Saturday Night Live season preview: Change is coming

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 22: (EDITORS NOTE: This image is a retransmission) Lorne Michaels and cast and crew of 'Saturday Night Live' accept the Outstanding Variety Sketch Series award for 'Saturday Night Live' onstage during the 71st Emmy Awards on September 22, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 22: (EDITORS NOTE: This image is a retransmission) Lorne Michaels and cast and crew of 'Saturday Night Live' accept the Outstanding Variety Sketch Series award for 'Saturday Night Live' onstage during the 71st Emmy Awards on September 22, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) /

Saturday Night Live is ready to kick off its 45th season in what could be a turning point in the show’s history.

The long wait is over: Saturday Night Live is back this week. A brand new episode hosted by Woody Harrelson and featuring musical guest Billie Eilish will start season 45. It will be a milestone season for Saturday Night Live in more ways than one.

Saturday Night Live fans have been keeping busy all summer. Besides the normal predictions of who would host the premiere and what cast changes were coming, fans were also treated to vintage clips. The show’s official YouTube channel looked back at the 45 year history of SNL, sharing some previously unreleased sketches featuring legends like Bill Murray, Chris Farley, and Kristen Wiig.

Released in chronological order, the vintage sketches were a nice way to see how the show has changed in production, tone, and style. The show has always tried to reflect the culture and taste of the era, satirizing those in the news while creating original characters and new stars that make their own headlines.

Season 44 had its ups and downs. To the surprise of no one, politics played a major role in the show from week to week as cold opens and “Weekend Update” segments mocked the Trump era. Reaction was mostly mixed, some skewering more negative during the especially heavy-handed moments. But the late night landscape has proved that “Trump fatigue” doesn’t exist. And if Saturday Night Live is meant to reflect the culture, then political humor will continue to play a role moving forward.

But that doesn’t mean fans should expect season 45 to be a carbon copy of season 44. Changes have already come to Studio 8H and more are expected as 2019 turns to 2020. Here’s what has happened and what will happen this year on Saturday Night Live.

Goodbye, Leslie

There is one cast member who walked away from Saturday Night Live after last season. Leslie Jones announced during the summer that she would not be returning to the show that made her a star.

Jones’ Instagram post announcing her departure made it clear that she had a lot of strong, deep relationships with her fellow cast members along with the staff and crew at Saturday Night Live. It’s safe to assume that her absence will have a big impact on life behind the scenes at the show.

The impact on stage may be easier to manage. Jones doesn’t take with her any wildly popular characters unless you count playing herself at the “Weekend Update” desk. While she improved year after year, sketch comedy was never the best way to use Jones’ talents.

Jones brought an original voice and sense of humor to the show. But the show must go on and after 45 years of cast members coming and going, Saturday Night Live should be just fine.

Hello, Shane…Goodbye, Shane

Saturday Night Live made headlines before the season even started. The announcement of new cast members is typically an exciting time for fans of the show. However, things quickly went south when the internet went digging into the past of newly hired comedian Shane Gillis.

Gillis became the latest victim of “cancel culture” when podcast episodes surfaced featuring Gillis using racist remarks. After an outrage driven by social media and a semi-apology from Gillis, the decision was ultimately made not to have Gillis join the cast for season 45.

Gillis’ firing got a reaction out of everyone from presidential candidate Andrew Yang to SNL legend Bill Hader. Regardless of how you feel, the show avoided a cloud hanging over the premiere. Perhaps Gillis could have proven himself if given the chance but the pressure was too high and his tenure was over before it began. Still, expect at least one reference to the controversy in the opening episode.

The Shane Gillis story will change how Saturday Night Live hires new talent moving forward. Gone are the days of plucking performers from improve groups and comedy clubs. More and more comedians will come the show with a portfolio of podcasts, Twitter accounts, and YouTube channels. SNL will have to go through all of it as long as the public is willing to the same and judge a cast member before he or she is on stage.

Chloe Fineman and Bowen Yang

There are two new featured players that will make their Saturday Night Live debut this season. The show moved Bowen Yang from the writers room to the cast and also hired improv performer Chloe Fineman.

Fineman looks to be a talented impersonator and clips online show she can create her own characters. That is something the show should look to do more of this season. A new fan-favorite recurring character could be a change of pace the show needs.

Yang has the advantage of spending a year as a writer. He knows how the show works and what it takes to get a sketch on the air. For those reasons, and his own talents, Yang is poised to be a breakout star right off the bat.

The addition of Fineman and Yang also changed the featured players linep. Chris Redd and Heidi Gardner have been promoted to full cast members.

