The news broke late on Friday that Michaela Watkins and Casey Wilson were not asked back for Saturday Night Live’s 35th season. This development came on the heels of the announcement earlier in the week that comediennes Jenny Slate and Nasim Pedrad had been chosen as the newest not yet ready for prime time players. The addition of these two was to the relief of many who thought that SNL needed a greater female presence, especially to spell Kristen Wiig, whose MVP performance last season has been well documented. In light of the two new cast members, the news Watkins’ and Wilson’s departures has been met with surprise, but a closer look indicates that the selection of new blood was a portent of things to come.
Full disclosure, I had heard a rumor a couple weeks ago that Wilson would not be back, and since that time I had scoured the web for articles supporting the claim. When I heard of the selection of Slate and Pedrad I immediately thought it led credence to Wilson’s departure. Still, there was no news on that, and I was surprised that none of the reports I read introducing the new cast members speculated on what it meant for the future of the current cast. I last searched for stories relating possible SNL exits late Thursday night, the evening before we learned that Casey Wilson, along with Michaela Watkins, had been let go. So yes, it seemed like a shock. But while the timing might have seemed like a blindside, SNL history proves we should have seen this coming.
SNL has always been a boys club, and, despite the Wiigs and Poehlers and Feys, will likely continue to be so. A look at the math demonstrates it highly unlikely that Lorne Michaels would have started the season with the two female additions without cutting one or two incumbents from the squad. Slate and Petrad are joining current members Wiig and SNL legacy Abbie Elliott, and had Wilson and Watkins been retained that would have totaled six female cast members to begin season 35. No SNL season has ever started a season with six females in the cast. The closest they have come was 1991-1992 season in which Beth Cahill became the sixth female in mid-November (joining Victoria Jackson, Julia Sweeney, Ellen Cleghorne, Siobhan Fallon and Melanie Hutsell). In addition the the half dozen mark not being reached until mid-season, one must recall that this came during the over-capacity casts of the early 90s when Lorne Michaels was admittedly building a JV team of comics (Farley, Sandler, Spade, etc) to succeed the the old guard (Carvey, Myers, Hartman, etc). So the high volume of estrogen was more a biproduct of a bulging cast, not a real movement to emphasize the talents of budding comediennes. This was also the season that employed so many cast members that the opening credits contained two sets of Featured Player introductions, the first being “spontaneous” moments of
the cast in various situations (Rob Schneider buying a movie ticket!) and then a second round of featured players shown only through head shots. Beyond this six female aberration, the show has mostly subsisted with 3 -4 female members. Indeed the first five seasons brought us only three women, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtain and Lorraine Newman, and from 95-99 we were treated to another funny female threesome (Cheri Oteri, Molly Shannon, and Ana Gasteyer). Later the number did reach five, but this included Tina Fey who only appeared on Weekend Update, and seasons when several of the women missed significant time on maternity leave (including Amy Poehler last season, followed by her exit to star in Parks and Recreation). So while I in no way intend to imply that it would be wrong to present a cast with six women, the SNL’s past shows that there is no precedent for this.
So six was too many. However, could they have settled for five? Most reaction has indicated little surprise that Lorne Michaels waved goodbye to Casey Wilson. Indeed, in one and a half seasons she had yet to make her mark, and despite earnest efforts it did not seem that she was embraced by the audience in the studio or at home. To her credit, she did poke fun at her standing with fan in a recent Funny Or Die video, so at least she’s a good sport, and I think this Tango and Cash re-creation she did with Janeanne Garafalo served her better than anything she ever did at SNL. And you don’t get on SNL by accident, so I have no doubt that she’s talented; however the annals of SNL are filled with Yvonne Hudsons and Jeff Richardses and broken dreams, and now she’s another victim (but lest we not forget Wilson’s web video co-star Garafalo once upon a time had a miserable experience on the show and she turned out okay. Likewise Sarah Silverman).
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But if you understand (or agree with) the firing of Wilson, what of Michaela Watkins? Couldn’t they have kept her on. There seems to be some moderate outrage at her dismissal, much being made of the in-roads Watkins had already established in less than a season as a featured player. Indeed, EW’s Michael Ausiello writes,
“Watkins gave birth to a slew of memorable characters and impersonations, most notably bitchpleeze.com blogger Angie Tempura and Today’s Hoda Kotb.”
However, while those two specific personas did gain some traction, I don’t think she birthed a “slew” of memorable characters and impersonations. Beyond bitchpleeze and Hoda, I’d be hard pressed to name another memorable performance outside of her well regarded Ariana Huffington impression (which is admittedly excellent, but something she had perfected before joining the cast). Also, I don’t understand the appeal of the bitchpleeze Weekend Update segments or the perspective of the character, nor why SNL would want to mock much of its fan base (all bloggers are snotty teenagers?). As for The Today Show sketches, they had some enjoyable moments but never quite felt like they flew as high as they could, and all Watkins could do was react to Wiig’s Kathy Lee Gifford (which is effective, but one-note).
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However, this is not to say that Watkins is not talented, but that the outcry over her dismissal is a bit unfounded. Moreso, additional analysis argues that it is precicely because of her talent that she was let go. Before joining the cast, Watkins, a veteran of the Groundlings, most recently supported former SNL player Julia Louis-Dreyfus on The New Adventures of old Christine. So she had taken a step back from prime time to not yet ready for prime time. But the truth is she is polished and ready to make that leap into a sitcom, and Lorne Michaels told her that much (via Watkins interview with Ausiello):
“The only explanation I got from him — and he’s not known to say things just to make people feel better — was that he felt deep down that I should have my own show. And I agreed.”
Thinking in that context, I think the move makes sense. Looking back even further, it’s not a stretch to think that Michaels brought her on last season because he needed someone talented, experienced and ready with a arsenal of characters and impressions. Much was made about the workload heaped on Kristen Wiig, and recognizing this, maybe Lorne brought Watkins in as a ringer of sorts, slightly akin to the 1985-1986 season in which then-producer Dick Ebersole enlisted comic mercenaries Billy Crystal, Martin Short and Harry Shearer.
So perhaps all along Lorne Michaels only thought of Watkins, 37, as a temporary solution. As for Wiig, with roles in this year’s Adventureland and the just-released Extract, not to mention her previous scene stealing turn in Knocked Up, her film career has already started taking off, so it can’t be long before she moves onto greener pastures. However, with Jenny Slate, 27, and Nasim Petrad joining the 22 year-old Abby Elliot, the show has now formed a stable of young, smart, female comedians. So, maybe, in Lorne’s eyes he’s put together a new dream team of funny young ladies, a group that can grow together and entertain us for years to come.