An Appreciation Of 'SNL's' Beck Bennett, From Burnouts And Office Poopers To Baby CEOs

Bennett never quite became a marquee name on "Saturday Night Live" — but he smuggled plenty of heart, smarts and nuance onto the air.

Beck Bennett confirmed this week that he’s leavingSaturday Night Live” after eight years as a cast member, meaning the show is saying goodbye to one of its most potent secret weapons.

Bennett, who came to Studio 8H from the Los Angeles sketch scene, found traction on “SNL” as the in-house Mike Pence and Vladimir Putin, as well as a go-to voiceover guy ― but his comic sensibilities always ran in some much stranger and more specific directions. Like Thomas Lennon on “The State” before him, Bennett on “SNL” was a weirdo hiding in plain sight, his open, pleasant face hinting at neither his genuine acting chops nor his readiness to follow the internal logic of any given sketch into screaming lunacy.

It’s probably not Bennett’s fate to be remembered as “SNL” royalty, up there with your Murphys and Rudolphs, your Ferrells and Farleys and Feys. But he more than acquitted himself in his near-decade on the show, whether he was delivering a spot-on Mr. Bean, turning on a dime from sitcom mugging to dawning horror, or just stealing entire sketches with a couple of lines.

It seems more likely that Bennett will go down, at least among attentive viewers, as a Taran Killam or an Ana Gasteyer type: someone who never got a big breakout moment, but who always did something, week after week after week, to make Lorne Michaels’ show smarter and funnier and better.

This list isn’t an attempt to compile Bennett’s best “SNL” appearances, per se ― but it should give an idea of just how much he brought to the enterprise.

Boop-It” (2020)

“Hapless suburban dad whose life unravels around him” is a character type that Bennett maybe got a little too much mileage out of on “SNL” ― there’s not a lot that separates the Chris of “Picture with Dad” from the Nathan of “December to Remember,” except a mustache (and, by the end, a penis).

Still, Bennett wore the role well, and never better than in “Boop-It,” where his middle-aged divorcé invests way too much into mastering his kids’ legally-distinct-from-Bop-It game. Once the father flubs his first try at the toy, we watch his embarrassment give way to simmering hostility, drunken excitement and finally red-eyed desperation. “SNL” is often at its best when it steers into dark, emotional territory, and Bennett’s performance takes this sketch down into a bleak place that it wisely doesn’t emerge from.

AMC Theatres Commercial” (2021)

On the other hand, sometimes you just want a blast of glorious silliness, which Bennett is also more than capable of supplying. (“Stanx,” from 2014, is an almost literal example.) “AMC Theatres Commercial,” a mostly-solo live sketch from this past May, found Bennett riffing on a then-sorta-recent “F9” promotional video where Vin Diesel, speaking as himself, looked ahead hopefully to some scaled-back version of social distancing.

The “F9” ad proper has plenty of sizzle-reel stunts and pyrotechnics, but the “SNL” sketch zeroes in on a briefer, weirder aspect of the video: Diesel lovingly describing the sensory experience of being in an actual movie theater. “SNL” takes this and runs with it, as a bald-capped Bennett, in what would turn out to be his last sketch as a cast member, enthuses in a marble-mouthed Diesel voice about every possible object and circumstance one might encounter at the multiplex.

Bennett is capable of real range, but the joke here is in his wooden expression and thudding, monotone delivery. You need crack comic timing, especially in a live sketch, to keep interesting what amounts to a plodding recitation of a list, but Bennett pulls it off, with assists from Kenan Thompson, Chris Redd, Melissa Villaseñor and host Anya Taylor-Joy. (His actual Diesel impression is so-so ― he told Time he didn’t get a lot of notice to work on it ― although there are some enunciative flourishes, like “doesn’t” becoming “dudn’t,” that feel true to the spirit of Dom Toretto.) Points off to writers Dan Bulla and Steven Castillo, though, when they go for the easy joke about Diesel being a dimwit ― as well as an anti-masker, for some reason?

Zoo-opolis Voice Actors” (2017)

Bennett doesn’t show up until the final minute of this sketch, which mainly serves as a vehicle for Thompson, Villaseñor, Alex Moffat and a game Octavia Spencer to have some fun hamming it up with vocal likenesses. (Everyone rises to the occasion, but Villaseñor in particular does killer work, as is always the case with this sort of thing.)

