It’s a miracle SNL exists. I’ll elaborate on that a bit ahead, but, especially this year, this impossible show to make seems even more impossible. But, yet, there it was, still going, now halfway through its 46th season. Doing this piece, putting together these ten sketches, it was most weird going back to the five shows before the world shutdown. There’s an obvious nervousness in the sketches about “what’s to come.” (Back in late February I attended the John Mulaney dress rehearsal and it felt … fraught. But more, “hope it doesn’t come here,” as opposed to the more accurate, “this is already here.” In retrospect, cramming into a small studio without masks now seems like a nightmare.)
Personally, I haven’t done a list of SNL sketches in over three years, when, before that, I wrote about every single sketch that had aired over the seven years prior. But this year felt special, in that it felt like a good thing to do to honor some of the great writing, and sketch comedy performing, and design, and directing that went into this tumultuous year. (And, selfishly, the thought of putting every sketch that I found good in one place sounded appealing.) Though, I didn’t set any kind of rule, but I found myself excluding the straightforward political sketches. I don’t need to see Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump ever again, if I’m being honest. For this list, I just wanted to laugh. Laughing seems like a good thing right now. (Well, except for one of them that did not make me laugh, but made me feel pretty darn good.)
So, enough of this, let’s get to the ten best sketches of 2020.
10. “Santa’s Village”
Sometimes we all just need some old fashioned slapstick. And here’s Jason Bateman and Cecily Strong, rolling and falling and tumbling around in giant clear balls, dressed as Mr. and Mrs. Claus, for four minutes. It’s genuinely the repetitiveness that makes this work. After one fall, it’s funny. After five I start to wonder how Bateman and String are doing this without serious injury. Seriously, this is some Chevy Chase-level pratfalls and, you know, not everything has to be a cerebral. Sometimes human being just like watching other human beings fall down. And Bateman and Strong pull that off marvelously.
9. “Airport Sushi”
These big elaborate sketches are now expected from John Mulaney, and we actually got two of them on one calendar year. Both are good! But I went with this one because I saw it live in person and I’m still amazed what this show can pull off when it comes to just the technicalities like set design. (One of my favorite experiences doing this job was hanging out with the SNL set designers for a week as they put together a show. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: once you get a peak behind the curtain, you quickly realize that even the bad shows are a miracle.) This was a weird show to attend. It was the second to last show before everything shut down. And, even then, it felt weird, but everyone just kind of thought this was a storm coming that wasn’t here yet. When, in reality, it most certainly was and there we all were packed into a small studio together. Still, it wound up being one of the last things I’d get to do in a public setting and seeing everyone, even the people we don’t get to see on camera, pull this off was remarkable.
8. “Election Ad”
Look, this is funny because it’s all true. It’s embarrassingly true. What are we going to talk about? When I think of the topic I have talked about the most with friends over the last few years, it really has, more times than not, started off with some sort of version of, “Can you believe this guy?” I wound up watching this sketch four or five times because I can’t get over how accurate it is. Don’t get me wrong, I can’t wait to not have topics to discuss with friends out on public. This sounds like a dream come true right now. If I could look into the future and see myself saying to someone, at a crowded bar, “I can’t believe Biden didn’t push harder for an extra percent increase on that federal freeway bill,” well that sounds pretty great.
First, I think we all can relate with the feeling of trying to make a joke last a little too long and being the one who killed it. It’s not a good feeling as the sound of laughter turns to a muted, “Well, all right then.” One time when I was in college, we were had out local Friday night happy hour bar and a friend, Jim, was holding court, telling this crazy elaborate story about something I’m not going to even try to get into here. Jim is a very good storyteller and the we were all laughing so hard the tears were starting. After he finished, another guy, who is not as good of a storyteller, says, “You think that’s crazy, well listen to this,” then proceeds to tell the exact same story. To this day I can’t figure out what happened. Was he not listening? I honestly don’t know. When it was over, his story, that he just repeated but only worse, was met with awkward silence. So awkward, that I said out loud, “Well, I think the reason no one is laughing is because you just told the same story Jim did,“ which made things even more awkward. Anyway, I bring this up because this sketch made me think about that. See, killing the joke can be something people remember years later, so be careful out there!
