Whether you believe in its continued cultural relevancy or not, it’s hard to argue against the enduring power of Saturday Night Live as an incubator of and spotlight for great comedic talent. The venerable Rockefeller Center stage can still make stars, and though SNL might still be in the midst of an awkward transition period that began with the departure of giants like Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, stars are rising in Studio 8H, and Aidy Bryant is one of them.
Now in her third SNL season, Bryant has become an indispensable part of the cast through a combination of warmth and fearlessness that she shares with fellow and up-and-comer Kate McKinnon and series veteran Kenan Thompson. Watching her is often like watching an old friend who gave you a big hug before she walked to the stage and got to work. There’s a sincerity to the performance that creates an endearing openness between Bryant and her audience, whether they’re in the studio or in their living rooms. It’s a gift that greats like Gilda Radner and Jan Hooks had before her, and through it Bryant can forge everything from bizarre sexuality to awkward self-preservation to pure manic comic boldness, often in the span of single sketch.
As a result, Bryant’s role on the show keeps growing, and midway through SNL’s 40th season — which returns this weekend, with Kevin Hart and Sia as the musical performer — it seems her time has come to be a star among stars. For proof, here are 10 of her best SNL performances.
In the season 40 premiere, Bryant and host Chris Pratt played two awkward people in a bar who flirted through increasingly raunchy rap lyrics. Pratt’s great, but Bryant steals the scene by repeatedly pivoting on a dime between shy single gal and fearless, Nicki Minaj-style hip hop freak.
“(DO IT ON MY) TWIN BED”
Every female SNL cast member (and host Jimmy Fallon) came together for what was easily the most viral moment of the show’s 39th season: a song about women hoping to have sex with their boyfriends while home for the holidays. Everyone’s great, but Bryant’s one of the standouts, and she was also nominated for an Emmy for co-writing the song.
Bryant might prove to be the breakout star of SNL’s 40th season, but Kate McKinnon was inarguably the breakout star of its 39th. Here, they team up for a throwback cop show about two badass women who call themselves “Dyke and Fats.” McKinnon owns her sexuality, Bryant owns her weight, and a great sketch with a perfect punchline is born.
“GIRLFRIENDS TALK SHOW”
Bryant’s earned plenty of laughs in this recurring sketch as Morgan, the awkward teenager who’s constantly being thrust into chaos by her more confident best friend Kyra (Cecily Strong). In this installment, Kyra invites Morgan’s secret crush (host Josh Hutcherson) on the show, and the ensuing freakout makes it the best edition of the sketch. I’m still laughing at “I think I might be entering womanhood right now!”
In one of season 40’s best moments of pure weirdness, Bryant plays the wife of a waterbed store owner (host Martin Freeman) who’s convinced she’s going to be a star. What begins as awkward jingle singing quickly morphs into a performance of hilarious delusions of grandeur.
“WORST LADY ON AN AIRPLANE”
Bryant doesn’t appear as a correspondent on Weekend Update that often, but she’s still created a classic character or two at the Update desk. Here, she’s that person on an airplane everyone hates, gleefully explaining how to travel in style at the expense of everyone else around you.
“BACK HOME BALLERS”
The season 40 sequel to “(Do It On My) Twin Bed” features the entire female SNL cast and host Cameron Diaz heading home for Thanksgiving to plunder fridges, take selfish naps, and score free wi-fi while their parents dote on them. Again, it’s a sketch full of great performances, but Bryant stands out as “Lil Baby Aidy,” particularly when she runs into Jean, her neighbor from “Twin Bed.”
“HIGH SCHOOL THEATER SHOW”
In another standout moment from Diaz’s season 40 episode, Bryant is part of a company of high school theater students putting on a show full of pretentious statements about greed and censorship in America. Again, the sketch works because of the ensemble, but Bryant’s perfect smug teenage smirk helps sell every moment.
Remember that “bizarre sexuality” I was talking about earlier? Well, Bryant turns it on full blast in this Weekend Update appearance as Santa’s wife, who’s more than happy to see her ancient, impossibly hairy man leave the house on Christmas Eve. The little twang she adds to the voice only makes it funnier.
Like Kenan Thompson, Bryant can turn the tide of a sketch like a force of nature, and nowhere is that more evident than here. What begins as a very awkward “Peter Pan” setup morphs into a spotlight on “Tonkerbell,” Tinkerbell’s wild sister. The laughs shouldn’t work, and yet Bryant makes them.
Matthew Jackson is a freelance pop culture writer/nerd-for-hire and Contributing Editor at Blastr.com. Find him on Twitter at @awalrusdarkly.