Editor’s note, September 12: Monday morning, Saturday Night Live announced that Mikey Day, Melissa Villaseñor, and Alex Moffatt will join the cast this season. The show did not hire Chris Redd.
For a show that’s going on four years of being “in transition,” Saturday Night Live seems hell-bent on staying stable. Exactly a month ago, news broke that Lorne Michaels had brought an end to the 8H tenures of Jay Pharoah, the show’s in-house Obama impressionist, and Taran Killam, the cast’s jack-of-all-trades. (Jon Rudnitsky, a rookie who got neither the space nor the time he needed to carve out a niche for himself within the ensemble, also packed his bags.)
To replace them, he might be bringing on … the show’s next Obama impressionist and Taran Killam’s writing partner.
As of this afternoon, 30 Rock’s two newest faces are reportedly Chris Redd and Mikey Day, per The Comic’s Comic. Redd, a stand-up and sketch comedian, is best known as the Tyler the Creator–esque upstart in The Lonely Island’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping; Day has been a writer on the show since 2013 — and cowrote the screenplay for Killam’s feature Brother Nature, which just so happens to drop Friday. There’s that famous Lorne Michaels sensitivity!
Both Redd and Day are following well-trodden paths to SNL stardom. Mikey Day’s writer-to-performer path has mixed results: For every Tina Fey, who infamously lost “about 35 pounds” before Michaels would allow her in front of the camera, but managed to make a shrewdly feminist mini-empire out of that (Liz) lemon, there’s a Mike O’Brien, who retreated back to the writers’ room after one undistinguished season. But it’s an established trajectory, and as a cast member on this summer’s Maya & Marty, Day isn’t entirely new to TV. Redd, meanwhile, fits into SNL’s proud tradition of cultivating relative unknowns; when your biggest role to date was in a (great!) movie that no one (shamefully!) saw, you’re still under the radar enough to qualify for the Michaels talent farm. He also earned a “Best New Face” distinction at Montreal’s Just for Laughs last year on the strength of his stand-up. And in an added bonus, sketch and improv training at Second City and iO in Chicago indicates he’d have less trouble adapting to than other stand-ups–turned-cast-members, who’ve traditionally done best at stand-up–adjacent Weekend Update.
More interesting than Redd and Day’s origins, however, are the roles they’d be filling. Michaels’ motivations here feel unusually transparent. Rather than shifting the vibe or even the demographic makeup of the ensemble, he’d simply be filling the gaps Pharoah and Killam left behind. It’s particularly uncomfortable in Day’s case: While the authors of individual sketches are usually hard to determine, Sean McCarthy of The Comic’s Comic reports that Day and Killam frequently collaborated. After six years, Killam was fired before he was even given the chance, as most half-decade veterans are, to quit … only for Michaels to prove that his contributions weren’t entirely inessential to the current show. Harsh.
Redd, on the other hand, is potentially being brought on to a different yet equally obvious end. To put it as bluntly as Michaels was clearly thinking: Without Pharoah, SNL had no black male cast members who could take over the role of President Obama as we head into the election’s home stretch. (Update’s Michael Che occasionally makes sketch cameos, but he doesn’t do impressions; Kenan Thompson played … Obama’s sign-language interpreter.) This isn’t 2007 — you can’t just have Fred Armisen do it without Twitter becoming a sentient being and tearing apart Rockefeller Plaza brick by brick. And this is an election year — you can’t just coast along for a few months and hope nothing happens to make an Obama appearance absolutely essential.
This fits in with SNL’s distinctly uncomfortable recent history. Back when Thompson placed his foot firmly within his lower digestive system and claimed most black women who auditioned weren’t “ready” for the show, SNL responded to a structural criticism of its hiring practices with a stopgap measure, and a shockingly clumsy one at that: having a slew of black female comics compete exclusively against each other for a single spot on the cast. The resulting hire was Sasheer Zamata, who faced an insane and unfair burden on top of the bar set for new cast members. After that, the show added LaKendra Tookes, who lasted just 11 episodes as a writer, and Leslie Jones, a bona fide superstar who emerged organically from the writers’ room.
There’s a lesson here, though it’s clearly not the one the show took away. SNL breakouts work best when performers are put in a position to succeed — in Jones’s case, excelling in a few cameos and Update appearances — rather than being basically commanded to. Which requires a much more holistic and wider-reaching rethinking of whom the show brings on and how, one that ensures it’s no longer forced to scramble for a part as important as the president of the United States again. In a perfect world, the right actors would already be waiting in the wings.
Both Day and Redd are talented performers with every chance of succeeding in the cast. (I can personally vouch for Redd, who I once saw kill a stand-up set in front of a crowd of 15 people in folding chairs.) Still, the optics of their hiring are undeniably rough. The world around SNL is changing. SNL itself is, famously, built to change with the times. But on the eve of Season 42, SNL is stubbornly, blatantly staying put.