“It’s a strange time to try to be funny.”
It’s fitting that the most effective part of Saturday Night Live’s first-ever pandemic episode was a dirge. With the world-changing coronavirus claiming not only Michael Che’s grandmother Martha but longtime SNL music producer Hal Willner in the days leading up to this odd but welcome return to the air, and with “celebrity canary in the coal mine” Tom Hanks doing minimal remote hosting duties following his recovery from the same, this 16th episode of Season 45 functioned as the live institution’s defiant message of survival as much as anything else. After Hanks—only on hand for a remote monologue, goodbye, and introduction of musical guest Chris Martin—sent America off to another restless night of sleep, the credits (most for people whose jobs were rendered irrelevant in the mostly makeup- and costume-free show that aired tonight) sped by over a static shot of the Studio 8H stage. The outro music played over that deserted spot, where, every week for four-plus decades, the cast, host, musical guests, and drop-in ringers all invariably stood and waved while those of us who’d watched the show tried to read in their embraces and conspicuous snubs or averted eyes just how every performer’s night had gone.
The goodnights are a ritual at SNL, a collective exhale of relief, even if the night’s been a great one, that the whole, singularly grueling week-long live television ordeal was over. Now, with Saturday Night Live re-dubbing itself Saturday Night Live At Home, and the night’s sketches turning out to be more a collection of short films (mostly in isolation, too), that ending sight of an empty stage looked appropriately lonely. That even as there was enough comfort to be found in the concluded episode to make me grateful the cast and whatever crew was necessary made the effort to give us something resembling Saturday Night Live, at least for this week. A mid-show graphic announced that there’d be no new show next week (we get a rerun of this season’s John Mulaney/David Byrne episode instead), making this admittedly catch-what-you-can episode feel, again, more like a little gift than a bold or innovative adaptation to this new, unnerving normal.
And that’s fine, honestly. If Lorne and the gang had been spending these off weeks energetically retooling Saturday Night Live for the long haul, the splash would have been chilling for a viewership hard-put to find any normalcy. Instead, we got one proper sketch, really, a videoconferencing office meeting that brought back Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant’s terror-stricken receptionists to ineptly operate “the Zoom” and break down in weeping, oversharing surrender when they can’t. I can watch Kate and Aidy pair up all day, and their codependent characters’ dynamic as two stalwart workers whose baseline aptitude crumbles at the slightest pressure is funny, especially as they start blurting out a litany of self-loathing confessions the moment they imagine their coworkers see them for the failures they think they are. “I’m bad news!,” leads to “I’m from hell,” which leads Aidy to blurt out that she just found out she’s supposed to tip waiters, to the pair, as is their way, following their shared conviction of loathsomeness right into the toilet. (In terms of topicality, if you were wondering how many toilet paper jokes SNL would make tonight, I counted four, alongside three about the Tiger King.)
For the rest of the episode, it was mostly one-handers, the now-familiar sight of late-night comics working to their empty apartments, the homely set dressing of their background tchotchkes and scattered books fighting for our attention. Kate McKinnon had hand-drawn posters on her apartment walls for an appearance from her Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the indefatigable Supreme Court justice’s home workout routine making use of household items (Q-tips, batteries, a single piece of mostaccioli) as McKinnon made due without her RBG wig. (A doily around her neck the only nod to judicial finery.)
Musical guest Chris Martin followed suit, sticking up hand-penned versions of some 8H signage as he sang a version of “Shelter From The Storm” that, even if a little rushed in execution, struck just the right chord of grateful, elegiac melancholy for the night.
Ego Nwodim broke out some (hopefully washable) markers for a lockdown makeup tutorial, which incompletely hinted at the comic possibilities of losing your shit while left to your own devices for too long. Meanwhile, Aidy, as herself, essayed the same cabin fever vibe in her more successful guided meditation tutorial, where here attempts at restorative mental escape kept getting invaded by threatening thoughts of WWI and snakes, while longing for the world outside coalesced into the delightfully loopy dream of finally being able to drape an arm over a friend with a fedora on the way to “a ferris wheel concert.” And Chloe Fineman used her time alone to showcase some of her vaunted (if so-far neglected) impersonation skills, with a noteworthy Timothée Chalamet, Tiger King’s maybe murderess Carole Baskin, and some TikTok star I’m sure was also very accurate. (Sadly, other resident underused impressionist Melissa Villaseñor didn’t get the same chance to show off.)
