Usually the strongest episode of Saturday Night Live are the ones where cast and crew are coming back from a break, their creative batteries having been recharged. So with the show returning to the air five months after last season sputtered to an end with its three “SNL At Home” episodes and with a week of unprecedentedly crazy twists in the national news, one would expect that each and every sketch would be an out-of-the-park home run. Unfortunately, rather the opposite seems to be the case last night.
Perhaps predictably, SNL kicked off with a cold open satirizing this past Tuesday’s Presidential Debate. Cast member Beck Bennett opens the bit as debate moderator Chris Wallace announcing “I think I’m going to do a really, really good job tonight.” And while there were a few nuggets of comedy gold, or at least comedy silver, to be found in Trump’s interruptions or the fact that Trump’s denials about coronavirus safety would bit him on the ass in a little over 48 hours later, the cold open suffered from the usual problems that segment of the show has struggled with over the last several years. It was just too long and self-indulgent with a number of weaker jokes that should have been cut.
Additionally, the sketch focused on two guest performers – Alec Baldwin as Trump and Jim Carey as Biden. And while they delivered some funny moments, though Carey would not successfully suppress his penchant for exaggerated mugging, with a proper cast of fifteen main cast members and five supporting cast members, it seems like a waste of talent that is already going to be competing for airtime as it is.
Things picked up with guest host Chris Rock’s opening monologue. After a few jokes which saw the comic talking about how COVID has disrupted our lives, he segued into a piece about how little qualifications one is required to have for being president. (“Game shows have more requirements… Steve Harvey can’t just put his whole family on Family Fued.”) Rock’s comedy has often been rooted in social commentary and he brought an energy of someone who hasn’t been able to perform for awhile during which much has happened that he has wanted to comment one.
The rest of the sketches on last evening’s show were hit and miss, though mostly miss. A fake news broadcast about a coronavirus outbreak at a city office where people go to change their name was nothing more than a warmed-over version of a piece that was done a few years earlier. (Though I will admit that I laughed at a number of the silly names mentioned in the sketch like “Burton Ernie” or “Duncan Dixon-Coffey”.) Many of the other live sketches didn’t even rise to this level with “Ghost Of Quarantine Future” and “NBA Bubble Draft” already in contention for Worst Sketch of the Season. The show featured a number of pre-reorded pieces, which is perhaps understandable from a safety standpoint.
The biggest standout of the week was the show’s centerpiece Weekend Update segment. Because it comes at the end of the week, Weekend Update usually has to dig deep for jokes on news events that have already been over-mined by five nights worth of late-night talk show hosts. But Trump’s early Friday announcement of his COVID-19 diagnosis means that the story was fresh enough for Colin Jost and Michael Che to pretty much have run of the field with the news. Che even took a moment to acknowledge that people are saying that there is nothing funny about the President’s hospitalization, even in light of his own downplaying of the serious nature of coronavirus, but stated “Those people are obviously wrong.” He went on to observe that “mathematically, if you were constructing a joke, this is all the ingredients you would need.” Che also noted that it was almost too easy to find jokes in the situation, stating “It’s like if I made fun of people who wear belts and then my pants immediately fell down.”
It seems almost rote to point out that of course over Saturday Night Live‘s now forty-six year history there will be highs and lows, some good seasons, some bad. The show has been doing fairly well over the last couple of years and since there was no major cast shakeup going into this new season, here’s hoping that last night was more of a shaking off of the cobwebs rather than an indication of what is to come.