Impressions aren’t Bennett’s strong suit, but here that becomes part of the joke. If you haven’t seen the sketch, the exact nature of his contribution is better left as a surprise; suffice it to say there’s one “No Country for Old Men” actor you will have some trouble taking seriously for a while.

Mr. Riot Films” (2015)

Before “SNL,” Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney made some delightfully weird videos as half of the four-man L.A. sketch group Good Neighbor. In 2013, they made their “SNL” debuts together at the start of the show’s 39th season. (Nick Rutherford and Dave McCary, the other two guys in Good Neighbor, also spent time at “SNL,” though not on camera.) Mooney by now has established himself as a strong performer with a distinctive voice, but something wonderful will be lost from “SNL” in the absence of further Kyle/Beck collaborations ― even if a lot of those shorts ended up getting cut for time.

Bennett and Mooney, by all appearances, were as simpatico as the show’s other power couple, Aidy Bryant and Kate McKinnon. The two guys seem to share a passion for escalating absurdism, hyperspecific pastiche and deadpan anti-humor (as well as, you know, stumbling around in their underwear).

Some of their stuff could be self-indulgent, and some of it misfired entirely, but at their best, Bennett and Mooney built strange little worlds and invited the viewer in ― as with “Mr. Riot Films,” where two clueless, would-be-woke bros try to tackle society’s ills with all the adroitness of an ape using an iPad. (Actually, maybe that’s not fair to the apes.)

Mr. Westerberg” (2015)

This sketch has a few structural problems ― why are there five office workers with speaking parts, and why would they carry on mocking their boss’ voice once the horrifying central conceit of the bit becomes clear? Bennett makes it work, though, his character obliviously painting a picture of the monster in the next room while hinting at the depth of his own suppressed trauma.

What ultimately gives this sketch its power is the hard left turn into Stockholm syndrome. The grace notes come at the end, as Bennett’s suddenly childlike demeanor, a boy hoping for approval from Daddy, crashes against Bobby Moynihan’s authentically chilling gaze. (That future “I Think You Should Leave” creators Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin co-wrote this bit of creeping white-collar insanity should surprise no one, though it may also account for the sketch’s relative lack of discipline. Michael Che’s writing credit is maybe a little more surprising, but hey, good for him.)

Inside SoCal” (recurring)

A faux-news format that Bennett and Mooney ported over from their web-video days, “Inside SoCal” was always more about capturing a certain tone and character type than it was about traditional punchlines ― putting it in the minority of “SNL” bits that trust the audience to be able to follow along into more conceptual territory.

Mooney and Bennett have clearly spent a lot of time observing the many ways American men can be both doltish and pitiable, and Todd and Casey, their fumbling public-access correspondents, come across as oddly broad-minded burnouts, welcoming most developments in life as “sick” or “tight” as long as they don’t involve a breast reduction. (The “SNL” incarnation of “Inside SoCal” jettisons the casual homophobia of the original, along with the instance of Bennett’s character following around a girl uninvited ― it was all probably meant as depiction more than endorsement, but the 1.0 version didn’t quite get that across. In contrast, the guys despondent over Jessica Cabarra’s back-pain surgery are unmistakably dumbasses.)

Bennett’s performance evolved between web and TV: Both versions of Casey have the thick neck and vacant expression, but by the time of “SNL,” Bennett had found another layer to the character, his stiff body language and sliding-away gaze hinting at Casey’s deep discomfort on camera.

Enough Is Enough” (2020)

Most of the sketches on this list are not what you’d call topical, largely because political satire on “Saturday Night Live” reached some true nadirs during the Trump years. Even a talented performer like Bennett (or Bryant, or McKinnon, or Thompson, or Mooney, or Redd, or Cecily Strong, or Ego Nwodim, or Heidi Gardner ― honestly, “SNL” is working with a pretty solid cast these days) couldn’t do a lot to make such limp material watchable.

“Enough Is Enough” works because it’s not really about the ghouls who make the life-and-death decisions in America; it’s about Bennett’s character, Z-list actor Benji Trunk, and his cringeworthy self-importance, and the painful, repeated puncturing of his ego. Bennett is a performer who (seemingly, at least) has no vanity at all, while Benji is nothing but vanity, plus a dash of tragic good intentions.

