Live from the quarantine, it’s Saturday night. Like everything else in our culture, Saturday Night Live has been on pause during the pandemic, shutting down after its last episode on March 7th with Daniel Craig, Elizabeth Warren, and the Weeknd. Saturday Night Live at Home was an experimental attempt to adapt to the crisis, with a show full of remotely pre-taped sketches and a cold open featuring 17 cast members in a Zoom meeting. As host Tom Hanks said in his monologue, “It’s a strange time to try to be funny, but trying to be funny is SNL‘s whole thing. So we thought, what the heck! Let’s give it a shot.”
Saturday Night Live has often tried over the years to react to a real-time crisis — think of Paul Simon singing “The Boxer” after 9/11. Or Chris Rock’s Nat X during the L.A. riots, welcoming “all my fans watching on brand-new TVs!” Or the 1979 nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, with Rodney Dangerfield coming in to explain the effects of nuclear radiation on Jimmy Carter. The show wasn’t live this week, but that was the point. As Hanks said, “There’s no such thing as a Saturday anymore. Every day is today. And we’re not really live. But we’re doing everything to make this feel like the SNL you know and love.” Kate MacKinnon uttered the revised version of the tag line: “Live from Zoom … it’s somewhere between March and August!” It summed up our moment in a nutshell.
Hanks was the natural host for this one, not just as an SNL lifer but as the first star publicly diagnosed with COVID-19, calling himself “the celebrity canary in the coal mine for coronavirus.” In his kitchen monologue, he quipped about changing out of sweatpants for the occasion and noted, “I have been more like America’s Dad than ever before, since no one wants to be around me very long and I make people uncomfortable.”
The show’s most touching moment was the tribute to longtime SNL musical director Hal Willner, who died of COVID-19 this week, with tributes from cast members including Tina Fey, John Mulaney, Bill Hader, Adam Sandler, and Amy Poehler. It ended with a poignant singalong of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.”
The sketches were more like comfort food than comedy, understandably. Pete Davidson sang a couple of songs, including a droll Drake parody, while Aidy Bryant and Kate MacKinnon did the inevitable spoof of a dysfunctional office’s Zoom meeting. Larry David made a welcome return as Bernie Sanders, to explain his decision to end his campaign this week: “I finally have time to relax and finish that heart attack from October.”
The night’s official musical guest was Coldplay’s Chris Martin, playing Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” on acoustic guitar. A homemade sign on his wall said, “Entrance to Trains,” evoking SNL‘s faux-Grand Central Station set. Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney did a FaceTime musical goof with Fred Armisen. Bennett also hosted the dating show How Low Would You Go?, playing on the sexual desperation of the quarantined.
Chloe Fineman did an excellent parody of those mind-blowingly pompous Masterclass ads, with some dead-on impressions of Timothée Chalamet and Carole Baskin. The animated Middle-Aged Mutant Ninja Turtles segment was designed to work without any audience, trying to bring back some of that TV Funhouse magic of yesteryear. Alec Baldwin called in to do his long-running impression of the current president. For some strange reason, Weekend Update had a cluster of designated chucklers to serve as a Zoom laugh track, doing what they could to make things more awkward — the closest thing to an amusing joke was the conspicuous, tastefully draped acoustic guitar on Colin Jost’s couch. There were parodies of YouTube tweens, live gamers, a makeup tutorial from Ego Nwodim, a visualization class with Aidy Bryant. Cecily Strong and Bowen Yang were very much missed.
As Hanks warned at the start, this wasn’t a typical episode of SNL — it was just part of the ongoing worldwide effort to figure out how old-school showbiz works in the new realities of a pandemic. It didn’t go for the spontaneous light touch of Neil Young’s Fireside Sessions, which get better every week, one of the best things to happen to this planet during this crisis. (Friday’s was the best yet, with Neil warbling “Already One” to the sunset and banging out “See the Sun About to Rain” on the cabin piano.) This was a “make do and mend” experiment; like the host, or rather “the host,” said at the end, “We hope it gave you something to do for a while. Stay safe, everybody.” It did accomplish that. The credits rolled over an eerily empty stage. This is what live entertainment looks like now.