Is Alec Baldwin done with President Trump?

Alec Baldwin has become something of an honorary cast member for his portrayal of President Donald Trump. It was a hit when it debuted and even earned Baldwin an Emmy.

However, Baldwin’s Trump has been overused and become predictable. Fans can’t fault Saturday Night Live too much as Trump has given the comedy world more material than any other president.

Even Baldwin himself seems tired of it. He has called the performance painful and told SNL alum Kevin Nealon that he “hates” playing Trump. Baldwin admitted the satire has lost his bite and does little to affect Trump or his public perception.

Baldwin didn’t say “no” to returning to SNL. With the impeachment news dropping as well as the 2020 election on the horizon, SNL will have plenty of reason to feature Trump in sketches. Baldwin has become synonymous with Trump impressions so it would be hard to change to a new cast member or to turn back to Darrell Hammond.

Limiting Baldwin’s appearances could help. There are no shortage of characters worth mocking in Trump’s White House. Regardless, it is possible that Trump’s days in the White House are numbered one way or another so the situation may take care of itself.

A blue wave hits SNL

Helping change things up from focusing on Trump will be the Democratic field of presidential candidates. Saturday Night Live has always stepped up its game during elections and covering 2020 should be no different.

Expect the show to change things up by going after the other side in satirizing the Democrats. While the number of candidates has dropped from as much as 20, those that remain are ripe for the SNL treatment.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has done himself any favors with a series of gaffs. Biden on top of the polls could mean a very busy schedule for former cast member Jason Sudeikis, SNL’s go-to Biden impersonator.

Bernie Sanders remains as popular as ever. That means that Larry David’s popular impression of Sanders could be on display once again. Kate McKinnon has been playing Elizabeth Sanders for years now and will do so even more now that the Massachusetts senator is challenging Biden for the lead.

Other candidates like Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg, and Andrew Yang open the door for more cast members to shine. It will be a nice change to see someone other than McKinnon or a celebrity cameo get a chance to play one of these candidates.

Last call?

Speaking of Kate McKinnon, the Emmy Award winner is potentially one of several names that could be on their final season on Saturday Night Live. McKinnon is entering her eighth year on the show.

Standard contracts for SNL performers are for seven years. When news broke that Leslie Jones was leaving, it was also reported that McKinnon has agreed to come back for season 45. McKinnon has earned the right to go year to year at this point and can stay as long as she wants.

McKinnon’s rise to MVP status coincided with the departure of Kristen Wiig. McKinnon joined the show during Wiig’s final season and has clearly taken over several roles and characters that would have been Wiig’s. It’s possible McKinnon follows Wiig’s footsteps again and calls an end to her SNL career after a similar run.

Cecily Strong is another name to watch. Season 44 was her seventh on the show. Over the summer, she demonstrated some uncertainty about her SNL future but ultimately indicated that she would be back for season 45.

Strong is coming off perhaps her best year on the show and was absolutely snubbed by the Emmys. Losing McKinnon or Strong or both would be tough to overcome for SNL and mark a major change in the show. However, Heidi Gardner are Melissa Villasenor are two potential candidates to fill that void when the time comes.

Other names to watch as potentially leaving after the show: Aidy Bryant, Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney. Stay tuned.

The Kenan question

You can’t talk about cast changes without bringing up Kenan Thompson. He has become the Tom Brady of Saturday Night Live with everyone wondering if this is his last year or asking when his abilities will drop off.

But like Brady, Thompson shows no signs of slowing down. He is the longest tenured cast member in SNL history after joining the show during the 29th season.

The past year has been a busy one for Thompson outside of SNL. He is a judge on NBC’s comedy competition series Bring the Funny, an executive producer on Nickelodeon’s All That revival, and is set to star in his own NBC sitcom The Kenan Show.

Thompson put to rest any concern that his own sitcom would mark the end of his SNL tenure, saying the sketch show is his “forever plan.” But plans can change and the success of his other projects could dictate future decisions.

Running multiple television shows gives Thompson invaluable experience. Maybe he is sticking around SNL to become Lorne Michael’s successor? Imagine this scenario: Michaels retires after the 50th season of Saturday Night Live at age 80, handing over the reigns to Thompson after 20+ years as a cast member. Talk about a major change.

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What are your expectations for season 45 of Saturday Night Live? What changes do you hope to see? Let us know in the comment section. The season premiere is Sept. 28 with host Woody Harrelson and musical guest Billie Eilish. Check back with Last Night On for an episode preview and a recap of all the highlights.