As the only person seen or heard in this sketch, save for the celebrity cameo, Bennett carries it all the way to the end zone. Mark the difference between his “on-camera” Benji, shirtless and over-emoting like a Disney Channel teen, and his “off-camera” Benji, hoodie on, shoulders slumped, drifting around his apartment from one defeat to the next. (Also, fear not, this isn’t the last sketch in this roundup where we see Bennett take a crap.)

Office Boss” (recurring)

This list skews heavily toward pre-taped segments, and really, that’s fine. Different cast members have different strengths, and “SNL” is formally flexible enough at this point that not everyone needs to be able to kill at live sketch, which is its own particular skill set. (Mikey Day, who seems unable to speak at anything other than top volume in live pieces, could probably stand to tip his scales a bit more toward pre-tapes, where he’s shown he can work in other, more interesting gears.) Bennett was never bad at the live stuff, but most of his best work was filmed, which makes sense: He and Mooney were YouTube hires, after all.

He had at least one great live triumph, though, in the character of Dick Patterson, a corporate visionary with the motor skills of a 1-year-old. In his handful of appearances as Patterson ― one of which seems unavailable to watch online except by purchase, and another of which, unfortunately, features Louis C.K. ― Bennett goggled and flailed, blew raspberries and clutched at his own bare feet, and somehow, somehow, never broke.

The sketches weren’t immune to the deadening “Mad Libs”-style approach that shapes almost all recurring “SNL” bits: comedy by template, where you take a beat that worked before and recycle it with barely changed wording. But the baby mannerisms are so well-observed, it’s impossible not to cackle. (Everything else aside, Bennett displays a degree of physical limberness here that’s frankly enviable; dude must be diligent about his yoga.)

Undercover Office Potty” (2018)

In some sense, we’re ending this list where we began: with Bennett as a doofus for whom things spiral out of control, through no one’s fault but his own. This was his wheelhouse on “SNL,” as he acknowledged during a 2019 Scarlett Johansson monologue: Dissolving to dust, “Avengers”-style, he frantically yelled, “No! You need me! Who’s gonna play the dumb idiot?” But Bennett was always more than that to the show, making even his bumblers and buffoons into vulnerable, memorable individuals. As Johnson, the floppy-haired schmuck at the center of “Undercover Office Potty,” he hits so many different notes, it almost doesn’t matter that the sketch, a low-budget infomercial for the titular product, is the most literal of toilet humor.

The Undercover Office Potty is a small can for relieving oneself at one’s desk; it’s camouflaged as a lamp, although, it turns out, not one with an odor seal. With the ad’s narrator (it sounds like Strong ― whoever it is, they knock it out of the park) urging Johnson on, Bennett takes us on a whirlwind journey, starting out with the kind of everyman, there’s-got-to-be-a-better-way exasperation invariably expressed in infomercials like this. He cycles through delight, weirdly endearing pride at having defecated in his lamp (“I did good!”), conspiratorial asides to the camera, entirely unwarranted confidence, and finally embarrassment, dismay and panic as the charade falls apart.

The sketch isn’t really ― or at least, not solely ― about poop. It’s about the wonder on Bennett’s face as he first runs his fingers over the potty seat. It’s about his somehow heartbreaking expression of dawning hope as the narrator tells him about a whole other line of covert office toilets that will solve all his problems. It’s about lines like “I probably have to get back to work” and “Smells like regular lamps to me.” (It’s also about the lighting, and the prop design, and Dave McCary’s increasingly claustrophobic direction, and perennial assignment-understander Bill Hader, who prefaces his investigation into the raw-sewage smell of Johnson’s office by saying, “This is never easy, but your co-workers are complaining about your lamps.”)

Bennett hasn’t given much indication of what his post-“Saturday Night Live” life might look like. No matter what he ends up doing next, though ― and hopefully it’ll be more than just voicing animated lunkheads, which he does perfectly well but which doesn’t begin to make use of all his skills ― his run on “SNL,” where plenty of talented performers have come and gone without quite getting their sea legs, was a fine one, reaching for laughs both cerebral and lizard-brained and finding them more often than not. He did good, indeed.

Disclosure: The author’s sister worked as a production assistant on a few episodes of “Saturday Night Live” in 2016 and 2017, although honestly, the author forgot that even happened until he was about to file this story.

Popular in the Community