Even if these pieces had been a lot better than they turned out to be, the show still felt very long, the compartmentalized bits lacking any flow or energy to build momentum. Heidi Gardner kitted out a bedroom with teenager-friendly items for a glimpse of the YouTube movie review show of her recurring Update character, Bailey Gismert, the low-rent verisimilitude of Bailey’s channel essentially indistinguishable from the actual show around her.
Pete Davidson got a couple of mildly amusing and tuneful mini music videos, thanks to his roommate/mom working the camera in their driveway and shared house, and some post-production razzle from the graphics department.
Following suit, Mikey Day’s online gamer sketch saw him (while doing the still-requisite product placement for a certain FPS) predictably yelling at his mom for interrupting his Twitch stream. (The only joke in the sketch is that Day isn’t any good at video games.)
And Alex Moffat adopted a British accent as a Sky Sports commentator who’s resorted to calling banana-ripening, corn-popping, and laptop-booting races in his apartment. And if the hollowness of the sound and the low-res visuals were a constant reminder of the strangeness of this replacement SNL, the matching of the tone and subject matter saw the show mirroring our shared experience at least. None of the sketches killed, but it’s tough to see how they could.
Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney (and dialed-in guest Fred Armisen) thrive in the uncomfortable spaces around hand-held cameras and flailing would-be show biz types, so their fruitless brainstorming session gradually built into something entertainingly weird. With neither having a single, usable idea for the show (“Maybe something like dinosaur bones?”), their staccato catchphrases and stalling bits coalesce into a musical rhythm, eventually sweeping them (and us) up in its nonsensical, goof-off vibe. As comedy partners, Beck and Kyle often seem just about to spin off into this sort of experimental, deliberately offputting comic territory, and here, they locked into their groove.
The other actual multi-person sketch was a dating show, where a trio of lonely women (Heidi, Aidy, and Ego) reveal their quarantined desperation for any sort of human touch, their vibrators having all died from overuse (or, in Aidy’s case, having finally committed suicide, note and all). I cracked a wry smile at the thought that, even in a world where game shows are all shuttered, Saturday Night Live still went doggedly back to the game show well, but everybody involved (including the ladies’ three entirely unimpressive suitors in Kenan Thompson, Pete, and Mikey) dug into their characters. (Beck Bennett, pressed into host duties once more, even resorted to the funny name gambit—Alex Burpee—although I did laugh at his explanation that, yes, his dad did invent the infamous gym class exercise.)
For all this strange experiment of a show’s COVID-19 material, this admittedly average sketch felt the realest, somehow, the willingness of New Yorkers to risk their very lives to venture out in quest of even the fleeting, undoubtedly disappointing touch of guys who have just binged all of Family Guy, invented their own version of chess (but with “jacked hobbits versus big-boobed centaurs”), or who live “at the end of Brooklyn” capturing something regrettably if inescapably universal. (At least for those solo apartment dwellers doing the responsible, if maddeningly lonely, thing.)
There was a Weekend Update, with Michael Che and Colin Jost cheating a little by inviting some unseen friends into their shared video feed to punctuate their one-liners with scattered, tinny laughter. Still, it was oddly effective to watch the two comic partners enjoying some real time back-and-forth, even if their inevitable coronavirus and Trump material wasn’t all that memorable.
Alec Baldwin’s Trump dutifully called in mid-Update for some of his/their wonted mushy satire, culminating in another Tiger King gag. Which, to be fair, is something a New York Post reporter actually asked Trump about, because the world is a broken and farcical thing right now.
For those who went into Update knowing about Che’s loss, his game professionalism was laudable, even if he seemed a bit subdued, only perking up at the end when he cajoled Jost into dry-reading one of the pair’s swapped jokes. Che delights in making his whiter-than-average deskmate squirm with these bits, and the capper that he’d used his dead grandmother as a prop to get Jost to play along was a fine piece of dark comic energy that this eerily distant Update lacked otherwise. While Che circled around some genuine, Che-like anger in referencing the fact that black Americans are disproportionately suffering in this pandemic, it was his sign-off as “Martha’s grandbaby” that was the real little gut-punch of the night.
