At press time, the full roster for the show’s 35th season had yet to be disclosed; Michaels keeps it secret until the last possible minute, though he has confirmed that Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, and Seth Meyers will return. But there will undoubtedly be room in the lineup for new blood, which makes Michaels’s trips to Chicago and L.A. all the more crucial. “We try and avoid, for lack of a better word, displacement, where we could see that person would get those parts over and over again,” Michaels says. “If they’re a type or style we haven’t seen in a while, that gives them a better chance.”
Last season’s cast was loaded with fresh talent of the “style we haven’t seen in a while” variety, but perhaps no one fits that bill more than comedic chameleon Wiig. Although she’s been a part of the show since 2005, she did the most heavy lifting in the past season, appearing in 124 out of the season’s 140 sketches and averaging 5.8 sketches per episode, according to official SNL stats.
“She’s brilliant, even with something as goofy as Gilly [the mischievous elementary school student],” Michaels says. “You can see it in the dance she does in the beginning of the sketch. I remember seeing it and thinking, ‘Where’s that from?’ It’s not like the writers say, ‘Okay, begin doing a dance.’ That’s Kristen.”
Despite Wiig’s omnipresence last season, much of the attention the show garnered came from sketches she was largely uninvolved with. Both on the regular Saturday-night broadcasts and on special prime-time Thursday-night installments (which will continue this fall), the show’s astute execution of political sketches was what bolstered it back to the height of the pop-culture zeitgeist. So influential were those sketches, in fact, that when Saturday Night Live was awarded a prestigious Peabody Award in May, the awards committee said the show “stole the election-year thunder from its satirical competition on cable and may have swayed the race itself.”
While Michaels, along with Darrell Hammond (who played John McCain in the sketches) and Armisen (Michaels’s surprising pick to play Barack Obama), said repeatedly in the days leading up to November 4, 2008, that they weren’t swaying votes, it’s difficult to believe the show didn’t have some influence. After all, among the 10 most frequently impersonated celebrities on Saturday Night Live last year, eight were political candidates, according to the show’s number crunchers. Michaels insists the numbers don’t accurately reflect time onstage, pointing out that “a congressional hearing piece … could have eight politicians all at once.” Still, in an age when The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart is voted the most trusted newscaster on television, according to a recent Time magazine poll, it’s nearly impossible to deny the power of the SNL effect.
One thing Michaels will acknowledge is that the success of the show relies on the ability of the cast and the writing staff to bend and adjust expertly to changes. Last season, for example, was a study in spontaneity.
“It was entirely week to week,” Michaels says. “Events kind of determine where you’re headed.”