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‘SNL’ Just Fired the President

Making sense of the shake-up at 30 Rock

Taran Killam, Jay Pharoah, and Jon Rudnitsky (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
Taran Killam, Jay Pharoah, and Jon Rudnitsky (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Nothing shakes up August’s cultural doldrums like some Saturday Night Live casting news, and like a capricious, Canadian guardian angel, Lorne Michaels really came through for us this year. Last night, TV Line broke the news that veteran cast members Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah are leaving the show; minutes after that, Uproxx broke the news that Killam’s exit wasn’t voluntary (and, by implication, that Pharoah’s probably wasn’t either). Minutes after that, NBC announced that rookie Jon Rudnitsky was on his way out the door as well.

By its very nature, SNL is pretty much always in a “transitional” phase, with defined eras, let alone golden ages, christened only with 20/20 hindsight. (In his appearance on Marc Maron’s podcast, Michaels made the uncomfortable but objectively correct observation that everyone’s favorite cast just so happens to be the one that was on when they were in high school.) Still, SNL’s current stretch feels especially amorphous, with a massive roster, relatively few superstars, and now, unexpected shakeups.

After 41 seasons, Michaels seems to be consulting the comedy-show road map even less than usual. Here’s our attempt to make sense of the latest drama at 30 Rock.

‘SNL’ Is Taking a Very Unconventional Approach to Overcrowding

There’s a reason why Killam and Pharoah have claimed the bulk of the headlines: one-season wonders have a long and proud history at SNL, and they’ve gone on to do everything from “be Iron Man” to “date Captain America.” But six-season utility players denied the chance to go out on their own terms? There’s much less of a precedent there.

Season 41 left little doubt that Michaels would have to do some belated spring cleaning; including “Weekend Update” anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che, the SNL cast had swelled to a positively ungainly 16, up from an already full-feeling 14 just a few years earlier. There were two relatively established routes the show could take: either let the old-timers make their graceful exit, or cut the fresh meat with a de facto last-in, first-out policy. SNL has put both strategies to use in recent years; see “Great Generic White Guy and One White Girl Bloodbath of 2014, The” and the Armisen-Hader-Sudeikis and Wiig-Samberg exoduses in the two years before that.

Applying this logic to the Season 41 cast offered all kinds of standard-playbook options. Sasheer Zamata has struggled to leave an impression, especially relative to the PR firestorm that led to her hiring in the first place. Both Bobby Moynihan and Kenan Thompson have had tenures long and distinguished enough to duck out with dignity and then some. And much as I adore him, Kyle Mooney’s YouTube-core cult appeal hasn’t fully translated to the mainstream. Instead, Michaels is performing the TV equivalent of open-heart surgery, going straight for the core and taking out two major utility players who’ve hardly struggled for airtime in their half-decade-plus on the show.

Lorne Michaels Doesn’t Mind Outsourcing the Election

That utility, in Pharoah’s case, is his remarkable talent for impressions — he cycled through half a dozen of them at a time in a few recent “Update” appearances. But his most famous character, if not necessarily his best, was President Obama, having taken over the role from the almost laughably unsuited Fred Armisen. Now, pending new hires, there’s no obvious candidate to take his place.

That hasn’t stopped Michaels in casting this election cycle, though. In retrospect, the earliest sign of trouble for Killam was Michaels’s decision to reassign the role of Donald Trump to alumnus turned announcer Darrell Hammond, even after publicly giving Killam the part two full weeks before the season premiere. And Bernie Sanders, of course, went to former writer and famous curmudgeon Larry David. Individually, both decisions make sense; Hammond is a more gifted impressionist than Killam, and David enabled an ingenious moment of fate-as-cultural-crossover. Collectively, though, they point to a near future when three of the four most prominent politicians in America may be played by non-cast members. (Kate McKinnon’s Hillary is untouchable.)

Even in an election year, political comedy hasn’t been SNL’s priority. For reasons that had less to do with Pharoah and more to do with Obama’s persona, the writers have long struggled to make fun of the president. And then Michaels chose a fellow New York plutocrat over the moral high ground and sold his soul, and SNL’s, too, for a week. “Weekend Update” hit its stride at the end of the season, but it’s the exception that proves the rule.

In short: Killam and Pharoah might have been expendable because Michaels sees their most relevant material as expendable.

‘SNL’ Needs Stars, Not Building Blocks

Concentrating on Trump and Obama ignores Killam and Pharoah’s core function in the SNL ensembles. Both performers fill a role that is essential on an ensemble show: the everyman, willing and able to play any part in any scene. You may not know any Killam characters not named Jebidiah, but you sure as hell recognize him, because he shows up everywhere.

But the cast members Michaels has invested in of late aren’t the workhorses. They’re loud, weird, and voice-y — and many of them haven’t had the space to turn that voice into a reliable persona. Think Leslie Jones, whose New Yorker profile had Michaels’s stamp of approval all over it. Think Pete Davidson, whose “Update” title of “Resident Young Person” is only half a joke. Think Kyle Mooney, whose unabashedly weird videos keep making it to air, tepid audience response be damned.

If Michaels’s long game is to develop those cast members into the kind of A-listers who continue to give his show credibility, it makes sense to ditch the jacks-of-all-trades, especially since there simply wasn’t much new blood to let — SNL had just four featured players last season, including Jones, Davidson, and Che. It’s a risky strategy, one that goes against more than four decades of accumulated wisdom. But a legacy buys room to experiment, and it doesn’t look like Michaels will stop tinkering any time soon.