What does “Saturday Night Live” look like without professionally crafted costumes, sets or hair and makeup? Without a studio audience or the ability of its cast members to be in the same place at the same time? This weekend, for the first time in the show’s 45-year history, audiences got the chance to find out.
Beginning with this week’s opening sketch, which showed all 17 cast members joining in a video call from their home quarantines and ended with Kate McKinnon exclaiming, “Live from Zoom, it’s sometime between March and August!,” it was clear this would not be your customary episode. Still, the show did all it could to keep things familiar, bringing in Tom Hanks as a guest host and Chris Martin as a musical performer and drawing upon its roster of famous alumni and celebrity pals.
It was a little over a month ago — March 7, to be exact — that “S.N.L.” broadcast its most recent live episode from its usual home at Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center. Daniel Craig (whose new James Bond movie, “No Time to Die,” had been postponed four days earlier) was the host; the Weeknd was the musical guest; and Senator Elizabeth Warren, who had just dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, made a surprise appearance in the show’s cold open.
There were even a couple of sketches that joked about how the spread of coronavirus could have unexpected effects on our lives. We laughed at the time.
But within days, the late-night talk shows announced that they were suspending their programs. “S.N.L.” — which has halted its season only a few times, usually because of writers’ strikes — soon followed suit. Even as the talk shows returned a short time after, in minimalist formats optimized for home-sheltering, it seemed hard to imagine how “S.N.L.”, with its sizable cast and substantial productions, could do the same.
Nonetheless, “S.N.L.” returned with a full complement of sketches that let us see directly into the homes of its performers. (We’ll be thinking about the prominently placed acoustic guitar in Colin Jost’s apartment for a long time.) Sure, sometimes the audio was garbled or the lighting was off, and the whole thing had a distinctly YouTube-circa-2009 aesthetic. But the familiar wing-and-a-prayer spirit of “S.N.L.” — let’s just put this out there and see what sticks — was there, too, and a lot of it stuck.
Opening Monologue of the Week
Hanks, who has been a frequent “S.N.L” host, dating back to the mid-80s, appeared in a segment recorded at his home, where he poked fun at his own status as one of the first celebrities to disclose that he had tested positive for coronavirus. (He and his wife, Rita Wilson, were both in Australia in March when learned they had the virus, and they were treated at a hospital there before being released a few days later.)
“Ever since being diagnosed, I have been more like America’s dad than ever before,” Hanks said. “Since no one wants to be around me very long and I make people uncomfortable.”
He said he had been treated well in Australia, adding: “They use Celsius instead of Fahrenheit when they take your temperature. So when I come in and they say, ‘You’re 36,’ which seemed very bad to me, it turns out 36 is fine — 38 is bad. So basically it’s how Hollywood treats female actors.”
Before offering his gratitude to hospital staff, emergency medical workers and other helpers, Hanks told viewers that this “S.N.L.” broadcast might be unusual.
“Is it going to look a little different than what you’re used to?” he asked. “Yes. Will it be weird to see sketches without big sets and costumes? Sure. But will it make you laugh? Eh. It’s ‘S.N.L.’ There’ll be some good stuff, maybe one or two stinkers. You know the drill.”
Political Impressions of the Week
The lack of costumes and prosthetics didn’t stop the performers from reprising some of their best-known impersonations of political figures. Wearing a pair of granny glasses and a shirt that read “SUPER DIVA!”, Kate McKinnon played the Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the host of her own home workout program.
Standing in front of hand-drawn posters that were taped to her walls, McKinnon exercised by lifting Q-tips, punching tea bags and dropping some of the personal insults that she calls Ginsburns: “Mitch McConnell said that the administration didn’t focus on the virus because they were too distracted by impeachment,” she said. “I mean, are you in Congress or Parliament? Because your timeline is funkadelic.”
In a later segment, Larry David appeared as Senator Bernie Sanders, lamenting his recent withdrawal from the presidential race and making no apologies for not looking much like the real Sanders right now. “Because of the stress of the campaign and the coronavirus, I’ve lost a lot of hair on top, which I don’t think is coming back any time soon,” David said.
He said he was sufficiently stocked up on toilet paper: “Please, I’m a 78-year-old man living in Vermont,” he said. “I have a whole room full of toilet paper. And by the way, not the good stuff. Single-ply. I’m talking prison T.P.”
