Hosted by alumnus Jimmy Fallon, “Saturday Night Live” went out live coast to coast for the first time Saturday night. Which is to say, it was business as usual back East, where the show has aired live at 11:30 p.m. for 42 years, and unusual out West, where it is shown at the same hour, on tape. Here in the Pacific time zone this week, the curtain rose at 8:30 p.m., smack in the middle of the prime time for which the shows’ original players were said not to be ready.
And though I suppose there are those for whom watching “SNL” before “Dateline” is a novelty worth noting, and some for whom the scheduling offered a chance to catch the show and turn in early— or to go out later— one had to make an effort to remember this was all happening in the actual moment, and then one had to make an effort to care. And for many viewers who record the show or watch in pieces on the Internet, this early-bird special scheduling would have made no difference at all.
Despite the promotional insistence that this was a historic moment, and notwithstanding whatever concrete advantages NBC might gain from this stunt timing – which continues through the end of the season, to May 20 – the experience of watching the show at an earlier hour was fundamentally the same as watching it at 11:30. You are on its time, whatever time it is.
The point of “SNL,” after all, is not that it’s being watched live, but that it’s performed live, without editing or post-production improvement, the way Sid Caesar and Milton Berle did it back in television’s Golden Age. It is the potential for failure that makes it exciting, a potential it has often fulfilled, among its many successes. Perhaps in part because of this, the show is a cultural institution that has also managed to remain, in the popular imagination at least, countercultural. If it has had its ups and downs, from year to year, sketch to sketch, and even line to line, it’s also continued to define and influence succeeding generations of American comedy.
The series has been successfully riding the waves of political upheaval, collapsing civilization and presidential tragicomedy, and recent days have been especially cooperative in supplying the writers with material. President Trump’s firing missiles at Syria (or “Iraq,” as he said to Fox Business Network); “chocolate cake”; “the mother of all bombs"; press secretary Sean Spicer’s continuing misadventures in public speaking; health-code violations at Mar-a-Lago; Pepsi’s pulled “protest” ad; and United Airlines’ new approach to service all worked their way into Saturday’s script.
Melissa McCarthy, who is set to host May 13, was back to play Spicer, in a rabbit suit, of course, recalling his Bush administration turns as the White House Easter Bunny. “I know they’re not really called Holocaust centers,” Spicer-McCarthy said of his recent misstatement, “I clearly meant to say concentration clubs,” adding, “Everybody eat as much candy as you want, because this is probably our last Easter on Earth.” (Having him use VeggieTales dolls to explain Passover was a nice touch.)
There has been a suggestion that Fallon was chosen to host the first of these live-everywhere episodes to give a boost to his “Tonight Show,” which has lost ground to Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show.” The reasoning, as bruited in numerous think pieces and Twitter posts, is that Colbert’s sharper humor better suits the times, that the fun and games that are Fallon’s stock-in-trade feel thin in the current political climate, that he’s too soft.
If this appearance were meant to change that perception, it didn’t: He went in a puppy dog, and came out a puppy dog. The rough stuff was left to others. Though he began the night playing Jared Kushner -- in a sketch in which Alec Baldwin’s pinch-faced Donald Trump turned the rivalry between Kushner and Steve Bannon into an episode of “The Apprentice” — he also had no lines to speak.
And where there would typically be a monologue, there was a production number – “Tonight is bigger than a show, it’s a party!” Fallon declared, importing the animating spirit of his current late-night home into his former one. Staged in and around the studio, to David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” it involved the cast, musical guest Harry Styles (later an able sketch player) and, on guitar, the original song’s producer Nile Rodgers. Fallon sang, comically, in two other sketches as well; played both young and old John Travolta in a quick-change “Time Travel Edition” of “Family Feud"; and with Rachel Dratch reprised their cam-cording, lip-locking Boston couple Sully and Denise, now with a teenage daughter (Kate McKinnon) on a tour of Harvard. (“It’s like Hogwarts, with more Asians,” Denise said in wonder.)
All in all, it was the customary mix of good, bad and indifferent moments — that is the “SNL” way. If there were times when one wondered where the host had got to, that’s at least partly a function of it being a 90-minute show with a large cast; it’s easy to get lost there. (You might as well have asked where Leslie Jones was keeping herself, or Bobby Moynihan.)
In any case, an hour and a half after it ended, NBC replayed the whole thing for the West Coast in its normal time slot. As it turned out, there was no significant impact on the ratings, which in any case have been strong all season.
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd