“Saturday Night Live” returned to the air, ah, Saturday night, presenting its first show of the New Sheltered World Order. With not only television’s late-night hosts but also ordinary citizens finding ways to keep entertainment turned on, it would seem a lack of imagination, a failure of nerve for NBC’s flagship comedy — which has weathered all manner of upheaval over the past 45 years — not to give it a try.
That it would be different is a given, though as the 90-minute program showed, it was also very much the same. (It wasn’t, however, live — that would have been a technical nightmare on top of an experiment.) Whether it would be good was a question to be answered in the airing, and by each viewer, according to how generous we feel toward the show and its cast from season to season, week to week. Like always.
“This is a strange time to try to be funny, but trying to be funny is ‘Saturday Night Live’s’ whole thing,” said celebrity coronavirus survivor Tom Hanks, at the top of his 10th time hosting. (He was the world’s most obvious choice for this job.) “There’ll be some good stuff, maybe one or two stinkers, you know the drill.” We do.
All things considered, it was pretty good. And all things not considered, it was pretty good, too.
In addition to the variable quality of the sketches, the show was marked by different degrees of technical polish, picture quality, sound quality and costuming. (Hanks was in a suit at the top — “this is the first time I’ve worn anything but sweatpants since March 11" — and more casual at the close.) Glimpses into the living spaces of cast members, in the opening credits and throughout the show, revealed that some live like adults and some like young adults, and also that Tom Hanks has a nice kitchen, a collection of old typewriters and a set of Encyclopedia Britannica.
What sets “Saturday Night Live” apart from talk-show late night, of course, is that it’s an ensemble comedy, most of the time, which would seem tricky to pull off when its cast members, like the rest of us, are hunkered down in their individual bunkers. But the fact that the whole wide world has discovered ways to be together when forced apart provides both form and content for a new kind of group comedy.
“Live from Zoom, it’s sometime between March and August,” said Kate McKinnon in place of the usual cold-opening capper; perhaps the night’s best bit was constructed around a Zoom orientation session, with Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant as tech-challenged receptionists unable to control or understand the application. YouTube (Heidi Gardner as teen movie critic Bailey Gismert playing off the release of first-run films on streaming services: “Sorry, but like a new movie is premiering on the Samsung in the den, that’s awkward”), FaceTime and Twitch (with Mikey Day very funny as a failing gamer) all framed sketches.
Television, after all, has always been a subject for parody and pastiche on “SNL,” from “Jeopardy!” to “Wayne’s World” to “The Californians,” and it is natural enough to turn to the improvised, democratic screen world we’re all living in as something to use and mock.
The lack of an audience to create energy and help the viewer think something is funny has not proved fatal to the temporarily retooled late-night talk shows, and it was not especially missed here. There was some recorded applause for Hanks at the top of his monologue, and for “Weekend Update,” co-anchor Michael Che gathered a small teleconferencing audience because “telling jokes with nobody just looks like hostage footage.” His segment — which included Alec Baldwin on the phone as Donald Trump — was, structurally speaking, the most in need of an audience. (Che, who lost his grandmother to coronavirus recently, signed off, “I’m Martha’s grandbaby.”)
(Perhaps if this shutdown lands long enough, laughter will begin to sound odd on any television program, and we will come to prefer the silence; I am not laying any money on that, but it’s a possibility to consider.)
Kate McKinnon brought out her Ruth Bader Ginsburg for “Working Out at Home with RBG,” in which the justice uses tea bags for punching bags and cotton swabs for barbells. Her cat made what looked like an unscheduled appearance: “That’s my trainer,” McKinnon said. “If I mess up he eats me.” Guest Larry David broadcast from home as Bernie Sanders broadcasting from home, discoursing on the primary (“Always a bridesmaid never the democratic nominee”) and shaking hands: “The only greeting we need is the half wave; it’s 50% hello and 50% eeeeh go away,” which is about 80% David and 20% Sanders.
What else? An animated “Middle Aged Mutant Ninja Turtles” short (“They used to be so cool; now they drive their spoiled kids to school”); a couple of music videos from Pete Davidson (“directed by Pete’s mother”); a quarantine-themed dating show, “How Low Will You Go? (“After months of social distancing it’s time for our contestants to test how desperate they are to touch another human”); Ego Nwodim offering a FaceTime emergency makeup tutorial using Crayola markers.
Aidy Bryant attempted to create calm with “Visualizations With Aidy,” against a background of stock images: “How about hot dogs? Yeah, summer time, what about World War I — sorry, I’m sorry. What about warm fresh bread with butter; how about dancing, yes, you and your best friends who are all senior women who are all dancing in this rec center.”
Musical guest Chris Martin — it’s not “SNL” without one — covered Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm,” in a way possibly more interesting to Chris Martin fans than to Bob Dylan fans. Where the second performance would be, right before the close, there was a lovely tribute to the late Hal Willner, the show’s sketch music producer, with tributes from Adam Sandler, Bill Hader, John Mulaney and Fred Armisen and a checkerboard chorus of “SNL” women , including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Rachel Dratch and Molly Shannon, singing Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” Willner died last week of complications from COVID-19.
Will this be a one-off or the first of what everyone involved must hope are not too many isolated episodes shot in isolation? Next week’s show will be a repeat of the Mulaney/David Byrne episode from Feb. 28 — not that long ago, and yet so very long ago. But why not? Some of Saturday’s routines could be worked up into recurring pieces. There is more than one way to take off on Zoom, more than one sort of YouTube aspiring influencer to mock. “Saturday Night Live” doesn’t always need to be great — it often isn’t. But it’s good to have it there, being more or less itself.