It’s a really absurd Saturday Night Live sketch with a ridiculously catchy song. It also manages to descend into more and more ridiculousness with each new airing. We’re talking about the Kenan Thompson sketch, “What’s Up With That?” Thompson came up with the idea of a talk show host so obsessed with his show’s theme song that he can’t stop singing it. He approached SNL writer Bryan Tucker with his idea. Then writer Rob Klein came on board and the trio pined down the idea of a BET show titled, What Up With That hosted by a man named Diondre Cole. They then showed a rough sketch to SNL’s musical director Katreese Barnes (who won an Emmy for “Dick In A Box”) and sang some theme song ideas into a recorder. Barnes worked some magic and the final version of the song we know was born.
After that, wardrobe felt Diondre Cole should be a three-piece suit and Jheri Curl wearing man. The supporting cast of characters included the show’s announcer (Will Forte who was later replaced by Taran Killam), backup singers Pippa and Piper (Jenny Slate and Nasim Pedrad, later Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong). We also can’t forget Fred Armisen as Giuseppe a Kenny G-like saxophone player, and Jason Sudeikis as Vance, the most overzealous of backup dancers.
“What Up With That?” premiered in October 2009 with a basic outline that lasted throughout all its airings. Diondre Cole opens the show with a lengthy version of the theme song. He welcomes his guests (two real celebs and the third Bill Hader in character as Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham) then almost immediate launches into a second performance of the theme song. Guests barely get a word in before Cole echoes their comments in a sing-song manner eventually leaping back up to begin a third performance of the catchy theme song. With each passing performance, things just get more odd and the stage gets more crowded, all hell breaks loose with more random dancing, a bridge of the song with an oddball musical guest (usually that week’s host). The song is intended to completely take up all of the talk show’s time. By the time the show ends two panelists barely get a chance to speak and once again, Lindsay Buckingham is bumped yet somehow remains a good sport about the scenario. As the outline is established early on, it gets played with more with each new airing.
The sketch would run a total of 9 times from seasons 35 through 38. We watched them all, breaking down each 6 minute moment to be able to present to you, The Definitive Ranking of Saturday Night Live’s “What Up With That?” Sketches. A bit so oddball and joyous, it deserves an equally oddball and joyous rundown.
Airing #6 – December 4, 2010
Guests: Robin Williams and Robert DiNiro
This sketch ranks at the top because it’s easily the one with the biggest guest stars. The 6th appearance was a tribute to Hollywood and it pulls a slight audible by having host Robert DeNiro act as a panelist rather than a guest musician. This sketch also breaks from the outline by allowing the second panelist, Robin Williams deliver a few lines.
DeNiro gets wise to Diandre’s antics and isn’t having it. Providing a fun “uncomfortable silence” moment that jumps us into the third performance of the song. Kristin Wiig’s Shasta Taffy is oddly synth singing while she removes wigs and Lindsay Buckingham’s birthday should be celebrated… but will it?
Airing #3 – December 19, 2009
Guests: Mike Tyson and Jack MacBrayer
The sketch was such a silly and wacky hit when it premiered that we were treated to one in October, November, and this December episode of season 35. For the holidays panelist Mike Tyson wants to talk about his image but Diondre is a bit more concerned with singing his theme song again. This is where we get the best cutaway chorus… a handful of little dancing Diondre Coles (we particularly love the dude in the middle). While this sketch does have one of the only obvious flubs of all the airings (Kenan misses his queue headed into the third song), the energy is such fun that even Iron Mike gets into the popping and locking at the end.
Airing #5 – October 2, 2010
Guests: Morgan Freeman and Ernest Borgnine
We get our first cast changeovers with the 5th airing. Taran Killam becomes the show’s announcer and Vanessa Bayer is a new backup singer. This sketch features a lot of our favorite overall moments…
1 – Host Bryan Kranston in underwear as a great Parliament Funkadelic impersonation with Jay Pharoah as the dup known as DoDo Man & Squiggy.
2 – Jason Sudeikis nails his jump-in and some on point dancing.
3 – Hot damn is Ernest Borgnine just happy to be present! That dude spends the entire time grinning from ear to ear in amazement at what he’s witnessing before him.
Airing #2 – November 21, 2009
Guests: Al Gore and Mindy Kaling
Al Gore is concerned about Global warming but Diondre is worried about moving your asses. Other SNL cast members often drop-in on this sketch and with this one we get the best use of Moynihan as a tap dancing Jake “The Snake” Roberts and a krumping Andy Samberg. Host Joseph Gordon-Levitt also sets the bar high as guest musician Klause Future rocking the keytar.
Airing #4 – March 6, 2010
Guests: Paul Rudd and Frank Rich
Paul Rudd might be there to talk about the Oscars but this sketch contains the absolute silliest musical guest walk on as host Zach Galifiankis lays down some killer fluting (floutist?) moves as the ambidextrous disco flute player R.J. Sizzle. This sketch also ranks so high because it also contains one of the silliest references to pop culture as Abby Elliot comes in breaking it down as baby Jessica, the little girl who was trapped in the well all those years back.
Airing #8 – February 18, 2012
Guests: Bill O’Reilly and Kate Upton
The President’s Day episode is where Kenan flexes the “Kenan reacts” face quite a bit. While we’re not 100% sure how she fits into the Presidential theme, we have to say Kate Upton gets the award for being “happy to be there, but not really sure what the hell is going on.” It’s Lindsay Buckingham’s 100th time on the show but he didn’t get to recite the list of all U.S. Presidents as Diondre Cole promises. However, in a backstage clip of the show Hader actually does do a rundown of said list. Guest host Maya Rudolph is the musical guest and steals your spotlight as Sabrina Spotlight.
Airing #9 – December 15, 2012
Guests: Samuel L. Jackson and Carrie Brownstein
This was the final airing of the sketch (save for it appearing briefly in an SNL 40 music montage). Perhaps because Samuel L. Jackson dropped a few curses live on the air? Who really knows… Jackson later took to social media and jokingly said that Kenan was supposed to cut him off, Jackson then said “bullsh*t” and got a “a C’mon Sam! That cost money” as an improv’d line from Kenan. Nasem Pedrad is replaced by Cecily Strong as a backup singer but that’s so she can give us a full on Grinchina dance.
Airing #7 – May 14, 2011
Guests: Paul Simon, Chris Colfer, and Lindsey Buckingham
This sketch probably breaks the convention of the outline the most. Some masters of song are panelists on this sketch which delivers a California Raisin dance. Art imitates life when things come full circle when the real Lindsay Buckingham joins Bill Hader’s Buckingham who cut his vacation short to appear on this show. Paul Simon calls out Diondre for never letting people on the show talk, Diondre disagrees and it’s first time we learn all the names of the rest of the members of Diondre’s crew. Ed Helms shows some of his actual Banjo playing skills as Captain Sexy Banjo.
Airing #1 – October 17, 2009
Guest: James Franco
Here it is, the first instance of the sketch. What we need to state here is that there are no bad versions of this sketch, just some that are more over-the-top and more absurd than the others. Sometimes the oddness of the panelists make you chuckle because of the pairing, or the musical drop-in is just more ridiculous than others. While this is the moment that started it all, it ranks last on this list because of what it lacks. We have to deduct a few style points for a cast member as the speaking panelist instead of a celeb, no audience chorus on song #2, and host Gerad Butler as the sexecutioner White Pete isn’t as oddball a musical drop-in as the others.
There it is folks… the definitive ranking of SNL’s sketch, “What Up With That?”