Another was that sendoff to Willner, portrayed in testimonials from SNL cast members past and present as a kind and lovable eccentric whose long tenure provided the disparate likes of Adam Sandler, Bill Hader, Kate McKinnon, Fred Armisen, Kenan Thompson, and Pete Davidson with a friendly presence to lean on. John Mulaney’s testimonial sticks out, as he notes that the multitalented Willner counted Miles Davis as a friend, but still had time for a John Mulaney. A picture of Willner with other pal Lou Reed punctuated a lovely version of “Perfect Day,” sung feelingly by an all-star SNL cast of all-star women (Fey, Poehler, Pell, Gasteyer, Shannon, Rudolph, Dratch.) If this strange episode in SNL’s history is to live on in people’s memory, it’ll be here, the effusive, emotional praise flowing from everybody involved to a guy lost to the stupid virus that forced the show into this unnatural shape as sincere and un-mawkish as such things get.
Hanks was Hanks, although less funny than usual. He even cut off his own bit midway, when an edited all-Hanks Q&A seemed to be petering out. Still, Hanks is Hanks, and I needed him to be there, even if he had literally nothing to do. He quickly explained away his newly bald head as something he’s doing for an upcoming role, seemingly knowing that we needed that reassurance as well, just as his effusive thanks to the medical professionals and essential service workers in both his monologue and his goodbye felt like the sort of public service only a Tom Hanks could deliver with any gravity. He joked about being “Amercia’s dad” (“Nobody wants to be around me very long and I make people uncomfortable”), but SNL has an instinct for just when America needs him in that capacity.
Maybe that’s how to think of this outlier of a Saturday Night Live, too. There wasn’t anything revelatory, or even especially memorable about it, except that it existed. Bitching about the weekly, yearly plod of Saturday Night Live is an institution nearly as old as Saturday Night Live. (I think it started around halfway through the second season.) And I haven’t been reticent about how this iteration of the cast and the show isn’t going to dent anyone’s all-time rankings. In fact, this version of the show seems constitutionally preordained to settle precisely in the middle, no matter how long SNL eventually runs. But we could all use some reliable institutions right now, and having SNL back—even if the future of this season, like so many other things, is deeply uncertain—was surprisingly affecting. Hanks opened up by joking about there being “some good stuff, maybe one or two stinkers,” and closed by saying, “We hope we gave you something to do for a little while.” He was right on both counts.
- There was an animated short that, one imagines, was kicking around and finally found a home wedged into this ramshackle episode. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are now middle-aged, see? And they’re not so rad any more, their Shredder-kicking glory days subsumed by pot bellies, marital and financial woes, and the fact that Shredder’s died of natural causes. It’s a one-joke bit, but the voice work (especially Kenan’s Donatello, coping with a scary doctor’s phone call) grounds that joke in performance.
- Larry David chimed in with a Bernie Sanders appearance. As ever, the joke is mostly that Bernie Sanders is old, although the line that his eventual endorsement of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden currently stands at “a halfie, a political chub” is, in David’s delivery, pretty amusing.
- Che noted that, as much as he liked Bernie, he’s enjoying the spectacle of white Bernie supporters desperately trying not to blame black people for Bernie’s withdrawal a little too much to be truly upset.
- The “let’s put on a show” raggedness of the enterprise didn’t allow for much satirical bite all night. McKinnon’s “Ginsburns” at least referenced Republicans’ desperate attempts to use Trump’s impeachment as an excuse for his negligently incompetent coronavirus response. Asking whether Trump defender Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is in Congress or Parliament, her Ginsburg settles on the latter, since his “timeline is Funkadelic.” Oh, that’s a Ginsburn.
- “If I cant kiss my kids on the mouth I’m gonna hurt an animal!”
- Stay safe out there. Listen to Dr. Fauci, and nobody on Fox News. See you when I see you.