6. “Tiny Horse”
“Tiny Horse” may just be the most absurd thing SNL put on the air in 2020 and Timothée Chalamet just sells the heck out of it. I was laughing, but I also felt sad. After all, that poor Tiny Horse just wanted to be loved. Also, the animation of Tiny Horse just adds to this effect. It’s fairly bizarre looking, which just makes the whole thing look even more surreal than just the concept on its own. As Tiny Horse mounted a regular size horse to gallop off into the night, I like to think he had safe travels. And I like to think that, someday soon, we will see Tiny Horse again. Long live Tiny Horse.
5. “Madame Vivelda”
One of my hardest laughs this year came with the way Bowen Yang delivered the line, “Yeah, 2019 has sucked.” Setting up the whole premise for the rest of this sketch set at a fortune teller that will predict what 2020 will look like for these four unsuspecting souls. One of the best comedy concepts of the year is the idea of telling our past selves the strange antic we’d be doing with no context. Like, yes, washing bags of Doritos, scorning friends who are eating in restaurants, and knowing the name of the current Postmaster General. (On a whole, I think that one might give me the most pause if I were told that a year ago. Why on Earth would I know the name of the Postmaster General so well I can just rattle it off without even thinking about it?)
4. “Sports Debate”
I’m hesitant to try and dissect what exactly makes this work other than the obvious. But this is just excellent sketch comedy writing. It’s one thing to try and tackle Black people being confronted by the systemic racism that’s in their lives every day (which the upcoming “Strollin’” does beautifully, but it’s another to confront the kind of well meaning white guy who just, literally, isn’t paying attention. And here’s Bill Burr, who just wants to talk about the Bears game and settle an on-air bet, not realizing a terrible tragedy has happened and he now has to hem and haw his way out of it (while eating a steak), while Ego Nwodim and Keenan Thompson try to react to the terrible headlines. There’s just a lot going on here and it all feels pretty accurate.
3. Bruce Springsteen “Ghosts”
Okay, yes, this is technically (or in no way) any kind of a comedy sketch. But it’s been so long since I’ve seen a band, let alone Bruce Springsteen, perform live and he and the E-Street Band’s performance of “Ghosts” is just pure unfiltered joy. Bruce showed up and burned the place down. This is amazing.
The remarkable thing about “Strollin’” is not only is it a perfect representation of how voter suppression is used against Black people, it’s also a really catchy song. What starts out as a leisurely jaunt to the local Texas polling place becomes a nightmare of closed polling locations, misinformation, absurd lines, and voter intimidation. When SNL puts those compilations together for certain holidays and events, I hope they include “Strollin’” in any of their election day packages because this is just one of those sketches that should be aired a lot. And of course, when our foursome of Black voters finally find their polling site, there’s a man with some sort of semi-automatic rifle, hanging out, looking for “fraud.”
1. “Del Taco Shoot”
“No, you don’t want to kill yourself, you just want a taco.” In a year that, for a lot of people, will be the longest (or, strangely, maybe the shortest, it’s really impossible to say) of their lives, for me the one little cultural oddity that transcended this whole year was Kyle Mooney desperately trying to say the line, “Aw, man, I’m all out of cash,” over and over and over again for a Del Taco commercial. (Also, I couldn’t believe this sketch was this year.) There’s something so simple and dumb about this sketch that it becomes so incredibly appealing. Beck Bennett, as the commercial’s director, tries to, nicely, get just the right inflection from Mooney (whose delivery doesn’t change the whole sketch) while Adam Driver as Del Taco’s VP of branding just hurls insults at Mooney. This isn’t profound. Being from an episode back in January, it obviously doesn’t have anything to say about 2020. But for this whole stupid year it made me laugh. And that’s really all I really want right now.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.