When your job is to be funny, how do you do it in the wake of a tragedy?
The answer, according to “Saturday Night Live”: you don’t.
In an episode that aired the day after the deadly siege in Paris, the show skipped its much-beloved staple, the “cold open.” Often reserved for political sketches, the cold open typically touches on the hottest topic of the moment, the thing that everyone is talking about. This weekend, that topic was undoubtedly the attack that killed at least 129 people Friday night.
There was no joke to be made — instead, Cecily Strong began the show with a message to the city.
“Paris is the city of light, and here in New York City, we know that light will never go out,” she said. “Our love and support is with everyone there tonight. We stand with you.”
She then repeated the sentiment in French.
When you run a comedy show for more than 40 seasons, you’re bound to confront moments like these. When the news is unfunny, raw and emotional, any attempt at making light of the situation can be taken as distasteful. Choosing to ignore what’s happening outside of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, however, could make the show seem out of touch.
By honoring Paris, then letting the show go on, “Saturday Night Live” continued a pattern that has worked for NBC’s audiences for years, most notably in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. The 27th season of SNL was scheduled to premiere less than three weeks after the terrorist attack. Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers, who are household names today, were just beginning their first season.
The episode opened on then-mayor Rudy Giuliani, surrounded by the policemen and firefighters who had worked at Ground Zero. After a sullen performance of “The Boxer” by Paul Simon, the mayor seemed to sanction the continuation of SNL as a “New York institution” that needs to be up and running to show the city is “open for business.” Creator and producer Lorne Michaels asked him, “Can we be funny?”
Giuliani responded: “Why start now?”
“There was a lot of electricity in the room,” Poehler later said in a Sundance Channel interview. “And a lot of energy, and a lot of people really wanting to feel better.”
After all, that’s what comedy is for — feeling better. Did the cast pull that off last night? Watch the Elizabeth Banks-hosted episode here, or check out our personal favorite moment, when SNL continued to mock the host of the previous week’s lackluster episode, Donald Trump:
“Donald Trump also said ‘If I become president, we’re all going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again,’” Colin Jost said on “Weekend Update.” “Well, I don’t know about that, but we’ll definitely be saying ‘Jesus Christ’ a lot.”
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