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6 Times ‘Saturday Night Live’ Got Church Right

Saturday Night Live returns on Saturday with first-time host John Krasinski and blissfully no reason to think to think Alec Baldwin or his Trump impersonation will be involved. SNL has struggled to lampoon the Trump era — not necessarily their fault, it was a hard time to parody — and now, will hopefully feel free to get back to the eccentric weirdness that has defined the best of SNL. And while the show usually tip toes around religion cautiously, it has taken a few occasions to come after church. Sometimes, these depictions have veered into the prickly or even offensive. But often, SNL takes a more loving approach, riffing church culture without coming after actual beliefs. Here are a few of their best church-centric skits.

Zoom Church

The most recent addition came from one of SNL‘s early pandemic episodes, where everything was filmed from cast member’s homes. “Zoom Church” worked by nailing America’s Zoom learning curve, relying on a perfectly calibrated Kenan Thompson to slowly dial up his pastoral frustration with an online congregation that just couldn’t figure out how to mute. It’s certainly not Thompson’s last appearance on this list, who is both SNL‘s longest and one of its most reliable players.

St. Joseph’s Christmas Mass Spectacular

Like many Americans, SNL turns to church a lot during the Christmas season. That resulted in this very funny spoof on a Christmas Mass, marketed in the style of a midwestern monster truck rally. Obviously, riffing on some church’s over-reliance on marketing campaigns has plenty of material, but the real punchlines here come from the sense that the calls are coming from inside the house. Pastor Pat’s “joke” about “Mapquest” during Bible times could only come from someone who’s sat in the pews to hear that joke a few times themselves.

Church Chat – Satan

The icon. Dana Carvey’s “Church Lady” is about as legendary as SNL characters get, but Carvey was never better than when skewering a motley dup of televangelists played by Robert Smigel and Phil Hartman. Smigel was brought on as then-presidential candidate Pat Robertson while Hartman was a performatively contrite Jimmy Swaggart, then on the heels of being caught with a sex worker. Carvey’s usual smiley, passive aggressive judgementalism was here deployed to righteous ends, going after the two guests with some buttoned-up intensity that actual Christians really could have used at the time. Isn’t that special?

Jesus Visits Tim Tebow and The Denver Broncos

At Tebow-mania’s peak, SNL unleashed Ted Lasso as Jesus Christ, come down from Heaven to give the Denver Broncos a light talking to about depending too much on divine interference to pull them out of fourth quarter nail biters. Taran Killem is terrific as Tebow, exuding hyper earnestness even as Jason Sudeikis tries to get him to dial it down a little. The lesson here: Prayer is good, but maybe there are other things to pray for besides football?

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Three Wise Men

Another Christmas one, this one featuring Tracy Morgan, Thompson and the Rev. Al Sharpton as the three Wisemen who get pulled over by racist first century cop Jimmy Fallon. This isn’t strictly a church sketch but SNL gets extra points for threading the needle between an important issue and a Bible story. As a police officer, Fallon is skeptical of the wisemen’s claims (Fallon: “You’re going to meet someone? Yeah, right. What’s his name?” Morgan: “I don’t know his name!” Fallon: “You don’t know your friends’ name?”) while the magi get increasingly irritated even as they’re grudgingly aware of how the interaction is bound to go.

Gospel Brunch

Another Thompson winner, this time with Leslie Jone as the co-hosts of some sort of public access TV show that combines cooking with church. It’s a little bit exclusive (Cecily Strong is quickly swept off when they realize she doesn’t believe in God) but Amy Schumer comes through with a “healthy recipe” that appears to be a pecan pie blended with milk. The fun of the sketch is how quickly it goes off-script, as Thompson and Jones fight back chuckles in an attempt to keep Schumer’s act together, but the music rings true.

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