Saturday Night Live: At Home edition

What’s Saturday Night Live if it’s not broadcasting from inside 30 Rock, and not even live TV?

We found out this Saturday of Passover/Easter weekend.

The resulting product of having SNL’s cast and crew working remotely revealed that stars are just like us when left to their own electronic devices. The DIY comedy generation has mostly caught up, but SNL still has Broadway Video and NBC production values and budgets to make an at-home sketch just a little bit more professional than the average YouTuber. But sometimes not by much.

The modified at-home cast member introductions, for example, came across as a self-own. If Mike Birbiglia had live-tweeted this episode, would he have immediately flashed back to making his own satirical version of SNL in his film, Don’t Think Twice?

Saturday Night Live delivered perfection on two very big moments, the booking and bookending of surprise host Tom Hanks — aka the celebrity who woke up America to the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic — and an all-star tear-inducing tribute to Hal Willner for a final sketch. Hanks, initially presenting mannerisms akin to the late great Johnny Carson, put us all at ease, not only about his current health, but also about the health of comedy and the institution of SNL.

Just as former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani mocked Lorne MIchaels in the opening to the first SNL after the 9/11 attacks, so, too, did Hanks rib SNL by setting the bar low on our expectations for just how funny the next 90 minutes would be. He also let us know that, no, they wouldn’t be doing any of this live. Not even the monologue.

At that moment, anyone who has performed or endured a live comedy show over Instagram, YouTube and/or Zoom let out a collective sigh of relief.

The first “sketch,” a parody of Drake’s quarantine music video from Pete Davidson, filmed by his mom in his Staten Island basement, served as a suitably fine appetizer for whatever might come next.

What came next: Kate McKinnon as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, showing off her impressive workout regimen, still keeping on keeping on under quarantine. Without the wig, robe, and the electric atmosphere of rocking out behind the Weekend Update desk, however, those absences were noticeable.

The Zoom conferencing platform (not to be confused with the children’s show, Zoom, nor the favorite recording device for podcasters) seemed an all-too-obvious premise for comedy, and SNL didn’t miss any of the beats in taking on the ridiculousness which is watching millions of people fumbling with technology in real time. As demonstrated ably in this sketch featuring Mikey Day hosting a sales company’s first Zoom meeting with employees played by Aidy Bryant, Chris Redd, Heidi Gardner, Alex Moffat and McKinnon.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont has suspended his 2020 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, so, of course, we get one last shot from Larry David. This all falls short of the mark, though. David doesn’t sell the impersonation as he had in the past, perhaps because he’s just sitting in the same chair that he recorded his stay-at-home video for the state of California last month. In a way, he really phoned this one in.

At least rookie SNL cast member Chloe Fineman, who was diagnosed with coronavirus during the SNL hiatus in March but survived that — and also got out of New York City at some point, based on the filming of this multi-impersonation bit lampooning Masterclass.

We got to see Fineman as actor Timothée Chalamet, teenage “influencer” JoJo Siwa, and tiger activist Carole Baskin.

SNL did have a musical guest. Chris Martin from Coldplay, performing solo, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm.” I mean, they could’ve gotten Bob Dylan. Dylan just put out a new album. Why didn’t they get Dylan?

Weekend Update with Colin Jost and Michael Che did experiment with a live audience of sorts, inviting a select crowd to listen in via Zoom while they recorded their segments, and then broadcasting their laughs.

It was, to say the least, even more distracting than hearing the regular SNL studio audience scream whenever they hear mention of the musical guest they waited in line to see. Because Update had to separate the hosts from each other and from the studio, no appearances from any memorable characters old or new to the set. Although Alec Baldwin did “call in” as Trump.

At 1:48 into the following clip, Che tells the audience what his Instagram following already knew: His grandmother had died earlier this week from the coronavirus. “As you know, Colin, I lost my grandmother this week. Coming back to work really made me feel better. Especially with you.”

That moment of Che cracking up Jost, immediately after making himself vulnerable about losing his grandmother, was priceless.

And yet, as other critics mentioned while offering live commentary on Twitter during the broadcast, there were other majorly missed opportunities. How does Jost, obviously in a house and not in Midtown Manhattan, not have his fiancee Scarlett Johansson wander into the frame behind him?

After wishing SNL producers would just mute the audience giggles during Update too many times, I wondered why the show couldn’t have brought the Rev. Jesse Jackson back for a revamped Zoom version of his classic 1980s sketch when he hosted, “The Question is Moot,” now as “The Question is Mute.”

Meanwhile, after another commercial break, we get Heidi Gardner’s Weekend Update character, Bailey Gismert, quarantined and offering her movie opinions via YouTube. The most notable thing happening here came at the very end, when Gardner as Bailey leaned into the camera to deliver a glowing review of Louis CK’s new stand-up special and telling everyone to download it.

We then got two sketches that could’ve aired as pre-taped bits on a regular episode of SNL.

The first, an animated short following up on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles now that they’ve hit middle age.

Then Mikey Day starred in a sketch set in Twitch as gamer CamPlayzDat, dying early and often trying to show us his skills on Call of Duty: Warzone. Maybe Super Mario is more his speed? Maybe not. Like I said, tight execution, felt like a “normal” SNL sketch and not a special “at home” please don’t make us think the world is ending SNL sketch.

The same cannot be said for Alex Moffat’s British sportscaster, suddenly without any sports to report upon, leaving him to cast about his flat for anything that might resemble a competitive activity.

And then there were Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney, Facetiming each other to talk over potential sketch ideas for this episode, eventually inviting former cast member Fred Armisen into their meta brainstorming bit. The ending is painfully predictable.

I think I might have enjoyed Aidy Bryant’s Visualizations session more if I didn’t already know about and love JB Smoove’s meditation messages he recorded for HBO as part of his Curb Your Enthusiasm promos? Or maybe Aidy’s approach is just a little too real for the moment?

Dating competition shows somehow keep rising to the top of our virtual water-cooler discussions online, and the premise of fake show How Low Will You Go? asks three women how desperate they’ve become sexually since enduring quarantine. Short answer: Completely desperate. A one-note sketch that tries but fails to hit a different note as a button.

Another one-note, straightforward premise finds Ego Nwodim making makeshift makeup tips using Crayola magic markers. Alrighty then.

If you enjoyed the first Davidson music video, would you like to go double or nothing? I’ll bet you $2,000 you won’t want to see a third.

Normally on SNL, things loosen up completely for the final sketch, the old 5-to-1 or 10-to-1, depending upon how you think clocks work.

Not tonight.

Tonight, the SNL community shared its heartbreak with us over the loss of longtime musical scorer Hal Willner. Kate McKinnon, Adam Sandler, Kenan Thompson, John Mulaney, Pete Davidson, Fred Armisen, and Bill Hader all told us how important Willner was as a colleague and as a friend. But when Tina Fey and her fellow females began breaking into song, it broke me. Fey, with Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, Molly Shannon, Ana Gasteyer, Paula Pell, Rachel Dratch, Emily Spivey, sang Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” all as one, and tears rolled down my face. And I never really knew Willner like any of these comedians did. But I felt their pain. Their mourning was mine.

For more on the life and career of Hal Willner, read my obituary of him.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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