Of all the shows forced to reformat, SNL arguably faced the biggest challenge. It derives its magic from its collaborative performances in front of a studio audience. Going into Saturday, nobody knew what to expect. NBC kept the show’s contents hush-hush, making the episode one of its most highly anticipated — and it didn’t disappoint.
The first sign things were going to be different (as if we needed such a thing), was the absence of a cold open. Instead of the usual opening credits, we were treated to clips of the cast (many sporting some wonderful quarantine beards) at home.
A besuited Tom Hanks appeared as the surprise host, live-streaming from home and appearing to tremendous applause.
“That is some sound effect of applause and whistles. Thank you, engineers!” he said, before quipping that he’s something of the “celebrity canary in the coal mine” of the coronavirus, since he was the first famous actor to contract the disease. Thanks to that, he said, he’s become more like America’s dad because “no one wants to be around me very long, and I make them uncomfortable.”
He assured the audience at home that the cast did everything it could to re-create the SNL experience. To prove it, Hanks even did an audience Q&A, playing all the audience members who asked flattering questions like, “How do you stay in such great shape?”
Sketches featuring one cast member at a time comprised the majority of the episode. It began with Pete Davidson rapping a Drake parody aptly titled “A Drake Song” from his mom’s basement with the chorus: “This is a Drake song / I miss my ex / This a Drake song / Number one on the Billboard.” Then Kate McKinnon reprised her Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, offering workout tips as she lifted Q-Tips and AA batteries while asking Dr. Fauci to answer her DMs.
The odd format was again put to good use during an inspired sketch that tackled Zoom, the video-chatting app everyone seems to be using to connect both professionally and socially. It riffed on the idea that some people just don’t understand the technology. McKinnon’s and Aidy Bryant’s characters couldn’t figure out how to use the cameras, either placing their faces far too close to the lens or turning the camera off and replacing themselves with an image of Wayne Brady — before crying that they “ruined the Zoom.”
The show also took advantage of the temporary format by airing “Bailey at the Movies,” the YouTube show that Heidi Gardner’s teen movie critic Bailey Gismert discusses on Weekend Update but we never see. She described most of the movies she’s seen lately as “awkward” and has a crush on the invisible man. Mikey Day used the format to become a terrible gamer streaming himself consistently dying in the new “Call of Duty” while streaming himself on Twitch.
Other sketches were goofy but strange enough it’s hard to imagine them airing during a normal episode, such as the animated short “Middle-Age Mutant Ninja Turtles,” which finds Donatello worrying about a mass on his spine and Raphael in debt from betting on golf.
“Weekend Update” itself felt most similar to what we’re used to, even though it was conducted through a video chat app. A small audience watched it online when they filmed it because, as Michael Che put it, “telling jokes with nobody feels like hostage footage.”
Guest stars appeared throughout the episode. Larry David reprised his Bernie Sanders to announce that, yes, he’s going to endorse Joe Biden but not enthusiastically. He also discussed his greeting of choice, “the half-wave. It’s 50 percent hello and 50 percent, eh, go away. It’s been working for me for years.” Alec Baldwin as President Trump called into “Weekend Update.” Fred Armisen appeared on a FaceTime call with Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney for a futile brainstorming session.
SNL was somewhat prepared for a night like this. For decades, the show has mixed in prerecorded or animated sketches with its live ones. Partially due to the rise and success of former cast member Andy Samberg’s “Lonely Island” on digital streaming platforms such as YouTube, these pretaped segments have become more prominent.
Throughout the episode were messages of hope amid reminders to wash your hands and continue social distancing. Coldplay’s Chris Martin — who played one of the first makeshift, live-stream concerts during self-quarantine that have become all the rage — performed Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm.”
The most straightforwardly sentimental moment was a sorrowful one that found McKinnon, Armisen, Davidson, Adam Sandler, Kenan Thompson, John Mulaney, Bill Hader, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and many more singing Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” to honor their colleague Hal Willner, who served as the show’s sketch music producer since 1980. He died last week at 64 of complications from covid-19.
That the show included such a touching moment isn’t surprising. It has long attempted to be something of a balm during national crises. Its 27th season debuted 18 days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and it opened with Paul Simon performing “The Boxer” after then-mayor of New York City Rudolph W. Giuliani, flanked by police officers and firefighters, announced America would persevere. Days after the 2017 Las Vegas massacre, country singer Jason Aldean spoke to the importance of Americans banding together to help each other through a difficult time before covering Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”
Saturday night’s broadcast closed with Hanks saying “That’s our show. We hope it gave you something to do for a little while.”
The inventive episode, born of necessity, gave us much more than that. It gave us both the opportunity and excuse to turn off the news and laugh — even if just for a bit.
"Saturday Night Live" has taped from Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center since its inception in 1975, with the exception of one Mardi Gras special, aired in a two-hour format on a Sunday in 1977.