Once SNL’s Go-To, Recurring Sketches Are Now a Relative Rarity

Kristen Wiig hosting “Saturday Night Live” this week is definitely something to look forward to.

And something to look backward at a bit as well.

Given how many indelible characters Wiig created in her seven seasons on the show (she departed in 2012) there’s a good chance that we’ll see at least one of them pop back up Saturday night.

But then again, maybe not. Familiar characters are not as much of a regular feature on the show anymore.

Sure, this season has seen a handful of returning characters and sketches: Garrett from Hinge, Lisa from Temecula, Santa’s Workshop, and Cinema Classics have all reappeared. We’ve also seen a few loose re-interpretations of past sketches–the social media game show “Why’d You Like It” was brought back as “Why’d You Say it,” and Big Dumb Hats was re-imagined as Big Dumb Cups.

Arguably the season’s most memorable returning sketches have been built around the return of an old host or cast member–Kate McKinnon brought back “Whiskers R We,” while Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon reprised “The Barry Gibb Talk Show.” See also: Pedro Pascal’s “Protective Mom,” Emma Stone’s poster girl Krissy Knox, and Timothee Chalamet’s Smokecheddadassgetta.

But overall, this season, like other recent ones, has mostly featured a heavier than usual complement of all-new characters.

So, as used to be said in another familiar sketch not seen in a while: “What Up with That?”

It has been noted in a few places recently that SNL seems to have backed away from a heavy dose of recurring sketches or characters. 

It is true that this has been a trend over the past three seasons; by one count the show only created three recurring characters in the 21/22 season, and just two last season.

That’s a far cry—in some cases a massive deafening cry—from many seasons in the show’s past when it seemed the creation of sketches that could be brought back often was all but essential to the show’s success.

In the show’s first season, way back in 75/76, depending on which bits are counted (not The Muppets or Mr. Bill, for example) at least 15 recurring sketches or characters were created, including such memorable ones as Samurai (tailor, deli, etc, John Belushi) and Land Shark (Chevy Chase).

Two seasons later, 12 recurring bits were added including some true classics, The Festrunk Brothers (with Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin); Roseanne Rosannadanna (Gilda Radner); The Olympia Café (“Chee-burger, Chee-burger”); and The Nerds (Gilda as Lisa Loopner, Bill Murray as Todd.)

Many seasons had a veritable flood of recurring sketches and characters introduced—20 or more in a few cases, such as 96/97, which included the introduction of The Culps (Will Ferrell, Ana Gasteyer) and Celebrity Jeopardy (where Darrell Hammond immortalized Sean Connery.)

Wiig herself is responsible for a raft of recurring—and generally hilarious—creations, including “Gilly;” “Garth and Kat” (with Fred Armisen); the Target Lady; Dooneese from Lawrence Welk Show; and my personal favorite, Aunt Sue, who becomes deranged by the need to keep a secret.

SNL has occasionally been criticized for over-reliance on familiar sketches and characters, though not much by fans of the show at that time, or those in the audience, who invariably have applauded and shrieked with delight when “The Church Lady” or “Hans and Franz” or “Opera Man” appeared on the set.

What the recurring characters have brought, besides familiarity, has been the convenience of not having to introduce the audience to what the comedy was supposed to be in the bit. When Chicago Superfans turned up, you knew you were in for flat-A’s, beer drinking, and the elevation of Ditka to a deity.

Could the jokes become exhausted? Of course, but what comic won’t concede that every good joke gets beaten to death and then beaten several times more?

On a potentially positive side, the shift away from reliance on recurring bits has the advantage of compelling the show’s writers and performers to keep pushing for new ideas, new takes, new impressions.

The only other reason to steer clear of bringing characters back is that the new ones don’t merit resurrecting, because they didn’t hit big enough the first time. (That didn’t stop some of the most enduring sketches, which barely made a dent in their first iterations, like “Chee-burger, Chee-burger”).

One other recent development has seen a lot of emphasis on sketches dependent on the host leading them. Bad Bunny had an especially strong show, but the moment that sent the audience into squeals of anticipation was when Pascal returned as “Protective Mom.” Obviously, that could be a strong recurring bit, but it’s one that would require Pascal.

Mainly, it seems a performer has to break through doing a character for a bit to elevate to recurring status. Often that happens with a visit to the set of “Weekend Update,” where some character (Emily Litella, Drunk Uncle) makes an indelible impression.

Ego Nwodim totally killed as a guest eel on “Update” taunting Michael Che over her unexpected pregnancy; but it would seem a rather large stretch to try to bring that character back.

Kristen Wiig though, comes with a package of sure-fire characters if the writing staff wants to dig into them again.

Presumably the audience that loved her on the show will be tuning in on Saturday, with expectations high.

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