Responding to current events has been a part of the DNA of Saturday Night Live since its very first episodes. Whether it is just the string of current news in the traditional Weekend Update segment or mining politics for sketches, the show has always been driven in part by things the audience may have seen reported on the 11:00 news just prior to the show’s airing.
But not since perhaps their first show back after the September 11 attack has SNL ever been molded to the degree that last night’s episode was, as the show aired an installment created by its cast entirely at home due to the New York stay-at-home order during the current coronavirus pandemic.
In the midst of this abnormality, the show reached out to one of their mainstay hosts, America’s dad Tom Hanks. As someone who had a highly publicized bout with Covid-19 and pulled through, Hanks of course makes an obvious choice as a symbol of hope in this uncertain times. And his long standing association with the show gives the proceedings a certain stability.
“it is a strange time to try and be funny,” Hanks admitted in his opening monologue, filmed in his California home, before turns self-deprecating. “But trying to be funny is SNL‘s whole thing.” Hanks took a moment to explain how the show was being produced before wondering what the results will be. “Eh, it’s SNL, you know. There’ll be some good stuff, maybe one or two stinkers. You know the drill.”
So let’s see how accurate Hanks’ prediction was, shall we?
The show leaned heavily on the cast’s stable of recurring characters and revealed a truth that was last made apparent when SNL alum Eddie Murphy returned to host last December – Just because people like a recurring character doesn’t mean you can necessarily can just jam them into any situation and expect . I’m looking at you sketch where they took Murphy’s “I Want To Be A Ho” book pitchman Velvet Jones and stuck him into one of SNL‘s seemingly endless parade of game show parodies.
Moving Kate McKinnon’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg impersonation from its usual Weekend Update desk piece position to hosting an at-home work seems like a good combination of character and situation. However, the result felt more like it was cobbled together from riffing that McKinnon was doing rather than from some solid writing around the premise. But taking Heidi Gardner’s teenage movie reviewer character Bailey Gismert from her normal appearances behind the Weekend Update desk to her own YouTube show is a move that does work well.
Virtually every piece in some way referenced the video screen-connected world we find ourselves in now. The characters of ditzy receptionists Henriette and Nan (Aidy Bryant and McKinnon) have always just been an excuse to allow the two comedians to let loose their comedic id. Making the pair participants in a business Zoom video conference call was a bit obvious but a decent excuse to let them run wild and work through all the jokes that everyone had about adjusting to the new world of business meetings via video conferencing. But by the time we hit the bit spoofing on video gamers who stream their play on Twitch, the topic feels pretty well worked off.
With still a third of the show left to go at that point, that could have been bad news, but things pivot to some more surreal and experimental pieces like Beck Bennett’s and Kyle Mooney’s video call that turns into a song and Bryant’s guided meditation spoof. But the show still manages to wind down on a more traditional SNL note with a dating show sketch featuring horny, quarantined singles called “How Low Will You Go?”
But in the show’s closing minutes, it took a moment to mark the passing of Hal Willner who supplied specialty music for SNL since 1980. Joining the tribute were current cast members and past performers including Adam Sandler, Bill Hader, Tina Fey and Amy Pohler and writers like Paula Pell and John Mulrooney.
One of SNL‘s biggest assets is its deep bench of actors and comics who will show up in surprise cameos or recurring bits and last night was no exception. With Bernie Sanders dropping out of the Democratic presidential nomination race this week, Larry David and his impersonation of Sanders was guaranteed an appearance. And almost predictably, Alec Baldwin called in to contribute to Weekend Update as President Trump listing numerous other racist alternative names for coronavirus now that he wasn’t using “Chinese flu” in his press conferences anymore. Former SNL castmember Fred Armisen pops up in the Bennett – Mooney piece.
“Telling jokes with nobody just looks like hostage videos,” Che stated at the top of this week’s Weekend Update segment, acknowledging the created-at-home nature of this week’s show. And he was kind of right. Not that anyone should really need a studio audience’s laughter to cue them when to chuckle as they sit on their couch. The comedy triggers its own response. But for such an institution like Saturday Night Live, that has been in part defined by the fact that it is usually aired live in front of a studio audience, to not have that part of its soundtrack was a bit surreal.
As an experiment of necessity, last night’s SNL was an interesting one. Hanks was right. There were a stinker or two… Or three or four, in the batch. But that’s really to be expected as the cast and writers were struggling to define what the show was even as we ourselves are struggling to define what our new, temporary normal is in our lives. As the need to social distance continues, it is likely that the show will do more of these “At Home” editions. It should prove interesting to watch the learning curve for cast and crew as we move towards the day when normality, whatever that means, resumes.