Saturday Night Live/Season Thirty-One
Season Thirty-One of Saturday Night Live premiered on October 1, 2005 and was the first season to be broadcast in high-definition widescreen. The show had an unusual start in that, by the second episode, two major players (Tina Fey and Maya Rudolph) were out on maternity leave, while another (Chris Parnell) was working on another series and was dropped from at least one opening credits sequence. Also, Rob Riggle left the cast for unknown reasons.
In order to balance this out, two featured cast members were added (Bill Hader and Andy Samberg), while two others were promoted to the main cast (Finesse Mitchell and Kenan Thompson). On November 12th's episode (Jason Lee/Foo Fighters) Kristen Wiig was added as a featured player.
Although the featured players were ostensibly hired to replace missing cast members, the result was the largest and most overloaded cast since the notoriously unwieldy twenty-first season. As with that earlier season, as a result of the density of the cast, many cast members—both Main and Featured—including those who were not on leave, were frequently under-featured and relegated to few sketches per episode, often with walk-ons or non-speaking roles. In perhaps the most egregious instance, on a show criticized for tokenism since the days of Garrett Morris, in a rare circumstance for the series, there were two Black males in the Main Cast, Thompson and Mitchell. Yet the suave, handsome Mitchell received significantly less screen time than the comparitively over-the-top, heavyset Thompson. While Thompson was seen several times playing DJ Dynasty Handbag, none of Mitchell's recurring characters appeared even once in the season, and in the year following Hurricane Katrina, he was called upon to play New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin only twice. At the end of the season, by some calculations, Mitchell's total screen time over 19 episodes amounted to less than a single 90-minute episode. In addition to Mitchell, Hader and Fred Armisen went several episodes with only a few lines or sketch appearances apiece.
Not all the news for the season was as grim, however. Most notably, for a show which had begun its run as a true variety show, this season represented the strongest attempt the show had yet made since its inception to return to its roots. Under the guidance of Writing Supervisor Seth Meyers, music and musical sketches became as important an element as they had ever been. In episode 31x09 - Jack Black/Neil Young, the amount of music in the episode was so remarkable as to receive a "Cheer" from TV Guide in its "Cheers 'n' Jeers" column—in addition to Young's two performances, Black's monologue and three other segments featured music prominently, including a sketch appearance by Black's novelty band Tenacious D.
The other two musical sketches in that episode represented another huge leap forward in the evolution of the series in a number of ways. For one thing, neither of the sketches were live. The first was an installment in the already-popular TV Funhouse written by Robert Smigel, and the second was one of Samberg and company's SNL Digital Shorts. That short, entitled "Lazy Sunday," became a runaway success and a pop culture phenomenon through Internet downloads. As a result, NBC began adding streaming video of selected SNL sketches to its site, and Samberg became one of the show's brightest stars of the era.
Yet, for all the popularity of "Lazy Sunday," the Digital Shorts and TV Funhouse, the Black/Young episode is, in many ways, a perfect example of the season's overall inconsistency. Even as it was lauded for its musical numbers, sketches such as "The Wind" were criticized with that old refrain for SNL detractors: Long, unfunny and pointless. Although the Digital Shorts proved to be amongst the show's most popular, the season also saw the debut (and finale) of Carol!, one of the most reviled recurring sketches in the history of the series.
However, Season Thirty-One was certainly not the first time in SNL's history when the show seemed ripe for a change, but it may very well have been the first such season which sowed the seeds of its own necessary revitalization. As the cast took their bows in the season finale, Head Writer and Weekend Update co-anchor Fey wore a T-shirt reading simply, "Thank you"—her farewell, as she was departing the series to create her own sitcom based on her experiences at SNL, 30 Rock. Also bowing out as of that episode was longtime director Beth McCarthy Miller. (Appropriately enough for two women who had been credited with thoroughly and finally breaking the long-standing "Boys Club" of SNL, their penultimate episode marked the first time a female SNL alumnus, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, came back to host the show.) Yet before their departure, the new cast members had proven themselves, and Meyers had ably managed the writing during Fey's maternity leave. The stage was set for radical changes to be made for Season Thirty-Two.
- Fred Armisen
- Rachel Dratch
- Tina Fey (Weekend Update anchor; absent 31x01 and 31x02)
- Will Forte
- Darrell Hammond
- Seth Meyers
- Finesse Mitchell
- Chris Parnell
- Amy Poehler (Weekend Update anchor)
- Maya Rudolph
- Horatio Sanz (substitute Weekend Update anchor during Fey's absence; 31x01 and 31x02)
- Kenan Thompson
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