NEW YORK – After an off-season of some mystery involving several favorite performers, “Saturday Night Live” said it was returning for its 47th year this weekend with all but one of its incumbent cast members on board.
Only Beck Bennett, known for impersonations of former Vice President Mike Pence and a buff Russian leader Vladimir Putin, is exiting.
Aidy Bryant, Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, Kenan Thompson and Pete Davidson, all busy cast members whose returns were considered questionable, will be coming back.
The show's longtime executive producer, Lorne Michaels, likes to keep an aura of mystery around his cast until the last minute. But speculation about dramatic cast changes was fueled by an emotional season finale last May.
Instead of a comic monologue, that episode opened with Bryant, McKinnon, Strong and Thompson speaking seriously about the challenges of producing the show during the COVID pandemic.
During “Weekend Update,” Davidson told the audience, “I'm very grateful to be here, and it's been an honor to grow up in front of you guys.” Strong had a show-stopping appearance as one of her most notable characters, Jeanine Pirro, singing a wine-soaked version of “My Way.”
The returns illustrate a new-found flexibility for the show, and its importance to NBC in a changing television environment.
Instead of demanding a full-time commitment, Michaels has been allowing cast members to take time off during the season for other projects, and that will continue this year. McKinnon is to produce and star in the upcoming Peacock series “Joe Exotic,” and Thompson's NBC sitcom, “Kenan,” will return for a second season.
Thompson is the longest-running “Saturday Night Live” cast member with 18 seasons, and he told Entertainment Weekly this summer that he sees no reason to leave.
“I keep saying I’m trying to get to 20," Thompson told the magazine. “So if they don’t throw me out of there before, I’m trying to get to 20. And then, I don’t know if it makes sense for me to leave even after that point."
Bryant helped develop and performed in the Hulu series “Shrill,” while Strong was in the Apple+ series “Schmigadoon.”
It's also a long time since the original “Saturday Night Live” cast was dubbed the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.” The show now frequently gets more viewers than much of NBC's prime-time fare and is seen live on the West Coast — in prime time.
Bennett, in an Instagram post on Monday, wrote, “Love you, SNL. Gonna miss you so much. Thank you for 8 years of remarkable people and incredible experiences that completely changed my life.”
He didn't elaborate on why he was leaving but it was believed to be his choice.
The crowded “SNL” stage will begin its season with 16 cast members and five featured performers. One featured performer from last year, Lauren Holt, is leaving. Three new ones will be added: Aristotle Athari, James Austin Johnson and Sarah Sherman.
Owen Wilson is the host of Saturday's season-opener, with Kacey Musgraves as musical guest.