Owen Wilson SNL Sketches Ranked: New Cast Member Takes Over Biden Impression in Solid Debut

A smart and packed premiere features jabs at Biden (played by newcomer James Austin Johnson), Dog the Bounty Hunter, anti-maskers, the billionaire space race, the “View” Covid debacle and even R. Kelly!

A new season means new opportunities for everyone to make their mark on the show, and “Saturday Night Live” definitely gave one new face that opportunity.

James Austin Johnson is one of three new cast-members to join the show as featured players this season, but he was the only one to get a spot not only in the first sketch of the night, but as the first person we see for the new season. On top of that, he takes over the Biden impression from Alex Moffat in a huge vote of confidence.

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Sarah Sherman is another featured player who got a few good opportunities to start putting her stamp on the show, while Aristotle Athari is still waiting for his chance. Chloe Fineman and Bowen Yang were both elevated to repertory players in their third seasons, which is both well-deserved and about what usually happens.

The big news, perhaps, was the absence of Beck Bennett from the cast, the only long-time cast member to depart. But he wasn’t the only face absent from tonight’s premiere, with there being no sign of Kate McKinnon, either. Maybe Lorne Michaels carrying such a large cast offers opportunities for nights off or moonlighting on other projects without really impacting the show too much. It certainly happened last season.

All in all, this was a solid premiere with some great “Weekend Update” content, including a sweet tribute to the late Norm Macdonald, and expected jabs at everything from R. Kelly to the obsession with the Gabby Petito case — giving us Pete Davidson’s Dog the Bounty Hunter, on the trail — to anti-mask sentiments, the billionaire space race, a terrible idea for “Cars 4” and did we mention R. Kelly?

As usual, we’re ranking all the sketches from worst to first, including the Monologue, Cold Open, “Weekend Update” and any sketches that were cut for time but made their way online. We’ll skip the musical guests, because they’re not usually funny — unless Ashlee Simpson shows up. We wrap up with a look at the cast-member who had the strongest week.

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COLD OPEN: Biden the Uniter

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In a very bold move, newcomer James Austin Johnson not only debuted as the new Joe Biden impersonator (even doing so opposite old Biden impersonator Alex Moffatt, reprising his much better Chuck Schumer). Even more remarkably, James did so in the Cold Open as the first fresh face of the new season — a huge vote of confidence. What’s most remarkable, though, is that his subtlety in the role nailed a lot of Biden’s mannerisms, voice and demeanor better than a lot of the broader efforts we’ve seen (sorry Jim Carrey!).

He was flanked by “SNL” all-stars as key figures in the Democratic party to show just how united we weren’t. We particularly loved Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant (Sen. Krysten Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin, respectively) as extreme moderates and chaos machines. Overall, the sketch content wasn’t as strong as it could have been, which you could hear by the cool audience reception; but it did work as a feel-good welcome back for the new season — and a great opportunity for the new guy!

Star Trek: Ego Quest

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“A midlife crisis of cosmic proportions” Luke Wilson joined his brother as brothers in a pitch-perfect parody, a great spoof of the billionaire space race that has all of America … unsure what to think. It really doesn’t affect the rest of us, does it? And with income disparity reaching all-time highs, isn’t that kind of like rubbing our faces in it?

The absurdity of the whole thing takes the front seat with Owen Wilson’s Jeff Bezos helming his penis-shaped ship opposite Alex Moffat’s gleefully crazy Richard Branson and Mikey Day’s former “SNL” host Elon Musk. What’s brilliant is that it’s basically just these three guys f—— around just outside the atmosphere where there’s really not much to do but f— around.

We were dying at Bezos having beaming technology which he uses to beam up an Amazon delivery person to deliver him a package (Kenan Thompson!) only to send him right home with a water bottle to pee in, a not-so-subtle dig at how much Amazon prioritizes its workers. And a stark reminder opposite the opulent extravagance of the whole space race thing that this “Ego Trip” is riding on the backs of an underappreciated work force.

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MONOLOGUE: Owen Wilson

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Owen delivered a very down-to-earth monologue, but also one of the most effective we’ve seen in years. He was relaxed and self-deprecating in the best possible way. He played off the expectation of saying “we have a great show” beautifully. And most importantly, he invited us not only into a new season of the show, he invited us into his world and his warmth. He was incredibly likable and by the end of it, he had us smiling and rooting for him and the show to do well. It was beautifully crafted.

Funeral Service

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A funeral took a dark turn when the late Miriam’s favorite performer came up to sing her favorite song, which just happened to be R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.” Then, we got to the slide montage of Nana Miriam (Heidi Gardner) with all of the famous people she met along the way, like Kevin Spacey and Donald Trump and Bill Cosby. Basically, the truth about Nana’s life maybe wasn’t as rosy as most funerals would depict, so maybe we should respect the disturbing honesty of this one.

Cars 4 Voiceover

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A nice twist ending awaited those wading through this otherwise familiar territory. Owen Wilson reprises his role as Lightning McQueen in the recording booth, but this fourth edition of the beloved children’s franchise sees LIghtning all grown up — but still with a predilection for children (ahem, young girls). It’s disturbing to say the least, and Owen had some serious concerns.

James Austin Johnson got his second big showcase and impression of the night, killing it as Larry the Cable Guy, who comes in to gleefully run some lines with Owen. The dialogue itself was pretty funny, but it really came together with the still images of the characters behind Owen (and James) illustrating what was being implied and sometimes said outright. Pretty dark and yet pretty funny.

