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The Best And Worst Moments Of SNL's 45th Season

The 2019-2020 season became one of the most eventful in Saturday Night Live's 40-plus years as an NBC institution. Bowen Yang and Chloe Fineman joined the cast as featured players, while a multitude of former SNL stars dropped by to cameo as some of the many figures of the 2020 presidential election. RuPaul hosted for the first time, Scarlett Johansson for a fifth time, Harry Styles and Chance the Rapper did double duty as host and musical guest, and the final three episodes of the season were produced in the homes of the cast members, due to nationwide coronavirus-related shutdowns.

Churning out a 90-minute show week after week is grueling, which is to say that SNL is always going to be a mixed bag. Sometimes the writers create comedy gold that ranks with all-time classics like "More Cowbell" and "Haunted Elevator." Other times ... well, it's 11:30 p.m. on Saturday, and what ends up on stage ends up on stage. Here are the very best and the very worst moments of SNL from 2019-2020.

Best: "Grouch"

The David Harbour-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live addressed the cultural fad of dark and gritty reboots in general, and the then-new Joker movie in particular. Parodying that film's grim approach to portraying the famous Batman villain, SNL created a fake trailer for an unsettling re-imagining of the sunniest pop culture entity there is: Sesame Street

In the shadowy, Muppet-free world of "Grouch," Harbour plays a garbage collector named Oscar whose career sends him careening into madness. He's seen too much of the filth and depravity of New York, including a homeless Cookie Monster, Elmo selling crack, the Count addicted to opioids, and Ernie getting mugged for his rubber ducky. Like Joaquin Phoenix's Joker, Harbour's Oscar also covers his face in makeup, unsettles those around him with inappropriate mannerisms, and dances down public steps while a hilariously bleak minor-key version of the Sesame Street theme song plays. It's a pitch-perfect send-up of a cultural phenomenon in classic SNL style.

Worst: "Mid-Day News"

Making fun of racial stereotyping and the people who engage in such behavior is a perennial topic of good satire. But simply stating well-known generalized characteristics of different groups of people isn't funny, because there's no joke — it's just stating some very real, very ugly opinions held by actual people. That's the meat of "Mid-Day News," a sketch from the 2020 SNL episode hosted by Fleabag mastermind Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Framed as a noon broadcast from a Florida station, a panel of four newsreaders, two of whom are white (Waller-Bridge, Alex Moffatt) and two of whom are black (Kenan Thompson, Ego Nwodim), report on the crimes of the day. Thompson and Nwodim's characters cheer and interrupt when Waller-Bridge's anchor reveals that an armed gas station-robber turns out to be white. The white anchors react similarly when a white-collar criminal is shown to be black. It's a lazy, obvious joke from a team everyone knows is capable of more. The rest of the cringe-y sketch continues to feature these news anchors throwing their journalistic objectivity out the window while celebrating crimes that make the race that isn't their own look bad.

Best: "Rolf and Liesl"

John Mulaney isn't exactly known for his timely humor — he's more of an observational and detail-oriented comic, a sensibility present in the sketches he wrote for SNL in the late 2000s and in the ones he hosts today. He also apparently really loves musicals, as his episodes always include a big, silly musical number or two. In 2020, he took this tendency to new heights as Austrian telegram boy Rolf opposite Cecily Strong as Liesl in a send-up of The Sound of Music. The burgeoning couple's romantic duet, "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," gets the analysis it deserves, pointing out to audiences that this relationship's iconic theme song is absurdly creepy.

While Liesl sings she's "16 going on 17," baby-faced Rolf reveals he lied about his age, and he's actually 33, but really 38 (going on 39), or maybe 41, but actually 46. This gives Liesl second thoughts, as does the fact that she's heard rumors that "he's maybe a Nazi, maybe." He doesn't so much deny it as mention that he's moved out of his mother's house to live with eight roommates, one of whom is Joseph Goebbels. This sketch takes another perfectly dark turn when Maria von Trapp and the Captain show up, and the audience realizes their relationship is also super-weird and age inappropriate.

Worst: "Love at First Sight"

SNL is a live comedy show, and when it comes to live TV, something can always go wrong. In October 2019, Chance the Rapper appeared in two effects-laden sketches that demonstrate both sides of this risk. The Halloween-themed, graveyard-set "Spooky Song" involves smoke machines, puppets, dancing gravestones, and elaborate projections, all of which work perfectly. "Love at First Sight," however ... not so much.

