No presidential election? No problem for “Saturday Night Live.”
Typically the media hoopla and high viewer interest from a national election year is a boon for NBC’s sketch comedy institution, boosting ratings and sometimes even creativity (just look at Tina Fey’s legendary Sarah Palin sketches). If it’s an election year, it’s usually a good year for “SNL.”
But Season 47 of the comedy institution, which has had an excellent first six episodes, proves that a presidential election might hurt the show creatively more than it helps. Unburdened by the demands of commenting on every political gaffe and presidential debate, and eschewing high-profile celebrity cameos as public figures (sorry, Jim Carrey), “SNL” this season so far has been unexpectedly hilarious, delightful and thrilling. Its cast, though still large and unwieldy (with 15 regulars and six featured players), has rarely been so well deployed.
Sketches are topical, funny and downright weird, harking back to the roots of the nearly half-a-century-old series. Most of all, the new season feels as if everyone involved is finally having fun again. Which makes it so much easier for a viewer to have fun, too.
The best sketches are the oddball bits that are sometimes divorced entirely from current events.
The “Science Room” sketch with Jason Sudeikis, a recurring bit from Cecily Strong and Mikey Day in which their annoying child characters ruin a PBS-style science show, relied on the strength of the performances from the actors. Three surprisingly and delightfully unhinged taped sketches from comedy group “Please Don’t Destroy” featured a trio of the show’s writers parodying the hard-seltzer boom, making the worst phone calls to an ex-girlfriend ever and, last weekend, getting roasted by Pete Davidson and Taylor Swift. Kim Kardashian West even hosted a successful episode, especially with a sketch in which she, Cecily Strong and Punkie Johnson played moms on a ladies night they could barely stay awake to enjoy.
A focus on the strength of the regular cast, rather than A-list celebrities, is a refreshing reminder of just how talented these comedians are. Like last year, some cast members are being given time off to work on other projects – which is why Kate McKinnon has been absent so far this season – but even without its biggest star, “SNL” is thriving on the strength of a fine-tuned ensemble.
New featured player James Austin Johnson is a clear standout, taking on Joe Biden and Donald Trump impressions (but not in the same episode) that are better than the ringers (Carrey and Alec Baldwin) whom producer Lorne Michaels has brought in for the past few years. Chloe Fineman and Bowen Yang continue to steal the spotlight in every one of their sketches and Fineman’s celebrity impressions, from Jennifer Coolidge to Miley Cyrus, are startlingly accurate.
The “cold open” segments are still primarily the home of political content, but they are often overshadowed by the great sketches that follow. The Oct. 2 season premiere, which featured a great hosting turn from Owen Wilson, opened with prominent Democrats fighting. It was fine, but a much funnier topical sketch later in the episode was set at a contentious school board meeting. The theme was as universally recognizable to audiences as a Biden and Democrats sketch, but instead of relying on impressions and repeated headlines, the writers and performers let themselves simply get wacky, playing on broad tropes, existing “SNL” characters and the strength of Ego Nwodim’s strong and frequent delivery of her line, “Nope!” in response to the crazy characters.
But “SNL” hasn’t lost all of its sharpness when it comes to politics. The writers and cast members are finding humor beyond sketches set in the Oval Office. Strong had the highlight of the season in the Nov. 6 episode hosted by “Succession” star Kieran Culkin. Appearing on Weekend Update as Goober the clown, she offered a darkly funny and immensely powerful commentary on anti-abortion laws facing legal challenges by talking frankly about her own abortion, while spinning her bowtie and spraying Colin Jost with water from a fake boutonniere. It was bold, brave, funny and a reminder of how revelatory and impactful “SNL” can be.
Politics will always be a part of “SNL.” In many ways it feels as though James Austin Johnson was hired to finally get a reliable Biden impersonator in the cast. But it is heartening to see that the sketch series can be so creatively successful even when there are fewer stranger-than-fiction occurrences every day in Washington.
Sometimes it’s nice to just sit back, turn off your brain and laugh.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ‘SNL’ Season 47 review: Funnier and lighter without an election