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CUT FOR TIME: Splitting the Check

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Owen Wilson was the clear star of this bit about a guy who ordered a little bit of everything — and we do mean everything — at a fancy restaurant. At least until the sketch took a surprise left turn toward the end. There was some great reaction work from everyone else, and a true sense of camaraderie throughout. It looks like Owen really meshed with this cast, and they were very happy to be back at it after the summer hiatus. A charming piece that worked entirely based on the quality work from everyone involved.

NFL on Fox

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There’s nothing more awkward than product placement — i.e., show promotions — by sportscasters, so that’s what this sketch was all about. Another unexpected showcase for newcomer James Austin Johnson, who played it straight for this one. A great impressionist who can also take on some of the straight roles Beck Bennet used to do, he could prove a great asset to this show.

He was perfect here, pitching a “Crazy House” show that got stupider and worse with every moment it was showcased. Owen Wilson was great as his color guy trying to make guesses about the show’s contents, which was three influencers in a house owned by a guy named Crazy who gives them points for social activism — this probably will be a Fox show soon.

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Mail-In Commercial

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Another big showcase for a newcomer, as well as relative newcomer Andrew Dismukes. He and Sarah Sherman played off of each other extremely well as a couple of scientists who are definitely going to take out your stool sample and mess around with it. The whole sketch was beautifully crafted, well-suited for late in the show where strangeness likes to lurk.

Sarah was confident on-screen and really embraced the quirks of the character and the whole premise, while Andrew does a surprisingly good creepy voice and face. We couldn’t help but wonder how fellow newcomer Aristotle Althari felt with his bit role throughout, knowing both James and Sarah really got their chances to shine this week. His time will surely come, though. Surely!

The Talking

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A fun spoof of the awkwardness of live TV when two of “The View” co-hosts tested  (false) positive on-air with Owen Wilson almost making a game out of removing the ladies one by one But even better was the ridiculous banter between Ego Nwodim, Heidi Garnder, Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant about all kind of topic.

As we’ve come to expect when they share the screen, Aidy and Cecily were particularly great, and brilliantly hilarious, as co-hosts constantly bickering and making it personal at every opportunity. There are advantages to long tenures on the show together as it creates incredible chemistry and a real love of performing together that resonates right through the screen.

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Weekend Update

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Yikes! After lamenting that the top story this premiere is infrastructure, compared to 2020’s crazy everything, Michael Che still managed to elicit some groans and uncomfortable laughter with his take on R. Kelly’s sentencing not happening until next May and the status of his streaming music. The boys were definitely loose and feeling it, with an incredibly warm reception that was totally absent in the Cold Open, and had some great material, despite that early warning.

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Ego Nwodim did not go with subtlety as a Black woman missing for ten years — a very pointed commentary on America’s obsession with the latest missing white woman (Gabby Petito) when minority women go missing all the time and have never gotten this type of buzz or scrutiny. This piece was all Ego and she was fantastic, incensed and outraged. The comparison between how her case has been treated in every aspect of it compared to a white woman who went missing at the same time were both over-the-top and perhaps not exaggerated enough. Great commentary makes you laugh and uncomfortable at its truth, and this was definitely both.

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Colin kicked off the second jokefest with a great joke about his own extreme whiteness — a running joke on this segment — after being grateful he wasn’t the one to tell Michael’s very off-color NBA vaccine joke. The guys were feeling so good, they were giggling at their own jokes and this audience was eating up every bit of it. “Update” is clearly poised to again be the darling of the season.

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“I can’t believe I’m back,” Pete crowed after talking not just about his experience at the Met Gala, but about his homophobic uncle’s reaction to the dress he wore — and then a lot of Generation X homophobia/gay content. But the best part — and we’re not sure Colin knew this was coming — was how deftly he slammed Colin’s work in the “Tom & Jerry” film. That’s just masterful.

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The final segment for “Weekend Update” was a tribute to the late Norm Macdonald, who really made his mark as one of the best to ever do “the fake news” long before anyone started throwing that phrase around as political ammunition. Just a few jokes reminded us why his sardonic approach was a thing of beauty in its simplicity and snark.

School Board Meeting

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While this was a spoof of the outrageous behavior we’ve seen during school board meetings over mask mandates and the vaccine, Heidi Gardner was great as an incensed parent concerned about critical race theory. “My question is, what is it? And why am I mad about it?” From there, the whole sketch devolved into a showcase for almost every single cast-member to come out and give us their craziest crazy, and for Pete Davidson to show off his Dog the Bounty Hunter, still on the hunt for Brian Laundrie. The whole sketch was bonkers in the best possible way, as it was a hoot watching just how ridiculous these characters could get. Bowen Yang was probably our favorite!

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Three newcomers walk into a season premiere of “Saturday Night Live.” Surprisingly, one of them is chosen for a marquee impression and allowed to be the first face seen on the night. and then he went on to feature in four total sketches, with two great impressions and two lead performances.

We loved some of what we saw from Sarah Sherman this week (Aristotle Athari had the usual featured player bit roles), but there was no denying that a major new force had entered “SNL” in James Austin Johnson. Whether or not he can keep up this kind of momentum is up to him, but he was all over the place with quality work this week.

Interestingly, new repertory players Chloe Fineman and Bowen Yang were relegated to bit parts throughout the evening, while Andrew Dismukes joined Sarah and James with lots of showcase opportunities. Meanwhile, of the veterans, Kate McKinnon was entirely absent while Cecily and Aidy were their consistently hilarious selves (especially when working together)

But we absolutely have to give this week to James for a stellar debut with strong work as Joe Biden and Larry the Cable Guy, as well as his Fox sportscaster and general confidence on-camera for his big debut. We’ll definitely be keeping an eye on him after such a promising start.

“Saturday Night Live” returns next Saturday with host Kim Kardashian and musical guest Halsey.

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