Live From Zoom, it’s Saturday Night!
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With social distancing shutting down film and television production, a number of shows have been forced to reinvent the way they release content—think Jimmy Fallon filming from his front stoop and Al Roker reporting the weather from his kitchen. “Saturday Night Live” (SNL) is the latest late-night show to take that leap. Like our transition, the road to “SNL at Home” was at first bumpy. After a few weeks, however, the cast and crew have managed to smooth things out and successfully drive home the new normal.
“SNL at Home” aired three episodes during the quarantine, beginning April 11 and ending May 9 with its 45th season finale. Producer Lorne Michaels leaned on three hosts with proven track records, starting with 10-time host, COVID-19 survivor, and America’s father figure Tom Hanks. Simultaneously trying to be funny and comforting, the result was an overall miss, with Hanks’ opening monologue more like a grandparent trying to use Zoom than that of a seasoned host. In week two, Michaels went for another time-tested favorite: Brad Pitt as America’s newest male sweetheart, Dr. Anthony Fauci. By that episode, “SNL at Home” was looking up, with Pitt’s successful opening segment, both in his Dr. Fauci portrayal and direct address to the American people, leaving everyone laughing and feeling a little bit better. By the third installment, “SNL at Home” seemed to settle in with host Kristen Wiig, a fan-favorite from seasons 31-38, bridging the gap between a traditional opening monologue and the at-home experience. It became clear an audience is essential to comedy, regardless of whether the host’s monologue was successful. Without laughter, the pauses after each joke felt eternal, even when they were well crafted and genuinely funny.
“SNL at Home” made good on the show’s trademark sketch comedy format but with a COVID-19 twist—the segments were all filmed in cast members’ homes, with the performance quality ranging from “how did they do that?” to “anyone could do that.” “SNL at Home” continued the tradition of hosting a musical guest each episode, with well-executed performances. In the first week, Chris Martin of Coldplay performed solo from his home, followed by Miley Cyrus with a fireside cover of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” in week two. Boyz II Men rounded things out with a Mother’s Day tribute and their 1997 hit “A Song for Mama.” Though it’s difficult for a solo performance to be captivating, the at-home acts were intimate and comforting in an unexpected way.
A typical “Saturday Night Live” episode has its hits and misses, but viewers can usually rely on it to be at least mildly funny. That generally held true on “SNL at Home,” but a common loose thread was the range of effort put into each skit. Cast member Pete Davidson’s dedication was obvious, landing him on the high end of at-home success. Davidson’s DIY music videos, shot on location in his mom’s Staten Island home, played to his fan base with catchy lyrics and goofball comedy. Cast members Kenan Thompson, Mikey Day, and Chloe Fineman consistently put out some of the best segments of “SNL at Home.” While Thompson was often the highlight of sketches even before quarantine, “SNL at Home” demonstrated how truly on-point his charisma is, even without help from the writers. Thompson’s skit “Big Papi Cooking Show” was a favorite of the three episodes and featured an impersonation of David Ortiz making a seven-meat sancocho (manos de mono, anyone?) for “Big Dominican Lunch.” Day’s two solo sketches poked fun at YouTube gaming and prank videos. While parodies of those videos often fail, these were some of the most memorable sketches and point to the extent of Day’s comedic talent. Newcomer Chloe Fineman was also a standout, allowing a fresh face to get some time in the spotlight.
For every high, there is a low, and this one’s going to be very controversial. Kate McKinnon is largely regarded as a top-of-the-line SNL cast member, but her at-home skits were a low point of each episode, despite often getting prime placement in the lineup. In week one, her skit “RBG Workout” didn’t seem too out of place, considering the entire cast was trying something new. But while every other cast member had significantly stepped up their game by the second week, McKinnon’s sketches continued to fall short. Her “Whiskers R We” skit was basically a worse recreation of an existing sketch performed three years ago with the same name. Though not every at-home sketch will live up to the standards “Saturday Night Live” has set over the past 45 years, it should at least be better than a bad home movie with shaky cameras, zero production value, and unforgivably poorly written scripts.
“Saturday Night Live” would not be complete without “Weekend Update” from Colin Jost and Michael Che, and luckily, the at-home edition didn’t leave viewers high and dry. From a production standpoint, “Weekend Update” is one of the easiest transfers from filming at 30 Rock to home, making this version easy to overlook. But the segment deserves credit for its high-quality writing and balance of COVID-19 news and other non-pandemic-related stories. Like the monologues, however, “Weekend Update” needs an audience to live up to its comedic potential. While other skits can get by without laughter, the awkward, silent pauses between each joke, when viewers expect to hear the crowd laughing, put a damper on the success of the segment. Much of the success of “Weekend Update” relies on the often caustic, but witty and friendly banter between Jost and Che. During weeks one and two, they managed to mimic their usual style in a Zoom call update. By week three, however, Che and Jost’s individual content appeared to be stitched together, and though the jokes were funny, the absence of riffing between the two took away from their typical dynamic.
All in all, “SNL at Home” was a success, pushing the boundaries of comedy and technology’s possibilities during a time of crisis. I can’t say I always laughed, but the sense of togetherness displayed in “SNL at Home” is something everyone can use right now. What I can say though is that the old saying is true—laughter is the best medicine, and “SNL at Home” was just what the doctor ordered.