrenchingly lovely paean to “should have known better,” the majestic sweep of young love and loss playing out onscreen as the film’s changing seasons finally weep along with the older and wiser Swift in the form of an onstage snowfall.

8. Simu Liu and Bowen Yang play representational one-upmanship

Bowen Yang and Simu Liu in SNL
Bowen Yang and Simu Liu in SNL

8. Simu Liu and Bowen Yang play representational one-upmanship (Episode 7, Simu Liu/Saweetie)

Saturday Night Live’s long and snowy-white history with cast representation gets taken out for a hilariously chilly walk when host and Shang-Chi star Simu Liu and cast member Bowen Yang face off in Yang’s dressing room. Their initial embarrassment at having to even address their positions as Asian performers on Saturday Night Live quickly turns personal, though, as Yang and Liu attempt to out-nonchalant each other concerning their various other “first Asian” accolades. “I just think it’s weird that people keep track of this stuff,” Yang shrugs, as he drops the fact that the state of Michigan just gave him the “Good Job (Asian)” award, and Liu brushes off his title, “Mr. Asian Panera.” As the two continually poke fun at both self-congratulatory corporate tokenism and themselves (for really wanting to win awards like “First Asian Man to Deadpan on Splash Mountain”), Yang and Liu playfully make the case that, for actors, there’s no such thing as a meaningless honor.

9. Kate McKinnon (finally) returns to give us a very funny “Lonely Christmas”

Kate McKinnon in SNL
Kate McKinnon in SNL

9. Kate McKinnon (finally) returns to give us a very funny “Lonely Christmas” (Episode 8, Billie Eilish)

After missing the first seven episodes of Season 47 while filming the Tiger King series and allowing some other cast members a chance, Kate McKinnon returned to Studio 8H in time for the Billie Eilish episode. In the standout holiday sketch, “Lonely Christmas,” McKinnon reminded us what we’d been missing. As the seemingly kindly old widow across from teenager Eilish’s apartment, McKinnon wordlessly responded with feel-good TV commercial gratitude to Eilish’s handwritten signs inviting her to Christmas dinner. So far, so heartwarming, at least until McKinnon’s grandmotherly neighbor reveals far too much about her variously bigoted, inappropriate, and possibly murderous life for Eilish’s comfort. (“Can you check?,” McKinnon’s innocent-looking neighbor writes in response to the aghast Eilish not knowing whether there will be any Jews at dinner.)

10. Paul Rudd’s Five Timers Club ceremony is eerily empty

Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Tom Hanks, Kenan Thompson in SNL
Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Tom Hanks, Kenan Thompson in SNL

10. Paul Rudd’s Five Timers Club ceremony is eerily empty (Episode 9, Paul Rudd)

Saturday Night Live has coped with the perilous vagaries of putting on a live, 90-minute comedy show in one of the world’s pandemic hotspots about as well as anyone could have expected. Still, no doubt everyone at SNL was hoping for one big, restoratively funny blowout to end 2021. After all, slam-dunk host Paul Rudd was joining the Five Timers Club, and SNL hosting legend Tom Hanks was even jetting in for the occasion. And then came Omicron, leaving Lorne Michaels in the position of either cancelling the last show of the year at the last second, or putting on a hastily cobbled-together clip show with a skeleton crew. A cast consisting of Rudd, Hanks, fellow Five Timer Tina Fey, Michael Che, and Kenan Thompson delivered sheepish jokes to an empty studio. “Thanks for coming!,” Rudd greeted Fey and Hanks at home base, continuing with an expertly deadpan, “I’m extremely disappointed.” So were we, although the sight of Hanks, Kenan, and Rudd serving as the lone audience for Fey and Che’s stripped-down Weekend Update is a sight SNL viewers won’t forget.