Cecily Strong plays a lovelorn woman getting over a breakup in a fancy bar with friends (Ego Nwodim and Heidi Gardner), who then meets a dapper gentleman (Chance). They dance and chat and then, in expressing those feelings of falling in love, they float into the air, literally high on life, romance, and each other. This process takes more time than the show planned for, forcing Nwodim and Gardner to vamp and improvise while Strong and Chance are wired. From then on, the lovers don't fly, but merely hover, which is the scripted joke of the bit ... except the wires don't allow them to float all that much. Strong and Chance occasionally pause awkwardly, break character, and laugh at the futility of the situation, which does make it kind of fun. Still, the failed mechanics of the sketch are undeniable.

Best: The return of Eddie Murphy

It's always an event when an SNL star who made it big returns to host the show that made them famous. But when Eddie Murphy comes back, it's downright monumental. Arguably the most popular performer in the show's history, he left to pursue a very successful film career in 1984 ... and didn't return to host SNL until 2019. Murphy, back on stage doing live comedy for the first time in decades, is exhilarating to watch.

Murphy runs through almost all of his most famous characters from the early '80s, but tweaked to reflect the modern day. He appears as Mr. Robinson in "Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood," a dark, inner-city satire of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. But in modern Brooklyn, Mr. Robinson can't make sense of gentrification. A parody of The Masked Singer, with its penchant for reviving dormant celebrity careers, provides a great way to bring back Murphy's Buckwheat character, and the "Weekend Update" desk proves a nice place for his ranting Gumby to hold court. Murphy isn't afraid to try something new and get weird either, as in the "Holiday Baking Championship" sketch wherein the cakes are grotesque, self-aware, self-hating monstrosities.

Worst: "Funeral DJs"

Generally speaking, large groups of family and friends gather together to celebrate life's positive milestones. About the only time people get together in large groups for an unhappy event, in fact, is a funeral. Unlike other events of similar scale, funerals aren't where one wants thumping EDM jams. To cross these wires, as the SNL sketch "Funeral DJs" does, isn't offensive, it's just kind of obvious and trite. Host Harry Styles and cast member Chris Redd play a pair of DJs who both look and sound like LMFAO, who were purportedly "close personal friends" of the deceased, 89-year-old Betty Meyers.

Guess what? The assembled mourners do not care for these obnoxious funeral DJs with their club mixes and entreaties to "get your sad a** up right now." Occasionally, the music cuts to something sad, culminating in Styles belting out R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" before segueing into C+C Music Factory's "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)," ripping off his pants in what's obviously an effort to please the teen idol's many admirers. They might be happy, but no one else is.

Best: "Marrying Ketchups"

Anyone who has ever worked in food service — or overheard food service employees near the end of a shift talking about work that needs to be done — has heard the phrase "marrying ketchups." That's the act of combining two half-empty ketchup bottles to create one aesthetically pleasing full one. This sketch from late in the episode (where the weirder bits tend to land) hosted by Adam Driver takes the idea literally — and hilariously.

After a diner manager (Aidy Bryant) asks a server (Heidi Gardner) to marry the ketchups, the action cuts to Driver and Cecily Strong in full-body ketchup costumes topped with wedding finery. Such silliness pairs nicely with the melodramatic, soap opera-esque turn the sketch takes, when, just before the wedding, Wanda (Strong) tries to call it off, telling Windermere (Driver) that she doesn't love him. He pleads with her to go through with the marriage, and that it doesn't matter that she's merely a quarter full to his three-quarters. Then, Wanda drops a bomb: She isn't ketchup ... she's catsup. Much condiment-themed near-profanity follows in the fallout of this revelation.

Worst: "On the Couch"

The Weeknd appeared as the musical guest on the Daniel Craig-hosted episode of SNL in 2020, and he takes on a prominent role in "On the Couch," a pre-taped music video with a melody as catchy and smooth as a real Weeknd song. The bit itself, however, is more than a bit hackneyed. In succession, three guys played by Kenan Thompson, Chris Redd, and The Weeknd describe how their wives and girlfriends are mad at them for reasons taken from old jokes and tired sitcoms: They partied with their friends and worked too late, so now they're sleeping on the couch. Couches are uncomfortable and women are mean, rejecting the guys' peace offerings of flowers and Prada bags.

