Beck Bennett, the versatile "Saturday Night Live" player who has won notice for his impressions of Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence over eight seasons at the show, will leave the venerable NBC late-night series even as it welcomes back a number of senior cast members who hinted they might be ready to depart.
Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, Aidy Bryant, Pete Davidson, Colin Jost, Michael Che and Kenan Thompson will all return for the show's 47th season, along with Mikey Day, Heidi Gardner, Alex Moffat, Kyle Mooney, Ego Nwodim, Chris Redd, and Melissa Villaseor. Two featured players from last season, Chloe Fineman and Bowen Yang, have been promoted to be members of the regular cast, while another, Lauren Holt, will not return to the program. Andrew Dismukes and Punkie Johnson will return in their featured role. And the show will welcome three new featured players: Aristotle Athari, James Austin Johnson and Sarah Sherman.
In decades past, "SNL" executive producer Lorne Michaels insisted that cast members make the program their primary focus. But last year, the rules began to change, and they will continue to do so this year. Some veteran members of the cast are likely to appear less frequently than usual, according to a person familiar with the program, and will have some leeway to pursue projects outside the show. The large cast should give "SNL" a chance to fill absences with contributions from some of the show's up and coming staff.
"Thank you for 8 years of remarkable people and incredible experiences that completely changed my life," Bennett posted via Instagram. "I had so much fun."
"SNL" demonstrated some of its new elasticity last season, when both Strong and Bryant were able to commit to outside projects like Apple's "Schmigadoon" and Hulu's "Shrill" while missing multiple episodes of "SNL." Michaels has also worked to find ways for Kenan Thompson and Chris Redd to take part in the NBC sitcom "Kenan" without missing much of "Saturday Night Live." It helps that all of these series are produced under the auspices of Michaels' own Broadway Video.
But the show also set off swirls of speculation about the state of its cast during last season's finale. McKinnon, Bryant, Thompson and Strong appeared in a segment in which they discussed the challenges of producing the show during the pandemic and the 2020 election, and some of their on-camera emotion spurred conjecture they may have been hinting at a farewell. Davidson did the same with a "Weekend Segment" that nodded to how being on the program had helped him mature. Strong added to the feeling with a show-stopping turn as Fox News host Judge Jeanine Pirro singing "My Way" in a giant wine box.
As more TV viewers migrate to streaming services to watch their favorite scripted dramas and comedies on demand, "SNL" has taken on new importance for NBC. Once relegated to airing after the late local news in a time slot network executives didn't consider paramount, the program now runs live across the U.S. all at once, meaning that it runs in primetime in certain parts of the country. The show in the 2020-2021 season was the most-watched entertainment program on TV among viewers between 18 and 49, the demographic most preferred by advertisers.
The value of "SNL" has increased steadily in recent years. A 30-second spot on "SNL" this season and last cost around $180,000, according to Standard Media Index, a tracker of ad spending. The average cost of a 30-second perch in the show's 2015-2016 season totaled around $89,500. NBC generated approximately $123 million in ad revenue off the program in 2020, according to ad-tracker Kantar, compared with $114.7 million in 2019. Top sponsors in recent years have included Apple, AbbVie, Progressive, T-Mobile and Discover.
The three new featured players hail from a broad range of projects. Sherman has been known for eyebrow-raising live shows that use costumes and special effects. Johnson has developed a reputation for impressions. And Athari was once part of the sketch-comedy group "Goatface."