On May 22, Saturday Night Live wrapped up a year that its cast, like the rest of us, would probably love to forget. The show’s season finale kicked off with a cold open that was premised on this very notion: Through a veil of post-traumatic irony—and even a hint of tears—the actors reminded us that this hasn’t been an especially easy time for comedy. The pandemic kept them all under lockdown in New York, playing to a half-full studio audience of masked, exhausted first responders. The show’s typically broad, cartoonish political satire proved an uneasy fit for a nation torn by a raging disease, racial unrest, and an insurrection at the Capitol. There weren’t even any new movies to make fun of. That SNL managed to crank out any new episodes at all, they suggested, should be cause for congratulation.
So it was an especially rough season to be a first-time cast member, as freshman featured player Andrew Dismukes also pointed out in that opening segment. It didn’t help that this year’s SNL ensemble was unusually huge—a Darrell Hammond–exhausting twenty names, well over the usual fifteen or sixteen. If those new faces failed to make their mark, the sketch implied, well, it’s not exactly their fault. Like everyone else in this purgatorial year, maybe they deserve to take a mulligan.
Yet even under historically dire circumstances, Dismukes enjoyed a better first year than so many other forgotten names from SNL’s past. The Port Neches native also did it as one of just a handful of Texans to ever join the SNL cast. He’s also the first to get there directly from here, going from being the class cutup at his Port Neches high school to working the Austin stand-up scene to Studio 8H, without the obligatory detours to Chicago or Los Angeles.
Insomuch as regional pride matters to Texans—namely, more than anything—there’s a lot riding on him. After all, Dismukes’s predecessors, it must be said, didn’t exactly enter SNL Valhalla: Houston’s Randy Quaid was part of the show’s infamously stiff 1985–86 season. Producer Lorne Michaels so detested the season that he killed it with fire. San Antonio’s Noël Wells made just a fleeting impression on the 2013 zeitgeist with her take on Zooey Deschanel before dropping out of the cast (and not, it would seem, all that amicably).
The 25-year-old Dismukes, who’s been writing for the show since 2017, is already Texas’s most visible, most lasting contribution to TV comedy’s longest-running institution. He’s a hero to any funny kid who dreams of breaking out of their small Texas town, but who doesn’t want to pony up for NYU.
Dismukes is also—at least to my knowledge—the first SNL cast member to mine his Texan-ness for comedy, as he did during his debut Weekend Update segment. After pledging his sincere love for barbecue and Willie Nelson in a slight drawl, the proudly “Texas through and through” Dismukes lamented that his state always gets a bad rap “just because of what it does, and the laws it passes, and the way its people are, which isn’t fair.” He also blamed his Texas upbringing for the fact that he grew up believing Frasier was British, rather than just “fancy,” before winding his way through a discursive monologue about watching a Disney Channel movie with his ancient, Southern great-grandma.
It was one of those desk pieces frequently undertaken by SNL rookies, which are little more than a bunch of their road-tested stand-up jokes loosely strung together.
Still, there was a self-effacing ease to Dismukes’s patter that made the bit a standout anyway. He got his biggest laughs by making room for the awkward silence that greeted his mention of his home state, and sarcastically calling out the muted reaction to his Frasier gag. Dismukes knows how to work a crowd, in other words, with the kind of unassuming poise and deadpan charm he’s honed across countless stage gigs. If it wasn’t a star-making moment on par with, say, Bowen Yang playing a haughtily aggrieved iceberg, it still proved Dismukes could endear himself to a younger audience, which SNL must always feed on to survive.
The value of Dismukes’s appeal is easy to identify: he vibes with a younger millennial/Gen Z audience that loves “dead inside” irony. SNL has always been pitched squarely at “the kids”; there’s a reason its “best cast” is whichever one was on when you were in high school.
But as the show’s ratings have continued their inevitable post-Trump decline, and various streaming platforms have completely obliterated any notion of “monoculture,” SNL’s success is measured less in catchphrase-spewing original characters than in standalone viral clips—pre-taped music videos and bizarro short films that will play well, context-free, on social media.
Dismukes proved himself more than adept at creating those. In January’s “The Loser,” which he co-wrote with Streeter Seidell, he played the creepy, manga-reading kid brother to John Krasinski’s popular jock, offering desperate defenses of his various weird medical conditions.
And in the finale’s “Picture with Dad,” a Dismukes-written sketch in which Beck Bennett accidentally shoots off his own penis, Dismukes is Bennett’s daughter’s coolly unflappable prom date who responds to Bennett’s repeated entreaties to not have sex with her with “Okay. We will, but yeah.”
There’s a blithe, understated lack of self-consciousness to Dismukes’s performances that elevate them beyond mere gross-out gags. And both seem to tap into a kind of nihilistic, deeply morbid absurdity. You know—for kids.
Dismukes obviously knows how to write for himself—which is important, considering the show doesn’t always seem to know what to do with him. As the youngest cast member (and one of the youngest in SNL history), he’s often conscripted to play actual kids: the fourteen-year-old who takes his babysitter to prom; the innocent church camper being traumatized by a wildly inappropriate Universal Studios tour guide; the shorts-wearing greenhorn who’s horrified to meet his incompetent, sea shanty–singing whaling crew; a frat pledge who’s being hazed while wearing a bonnet.
He’s also frequently wedged into the thankless “son” roles in dinner-party sketches, or given filler straight lines as a Buffalo Wild Wings deliveryman—even forced to stand there silently while he’s upstaged by a cockatoo. Dismukes does share a surreal, self-deprecating comedic sensibility with Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney. But when he’s paired with them, as in sketches about would-be viral stars and theme restaurant–loving militiamen, he comes off as a perfectly fine, but largely superfluous echo of their own established personalities.
Unfortunately, Dismukes’s biggest solo sketch to date, which pitted him against host Daniel Kaluuya in a war of escalating dog voices, was—like so many SNL bits—mildly amusing but overlong, with nowhere else to really go once Dismukes and Kaluuya started barking at each other.
All told, there’s a reason Dismukes probably got more attention this year not for one of his sketches, but for wading into the Elon Musk controversy (though really, the same could be said of SNL itself).
Still, Dismukes gave his all even to those glorified background parts, which speaks to his willingness to play the long game. And it might not even be that long: there’s been increasing speculation that 2021–22 will be one of Saturday Night Live’s big turnover years, with veteran cast members Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, and Pete Davidson all hinting that they’ll leave before fall. Although Dismukes doesn’t have Davidson’s permanently fried, Soundcloud-rapper energy—as others have noted, he’s more in the mold of John Mulaney’s gawky Catholic schoolboy—he already commands a similarly thirsty following, garnering sparkling fancams and surprisingly horny tweets from a generation that’s all-in on scrawny, self-deprecating white guys. And if you believe that SNL doesn’t factor in this kind of unpredictable, ineffable online appeal, again, you saw that Elon Musk hosted, right?
All of which leaves Andrew Dismukes—tough first year or no—uniquely well positioned to return next season, where he’ll hopefully grow out of playing interchangeable shy guys dating somebody’s daughter, and continue to hone a more distinctive, if only intermittently Southern-accented voice.
Texas may finally get a Saturday Night Live star to call its own. It only took forty-six seasons and a pandemic to find him.