But because very little screen time has passed, there has to be a twist or a turn here. There is, and it's extremely predictable: The women aren't mad at their guys for coming home late, but because they variously cheated, committed financial fraud, or, in the case of The Weeknd, won't accept the fact that they broke up five years earlier. It all wraps up with the famous musician sleeping in his car. Ho-hum.

Best: "Duolingo for Talking to Children"

Kristen Stewart has hosted SNL a few times at this point, so the show's writers know how to play to her strengths. She's particularly well placed in this pre-taped commercial parody as an awkward adult who finds children inscrutable, and can't talk to them without getting incredibly awkward. Fortunately for her, popular language-learning app Duolingo has a new course for people like her: "Duolingo for Talking to Children."

After embarrassing herself and others after she asks the son of a co-worker if he "wears his clothes to school," she studies hard and is a "brat whisperer" in no time, able to talk to all of her friends' children by using phrases like "very cool, bud," "I like your backpack," and "chicken fingers." Ultimately, the butt of the joke here isn't Stewart's weird adult (who is completely flummoxed by a little girl in a princess dress) but children themselves, whom the narrator points out are "bad conversationalists" who tell long and boring stories.

Worst: "Hungry Jury"

The scene is a courthouse's jury room, where most of the SNL cast has assembled to play a hopelessly deadlocked jury who can't decide whether to acquit or convict a defendant of a crime affected by racial bias. That makes for some unsettling material for a comedy sketch, but "Hungry Jury" doesn't really plumb those depths — it's just a setup for three minutes of stomach-growling sound effects, because these jurors have grown hungry from their long hours of service.

First, host Kristen Stewart's stomach growls excessively loudly because she "needs a meal," then Aidy Bryant's does, followed by Cecily Strong's. The studio audience doesn't really care for the sketch, tittering lightly at some of the rumbly sounds and joke punchlines, and reacting with total silence at others. This awkward mixture of social commentary and bodily functions finally culminates in the sketch's big joke: The collective growls combine to play the hook of the '90s hit "Pony" by Ginuwine." Chris Redd starts singing it, and then the whole group joins in, mercifully concluding the sketch.

Best: "Grocery Store Ad"

Any given episode of SNL covers a whole lot of comedy ground. There are plot-based sketches, recurring character sketches, and list sketches, where writers let loose a torrent of jokes falling within a certain theme. The show used to semi-regularly feature fake ads of the latter sketch category, for Gathering of the Juggalos-type events that consist mainly of ridiculous band names. It's a killer sort of sketch when handled by the right team, and "Grocery Store Ad" quickly became a perfect example of why.

Part of one of SNL's episodes compiled from material shot by cast members sheltering in place at home, "Grocery Store Ad" is, you guessed it, an ad for a grocery store. It makes fun of a current event — stay-at-home orders leading to widespread food hoarding, and thus food shortages — while also allowing Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon to rattle off the names of increasingly absurd foodstuffs fully in stock down at the fictional Bartenson's. The list begins with frozen Hawaiian pizza, margarine, and cauliflower pasta, before ramping up to things like mint-flavored Pringles, fluoridated bananas, Boy Scout cookies, crab-flavored Pepsi, and "tomu," which is "tofu made from beef and cheese."

Worst: "Dreams"

The third and final "at home" SNL episode — the last of the 45th season — concludes with "Dreams," a surreal short film that attempts to be both melancholic and goofy. As "Clair de Lune" plays, viewers head into the minds of SNL cast members as they dream about what they're missing from pre-shutdown New York. Footage of cast members and backgrounds clearly taken from the show's pre-taped bits and the opening credits are edited together to create images that aren't dream-like so much as they are distorted and unsettling. The music gives one vibe, the images another, and the content of the sketch adds even more confusing input into the mix.

There's Melissa Villaseñor dreaming of eating in a restaurant again, and Kyle Mooney hanging out in Times Square ... but then Aidy Bryant steals a dog from a dog park, Pete Davidson watches a baseball game with Babe Ruth, and Kenan Thompson is inserted into Tootsie. It ends with the cast waving goodbye and disappearing, a sad and haunting sight, only to cut to Cecily Strong waking up next to the slice of pizza she was eating in her dream, which she advises her dog not to eat because it's "dream pizza." While it's commendable and probably even necessary that SNL address the national mood of sadness, loneliness, fear, and longing as millions self-quarantine at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the tonal shift from SNL's usual silliness and satire was just too jarring.