Live from New York, it's...NBC's hottest show? After nearly 40 years on the air and countless cast changes — including the losses of Kristen Wiig, Andy Samberg, Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, Fred Armisen and (soon) Seth Meyers in the last two seasons alone — Saturday Night Live routinely ranks as one of the Peacock Network's highest-rated series in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-49 age demographic (just below The Voice, The Blacklist and Chicago Fire). This, despite a late-night weekend time slot that should have meant certain Nielsen doom years ago.
"The show is hotter than ever, and that does bring a kind of attention," Steve Martin recently said (and he should know — he has hosted 15 times since 1976). "But there's also the endurance factor, which gets you a certain amount of attention. Either endurance or early death gets you a lot of attention."
It's far too late for SNL to experience an early death, even though several of its stars sadly have (R.I.P., John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Phil Hartman, Chris Farley, et al.). Yet somehow the show stays forever young. "There's a spontaneity and excitement to it," says 26-year-old Noël Wells, who joined the cast this fall along with five other new featured players. "Every week when you start, you don't know what's going to happen, and there's just so much energy. It always surprises you — it's set up never to be predictable."
Even more surprising, SNL has remained politically relevant, even during an off year in the election cycle, with such bits as a government-shutdown-themed parody of "Can't Stop" (starring Miley Cyrus as Michele Bachman and Taran Killam as John Boehner) and a commercial for a presidential antidepressant featuring Jay Pharoah's impeccable Barack Obama impression. Traditionally, the show's ratings have fallen immediately after presidential campaigns, but lately the numbers have remained relatively steady, even though the only major political figure running for reelection in 2013 was New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who's been hilariously embodied by one of SNL's new MVPs, Bobby Moynihan.
Christie himself even made a cameo on the show in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. "He did 'Weekend Update,' and he killed," remembers Moynihan. "It's the hardest thing to do, because you're just sitting there staring at the camera, but he was great."
He's not the only celebrity who has overachieved on SNL lately. Sure, guest hosts occasionally phone it in (we're looking at you, Bruce Willis), but, Wells says, "Miley Cyrus and Kerry Washington were so game and willing to make fun of themselves, and Lady Gaga was very down [for anything], too." According to second-year cast member Cecily Strong, "Miley was so kind and professional. People went in wanting to hate her and grudgingly were like, 'I kind of like her now.'"
Strong also quickly won over skeptics after she shifted into the "Update" coanchor chair alongside Meyers, who will leave next year to host Late Night when fellow SNL alum Jimmy Fallon takes over The Tonight Show. "[Executive producer] Lorne [Michaels] made the decision over the summer that she'd be a good person to slide in there," says Meyers. "I'm not the first person to make the observation that Lorne has a very good eye for talent. As soon as he told me where he was leaning, it made a lot of sense."
"I didn't ask for it — I was chosen," confirms Strong, who has settled into the job nicely. "The writers for 'Weekend Update' are the funniest group of nerds. They make me laugh so much at their jokes, so I feel very safe in their hands."
As Strong notes, "It's a good time to be a woman on the show." Many of the biggest laughs come from Vanessa Bayer (whose recurring characters include Miley Cyrus and Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy), third-season player Kate McKinnon (known for killer imitations of Ellen DeGeneres and Penelope Cruz, among others) and up-and-coming sophomore Aidy Bryant (who teams with Strong in the hysterical "Girlfriends Talk Show" sketches). Perennial geek Nasim Pedrad may have overstayed her welcome, but she'll likely soon depart since she has landed a supporting role on ex-SNL writer John Mulaney's self-titled midseason Fox sitcom, which is executive produced by Michaels.
The men provide plenty of support, with Moynihan and Killam becoming the new glue, a description first given to Hartman that's indicative of cast members who hold the show together by appearing in almost every sketch. "When I came in, we had some alpha males, like Jason [Sudeikis] and Darrell [Hammond], so the new guys have to deal with me and Taran, who are reading comic books," says Moynihan. "We're trying to be the adult men of the group."
For more on Saturday Night Live, check out this week's digital version of TV Guide Magazine, available Thursday, Dec. 12!