Saturday Night Live season 45 was one for the history books

Lizzo, Eddie Murphy, and Kenan Thompson (Photo by: Rosalind O'Connor/NBC)
Lizzo, Eddie Murphy, and Kenan Thompson (Photo by: Rosalind O'Connor/NBC) /

This season of Saturday Night Live was unlike any other in the show’s 45 year history.

Saturday Night Live wrapped up season 45 a little ahead of schedule with a third and final “at home” episode over the weekend. It drew to a close a season marked by a number of historic moments and headlines both inside and outside of Studio 8H.

The Sept. 28, 2019 premiere episode hosted by Woody Harrelson seems like it was from a completely different season than Saturday’s Saturday Night Live at Home show. It certainly came during a different time in the world, nevermind in entertainment and pop culture.

The theme of Last Night On’s season preview was “change is coming.” But nobody could have predicted how Saturday Night Live changed over the course of season 45. Let’s look back how some of the storylines from our preview played out over the year as well as how season 45 made history.

The cast lineup

We talked about how the departure of Leslie Jones would impact the show. SNL didn’t bring in anyone new that matched Jones’s energy or mirrored her sense of humor. The show didn’t exactly suffer from losing Jones. However, “Weekend Update” was down one less character.

That void was filled nicely by the new cast members especially Bowen Yang. Yang was a standout for his “Weekend Update” characters including Bottle Boi and Chen Biao. Chloe Fineman also came on strong during the end of the season. Her celebrity impressions were among the highlights of Saturday Night Live at Home. Yang and Fineman established themselves as key players at SNL and their roles should only expand in the coming seasons.

The biggest story going into season 45 was the hiring and firing of Shane Gillis. Outrage on social media and backlash from others led SNL to reverse course on adding Gillis to the cast due to controversial comments made on a podcast.

It had been a long, long time since so many people cared about who was joining the SNL cast. People on both sides of the argument weighed in on how, if at all, the show would recover from the “controversy.” Looking back on the story now, it was never going to influence the show one way or the other. But the story was a sign that season 45 would be unlike any other in the show’s history.

Last call?

Alec Baldwin has made it clear that he’s not big on playing President Donald Trump anymore. Yet his take on the president has become a signature part of SNL and what the show tries to do. It is impossible to imagine anyone else playing the part now that Baldwin has turned it into an award-winning performance.

When season 46 kicks off in September, we will be closing in on the election. That means more Trump rallies and debates with Democratic candidate Joe Biden. SNL does some of its best work around elections so Baldwin may be needed more than ever.

But in the season finale’s cold open, Baldwin may have dropped a hint about his future. Was the “one last time” line about SNL at home or was that the actor signing off as President Trump?

In the 18 episodes produced this season, Baldwin played Trump in eight of them. His portrayal will go down as one of the show’s best impersonations in history and will be featured in every discussion on SNL’s political humor. Without knowing it, fans may have seen the last of Baldwin’s Trump.

If the election doesn’t go Donald Trump’s way then it will be a win-win for Baldwin. He gets to walk away from the impression and he sees Trump leave the White House. The actor could then give advice to Woody Harrelson, Jason Sudeikis, John Mulaney or whoever else SNL asks to play President Joe Biden.

And what about the cast? Is it possible that some fan-favorite performers also turned in their last SNL episode?

Pete Davidson made headlines outside of the show right from the start. He was absent from the first two episodes while shooting The Suicide Squad. He then missed the March 7 show after an interview caught the public’s attention. Davidson questioned his future at the show and expressed concern over being treated as a punchline.

So could the King of Staten Island star be done with SNL? Davidson was featured prominently in the three at-home editions of the show. The comedian says he’s done all he can at the show so he may have been going out on a high note.

Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong are two other names that come to mind. Both were unclear about returning for season 45 before ultimately coming back and shining. It’s hard to imagine that either would leave without a proper sendoff but it has happened before.

If you want to really read into Saturday’s sketches, then “Dreams” would be the one to consider. It was a love letter from SNL to New York City but being bookended by Strong could suggest it was her goodbye as well. Stay tuned.

The return of Eddie Murphy

Few hosts have been as highly anticipated as when Eddie Murphy was announced as host. To say that Murphy delivered on that hype would be an understatement.

Last season’s return of Adam Sandler set the bar pretty high when it came to fan-favorite cast members return to host. But nobody in SNL’s history compares to Murphy when it comes to star-power or impact on the show.

The Dec. 21 episode was watched by nearly 10 million people. It set Saturday Night Live records for viewership and was the most talked-about episode in recent memory.

Having Murphy reprising some of his most famous characters could have been a disaster. Instead, Murphy and the writers found clever ways to bring Mr. Robinson, Gumby, Buckwheat, and Velvet Jones into the 21st century.

Any other SNL alum hesitant about returning to host can look to Murphy as inspiration. Just don’t expect anyone to match Murphy’s history-making performance.

Saturday Night Live at Home

Like 2020 itself, season 45 of Saturday Night Live will be remembered for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The show started by referencing it during “Weekend Update” then dedicated almost an entire episode to it before finally making history with three remote episodes.

When SNL decided to go remote on April 11, most of late night had already done the same. There was a blueprint for how a show could be put together with limited resources. But airing The Tonight Show is simpler than putting together Saturday Night Live. Yet the cast, writers, and staff rose to the occasion and delivered.

The episodes won’t be remembered for their hilarious sketches. Instead, these shows will be remembered for their cultural importance. Since 1975, SNL has been part of American culture and so many people have a reverence for the show. By returning to NBC, Saturday Night at Live provided comfort and a sense of normalcy that few other television programs could do.

The remote episodes also followed the lead of other late night shows by raising money for charity. SNL created its own All In Challenge that let an auction winner write a “Weekend Update” joke, making for another notable moment in SNL history. The winning bid came in at $90,000 while the joke itself wasn’t quite as impressive.

What was impressive was the performances by the cast members at home. Melissa Villasenor, Chloe Fineman, Ego Nwodim, and Mikey Day deserve praise for their work. Music videos from Pete Davidson and Chris Redd also stood out as did the sketches from Kyle Mooney.

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It wasn’t one of the greatest in the show’s history but season 45 of Saturday Night Live will be remembered for a long, long time. The cast and crew faced challenges nobody could have predicted, adjusted on the fly, and did their best to entertain audiences. For that, SNL fans should be thankful for everything the show provided in such uncertain times.