As the coronavirus quarantine continues, television shows are slowly returning to the air in whatever formats producers and performers can cobble together using the equipment at their houses. Late night shows are already back, and this weekend, Saturday Night Live joined them, with an episode of SNL shot from the cast member’s living rooms and basements. The show kicked off with a new opening montage showing the cast struggling through quarantine, then host (and recent COVID-19 patient) Tom Hanks delivered the monologue. “It is a strange time to try to be funny, but ‘trying to be funny’ is SNL’s whole thing, so we thought, ‘What the heck, let’s give it a shot!’ ” Hanks said, from his kitchen, before performing both sides of one of the show’s trademark Q&A monologues.
While it was fascinating to see Saturday Night Live try to approximate its usual structure under quarantine conditions, it was even more fascinating to get a glimpse of Tom Hanks and the SNL cast at home, particularly in this shocking and revealing shot of Hanks disguised as a Frenchman:
That’s right: Tom Hanks’ Oxford English Dictionary ends at volume XVIII (Thro – Unelucidated), which means he may not yet be aware of the twists and turns in Volume XIX (Unemancipated – Wau-wau) or Volume XX (Wave – Zyxt). Don’t spoil it for him—he’s Tom Hanks! The rest of the show mostly consisted of sketches presented in amateur video formats the cast could easily duplicate at home. Heidi Gardner’s teen movie critic recorded a YouTube video, Mikey Day went with Twitch, and Kate McKinnon recorded a home workout video in character as Ruth Bader Ginsberg. The funniest use of an amateur format was probably Ego Nwodim’s vertically-filmed quarantine makeup tutorial:
It’s not quite as great as Megan Amram’s legendary Glee audition, but then Amram wasn’t dealing with a pandemic. Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett chose FaceTime for their sketch, a bizarre bit of musique concrète with a surprise appearance from Fred Armisen:
And of course, there was a Zoom sketch, about the difficulties inherent in using Zoom:
None of those sketches would have looked all that different if they’d been made during a normal week at SNL, because low-quality sound and video is baked into their premises. The same could not be said for “Weekend Update,” which this week featured Michael Che and Colin Jost via split-screen, a Zoom audience of four or five people chuckling awkwardly at the jokes, Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump on the telephone, and a whole lot of echoes. It was pretty weird!
Che and Jost in their living rooms was a lot more unsettling than Tom Hanks in his kitchen, normalcy-wise, partly because Tom Hanks is the least unsettling man in America, and partly because the gap between “Weekend Update” on any given pre-quarantine week and “Weekend Update” this week was so vast. But despite all the coronavirus jokes and sweded production values, the full impact of the pandemic didn’t come through until SNL’s final segment, a tribute to Hal Willner, the show’s longtime music coordinator, who died Tuesday with symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Saturday Night Live hasn’t always had a great track record when it comes to avoiding the maudlin, particularly when there’s a singalong involved, but they got this exactly right, bringing back former cast members from Adam Sandler to Molly Shannon to talk about what Willner’s life and work meant to them. By focusing on a single loss, they came closer than most to portraying the scale of this ongoing disaster:
You’d have to shoot more than 2,000 videos just like that one simply to cover the Americans who died from COVID-19 on Friday, never mind the rest of the world or the rest of the week, and watching all the hastily cobbled together iPhone and webcam footage of comedy luminaries mourning their friend really brought home how drastically things have changed in such a short time. Then I noticed that Kyle Mooney had somehow managed to get one of his sketches cut for time even though the show wasn’t live:
Even in an apocalypse, some things about American life remain constant.