And, in spite of everything, David-as-Sanders said he was happy to be no longer pursuing the Democratic nomination: “I finally have the time to relax and finish that heart attack from October,” he said. “But my immediate plan is to do anything I can to beat Donald Trump. That’s why I’m voting for Joe Biden as enthusiastically as Joe voted for the Iraq War.”
Sketches You Might Have Seen on a Traditional ‘S.N.L.’ Broadcast of the Week
Even though they didn’t have the full range of resources at their disposal, it was heartening to see the “S.N.L.” cast members attempt the kinds of sketches they would probably still have done, even if this had been a regular week at the studio.
In one segment, a sendup of new technology that has suddenly become ubiquitous, McKinnon and Aidy Bryant played two slightly inept co-workers who simply could not figure out how to participate in a group Zoom call. (McKinnon switched her video screen to a still image of Wayne Brady while Bryant accidentally brought her laptop into the bathroom. “I thought this computer only did solitaire!”)
And what would “S.N.L.” be without a game-show parody? This week’s installment, called “How Low Will You Go?,” was a “Love Connection”-style dating contest hosted by Beck Bennett and featuring Bryant, Heidi Gardner and Ego Nwodim as single women newly released from quarantine who are eager to connect with just about anybody.
Though Bennett tried to wave Nwodim away from one desperate suitor played by Mikey Day, Nwodim ignored the advice, replying, “Look, the last warm thing I touched was sourdough.”
‘Weekend Update’ Jokes of the Week
Before the “Weekend Update” anchors, Colin Jost and Michael Che, began riffing on the latest headlines, they explained that they would include the audio of a few (unseen) audience members laughing at their jokes.
“Telling jokes with nobody just looks like hostage footage,” Che said. “Doing comedy with no audience, it kind of feels like when you’re in a long-distance relationship and your girl’s like, ‘We can’t have sex but we can FaceTime.’ And you’re like, ‘Ugh, I’d rather just cheat on you.’”
Jost soon segued to election news:
Bernie Sanders has dropped out of the race. Which means that Joe Biden is now the presumptive nominee for 2020. I just want to say on behalf of all comedians, thank you. I’m so excited because it’s either Trump or Biden, which means that we have comedy gold for the next four years. Potentially with Biden, the next eight years, and I just want to say, can you imagine the things Biden’s going to be saying eight years from now?
This is bittersweet because I actually like Bernie Sanders, but him losing and making all those liberal white kids on Twitter sad is the only thing getting me through this really rough week. Boy, whenever I feel down, I just go online and listen to Bernie supporters try really, really hard to not blame this loss on black people. I liked him but I knew he wasn’t getting the black vote because he kept bringing up health care. We don’t go to the doctor, man.
The “Weekend Update” segment also featured a phoned-in appearance by Alec Baldwin in his recurring role as President Trump. “I’m happy to report, Colin, that America is now No. 1 in the world for coronavirus,” he boasted, later adding: “I’ve always said it was a giant hoax that we should take very seriously. Even though it was invented by the Democrats. Impeachment, Part 2. So everyone needs to wash their hands. Or not.”
In a nod to the Netflix documentary series “Tiger King,” Baldwin said, “In times like this, we need to come together as one nation. Because no matter our differences, all Americans can agree on one thing: Carole Baskin definitely fed her husband to those tigers.”
Later in the segment, Che paid tribute to his grandmother, who died earlier in the week of complications from the coronavirus. He told Jost that their occasional joke-swap segments had been his grandmother’s favorite part of the show, and then asked Jost to read a joke about a racial slur.
After Jost did as he was asked, Che told him: “My grandmother’s never seen the show. I just wanted you to do that. She woke up at, like, 4 a.m. to pray. You think she’s watching ‘Saturday Night Live’? Never.”
Hal Willner Tribute of the Week
This weekend’s broadcast concluded with a segment memorializing Hal Willner, the longtime music coordinator of “Saturday Night Live,” who died on Tuesday at age 64. “S.N.L.” veterans like Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, John Mulaney and Adam Sandler offered their memories of Willner, a musical omnivore who also produced music for artists like Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull.
A chorus that included the “S.N.L.” alums Rachel Dratch, Tina Fey, Ana Gasteyer, Paula Pell and Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Molly Shannon and Emily Spivey sang Reed’s song “Perfect Day” in Willner’s honor.