The Current ‘SNL’ Cast Hasn’t Made Much of an Impression on the Public. Experts Say That’ll Need to Change in the Post-Trump Era

The show’s current cast is viewed favorably by 34% of U.S. adults, a lower rating than previous iterations
(L-R) "Saturday Night Live" cast members Beck Bennett, Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant attend Comedy Central's "The Other Two" series premiere party on Jan. 17, 2019 in New York City. Thirty-four percent of adults said the ensemble was the best part of "SNL" in the late '70s, compared to 13 percent who said the same about today’s cast, according to Morning Consult data. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)
May 20, 2021 at 3:30 pm UTC

Key Takeaways

  • Adults who watch “SNL” at least once a month are more likely to be men, millennials and Democrats, compared to those who tune in “rarely” or “never.”

  • Kenan Thompson and Pete Davidson are the most recognizable members of today’s “SNL” cast.

  • Expert says “stunt casting” like recent host Elon Musk could provide future ratings boosts.

“Saturday Night Live” is an entertainment institution, launching comedians into stardom since 1975 and providing topical fodder for Monday water-cooler talks along the way. 

But the exit of former President Donald Trump from the White House coincided with a dip in viewership, according to this season’s reported ratings. The average reported viewership of “SNL” before President Joe Biden took office was 7.1 million, and dropped to 5.8 million after the inauguration, a decline that hints at the sketch show’s need to rely on its cast and creative team, instead of current events.

“There are seasons where there wasn't really as much going on, or maybe the president wasn't somebody who lent themselves to parody or satire,” said Stephen Tropiano, author of “Saturday Night Live FAQ: Everything Left to Know About Television's Longest Running Comedy,” in a reference to Biden. “As a result of that, the show really had to go the extra yard in terms of trying to stay relevant.”

And as the show prepares to wrap its 46th season this weekend with host Anya Taylor-Joy and musical guest Lil Nas X, new data suggests this iteration of “SNL” and its cast face a challenge when it comes to bringing viewers back, especially as audiences are presented with more entertainment options than ever before in today’s fragmented media market.   

Asked in a May 12-15 Morning Consult survey whether they had a favorable or unfavorable view of the current “SNL” cast, U.S. adults were most likely to recognize the names of Kenan Thompson and Pete Davidson, followed by Kate McKinnon. 

Thompson, who came aboard in 2003 and is the longest-tenured cast member in the show’s history, had a TV career before “SNL,” while Davidson’s rising star could be due to his predilection for high-profile romances, along with his starring role in the semi-autobiographical 2020 film, “The King of Staten Island.” 

Adults were less aware of other longtime cast members such as Cecily Strong and Beck Bennett, while this season’s new featured players -- Lauren Holt, Andrew Dismukes and Punkie Johnson -- ranked at the bottom of the list. 

In satirizing the Trump administration, “SNL” often turned to a stable of notable guest stars, including Alec Baldwin as Trump, Ben Stiller as Michael Cohen and Matt Damon as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which at times took the spotlight off the ensemble and may have contributed to respondents’ low awareness of some cast members, particularly newer players, according to Nick Marx, co-editor of the book, “Saturday Night Live & American TV.”   

With the 2020 presidential election cycle over and people seemingly less interested in politics, “I think a lot of newer cast members are having to introduce themselves to audiences this spring,” Marx said, citing Heidi Gardner and Bowen Yang as cast members who have recently seen more airtime.

The public may be aware of “SNL’s” current players, but the ensemble has much ground to make up before it resonates with audiences like the show’s most popular casts.

The original late 1970s cast, which included Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd, was the most popular with a favorability rating of 70 percent, according to the survey, followed closely by the early 1980s cast, which included Eddie Murphy. By comparison, 34 percent held a favorable view of the present-day cast. 

Asked which part of “SNL” was the best during each of the nine eras included in the survey, respondents, regardless of their preferred cohort, chose the cast over hosts and musical guests, though that share has fallen over the years: 34 percent of adults deemed the ensemble the best part of the late ’70s shows, compared to 13 percent who said the same about today’s cast.

While this cast had to deal with losing Trump as a presidential punching bag, “SNL” ratings also took a hit not long after the election. The Nov. 7 installment, which was hosted by Dave Chappelle, is currently the show’s most-viewed episode of the season, with roughly 9 million viewers having tuned in. 

One post-Chappelle outlier came earlier this month, when Elon Musk, Tesla Inc.’s chief executive, hosted an episode that was watched by nearly 7.3 million viewers. Viewership fell to a low of 3.5 million the following week with actor Keegan-Michael Key at the helm.

Tropiano said “stunt casting,” or casting with the purpose of increasing ratings and attention, a polarizing figure like Musk could help boost the show’s ratings, along with hipper hosts who are comfortable with comedy.   

NBC did not respond to a request for comment.

The survey also looked at who’s watching “SNL”: Adults who view “SNL” at least once a month are more likely to be men (61 percent), millennials (40 percent) and Democrats (55 percent), while those who rarely or never tune in skew older -- 3 in 5 are Generation Xers or baby boomers -- and 34 percent are Republicans. Regular “SNL” viewers are also more likely  to live in urban areas and have an income exceeding $100,000 than those who hardly ever watch.

These viewers also have more options than ever when it comes to TV shows, whether on linear TV or streaming services. The fragmented media market has made it more difficult for “SNL” to create the cultural touchstones it’s been known for over the years, according to Marx. 

“Simply put, there aren't as many people watching the same things today as there were 40 years ago or even 10 years ago,” he said, “so it's much harder to galvanize an audience.” 

A strong “SNL” cast can solve a lot of the show’s issues, experts said, so the behind-the-scenes team must always be looking for the show’s next potential star. 

According to Marx, expanding beyond traditional sources like improv schools such as the Groundlings and Upright Citizens Brigade could lead “SNL” to emerging talent with a built-in following like Andy Samberg and the Lonely Island, and could provide a spark again with comedians developing characters or recurring bits that become recognizable among fans.

“That’s a cheap, easy calling card for people to work in and catch the notice of higher-ups at places like ‘SNL,’” he said.

Sarah Shevenock previously worked at Morning Consult as a reporter covering the business of entertainment.

We want to hear from you. Reach out to this author or your Morning Consult team with any questions or comments.Contact Us