NBC was the center of a lot of intrigue and excitement last night. We’re not talking about the Olympics, we’re talking about Saturday Night Live and the two big announcements that will absolutely shake up the venerable sketch show. Fans of the show learned that both Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah will both be exiting the cast before the upcoming 42nd season of SNL.
We want to unbundle each of these cast changes, but before we get to that we have to consider some broad implications. The past season was a little up and down. Jost and Che found their footing as Weekend Update anchors while Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones broke out to become stars. On the flip side, SNL had its fair share of mediocre nights. After the 40th season there were was only one addition to the cast (Jon Rudnitsky) and while it is possible that a shake up was needed, it seems like the departure of two of the longest tenured cast members won’t make things any easier this fall.
Taran Killam was one of those much needed performers on Saturday Night Live. After Jason Sudeikis left the cast, Killam filled in as the guy who could do it all. You want over the top? He could do it. Need a subtle performance? Taran was the guy. He could fit into any sketch. Looking at the current cast, there doesn’t seem to be someone who will be able to easily slot into that role. There are some great performers like Bobby Moynihan and Kenan Thompson, but they bring something different to the table. Jon Rudnitsky might be able to do what Taran did, but to be honest, it is hard to know about that. He was relegated to an extra many weeks and it seemed like he was destined to have an SNL career like Jenny Slate or Rob Riggle. Killam leaving might open the door for Rudnitsky or someone else.
The departure of Jay Pharoah almost seems more surprising. While Taran Killam has seen his schedule fill up with other projects, Jay Pharoah hasn’t had the same presence outside of SNL. If you’ve seen Jay’s stand-up, you know he’s great there and while we’d like to see him take the next step as a comic, it seems like he could have continued on Saturday Night Live for a while longer. If for no other reason than to have Jay Pharoah play out the last few months of Barack Obama’s presidency it seems like it would have been a no brainer to bring him back. We’ve been critical of Pharoah’s Obama on SNL, but not because of him. The writing has been too safe. In his stand-up, Pharoah’s Obama impression is just as realistic, but his material is a little more dangerous and edgy. He’s incredible. What will happen now that Jay has left? Does Lorne Michaels bring back Fred Armisen and his weak Obama impression for the odd appearance or will they find someone to replace this unique talent. Without Pharoah there really isn’t anyone who is a strong impersonator and there certainly isn’t anyone that we know can do a great Obama. Does it make sense to hire someone just to play the 44th President for a few months until he leaves office? We’ll see.
While we haven’t heard from Jay Pharoah yet, we now know that Taran Killam has left on good terms.
Both Taran and Jay are leaving before the ends of their contracts so there was potential for hard feelings. We’ll have to wait and see what Jay has to say about his exit and time on Saturday Night Live, but seeing that Taran is good, we hope he is feeling the same.
The next few weeks will be very interesting. The near future of Saturday Night Live will unfold before our eyes. Will other long time cast members leave? Kenan Thompson has been rumored to be the next one out for a few years. Only time will tell, but whoever comes in to fill in will have big shoes to fill. Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah both were guys who have solidified legacies on Saturday Night Live and their consistent performance will be missed. The one thing we know is that SNL is bigger than any one performer and it has consistently been a place where new faces have shown up, thrived, and gone on to do big things in show business.