When “Saturday Night Live” stalwarts Kenan Thompson, Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong opened this year’s season finale with an emotional tribute to this most unusual year, it got tongues wagging. Are we about to see another massive generational shift of “SNL” stars as the veterans roll out and a new cast rolls in?
“SNL” has undergone plenty of cast changes in its nearly five decades on the air. Nonetheless, its evolution always conjures questions about the fate of the show, especially if executive producer Lorne Michaels ever retires. But more recently, as “SNL” has also turned into an awards juggernaut, it’s also worth wondering what a major cast change might mean to the late-night sketch series’ tally at the Emmys — especially in the supporting comedy actor and actress categories.
Until 2008, “SNL” performers competed in the variety or music performance categories, with Chevy Chase winning the supporting male actor statue on that side of the ballot in 1976, Gilda Radner winning supporting actress in 1978 and Dana Carvey winning in 1993, when both genders competed in a combined category. After that award was retired in 2008, “SNL” players moved to the supporting comedy actor and actress fields — with McKinnon (who has been nominated every year since 2014) winning supporting comedy actress in both 2016 and 2017. (Alec Baldwin, though not a regular “SNL” member, appeared often enough as Donald Trump to win supporting comedy actor in 2017).
This year, McKinnon is a shoo-in for a nom, while Bryant and Strong could very well make it in as well. (Bryant is also a contender in the lead comedy actress category for her Hulu series “Shrill.”)
That brings us to the supporting comedy actor category and “SNL” legend Thompson. Nominated in both 2018 and 2020, Thompson has nonetheless never won an Emmy for performing. (He did win an original music and lyrics Emmy in 2018 for the “SNL” song “Come Back, Barack.”)
When he first joined “SNL” in 2003, much was made of the fact that Thompson was the first cast member to be born after the show’s 1975 premiere. Now, after 18 seasons, Thompson holds the record for “SNL” longevity. And although he’s now the star of his own sitcom, NBC’s “Kenan,” which was recently renewed for a second season, it’s clear he’s not ready to leave the comfort of “SNL.”
“I have a certain number I would love to get to,” he told me in a February Variety cover story. “I think 20 is a good, round, even number that I’m close to. I feel like that is in reach, but also it would be respected if I don’t get there. Eighteen is fine, 19 is fine. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is, will I have time for my family? There’s only 24 hours in a day.”
“Kenan” could land Thompson his first lead comedy actor nod. Michaels executive produces that comedy as well, and has long called Thompson his good luck charm. That’s why when Thompson and “SNL” co-star Chris Redd (who also plays his brother on “Kenan”) were still shooting “Kenan” on the Universal lot in Los Angeles in winter, Michaels made sure the two were on a plane and back in Studio 8H in time for the week’s “SNL” episode.
I hope we don’t see that “SNL” exodus, but just in case, it’s time for Emmy voters to take heed: As Michaels told me earlier this year, point blank: “Kenan may be a genius.”