Brow Beat

Saturday Night Live Returns but Can’t Keep Up

Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump and Jim Carrey as Joe Biden in a split-screen still from Saturday Night Live.
Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear when the president was still walking around! NBC

This week’s episode of Saturday Night Live was never going to be great. The show is at its worst when the writers try to help the country process the week’s events, and last week’s events were enough for an entire season. It didn’t help that the week began with a presidential debate that was quickly overshadowed as COVID-19 swept through the White House. SNL is more or less honor-bound to have a debate sketch, and that debate sketch felt more out of date by the second. (It also didn’t help that the debate in question was one of the least funny events in a very unfunny year.) And it can’t have been great for staff morale to be preparing for the first in-person show, indoors, with an audience, as news broke that the White House’s announcement ceremony for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett seems to have been a superspreader event. All in all, it doesn’t seem like a great environment for comedy, and that came through in the final product. “Weekend Update” is nimbler than the sketches—you can swap out a joke at the last minute but not build a set—so this was one of the rare weeks when it was the funniest part of Saturday Night Live:

Michael Che is the standout here, not just because he mentions that SNL helped create Trump in the first place, but for this explanation of the ineluctable comedic power of hubris plus comeuppance:

A lot of people on both sides are saying there’s nothing funny about Trump being hospitalized with coronavirus, even though he mocked precautions for the coronavirus, and those people are obviously wrong. There’s a lot funny about this! Maybe not from a moral standpoint, but mathematically, if you were constructing a joke, this is all the ingredients you need. The problem is it’s almost too funny, like, it’s so on the nose. It’d be like if I were making fun of people who wear belts, and then my pants just immediately fell down.

The obligatory debate cold open, which introduced Jim Carrey’s Joe Biden impression, was the sketch most obviously affected by Trump’s diagnosis, and it was pretty easy to tell which jokes came from earlier drafts. Whatever it ended up being as a comedy sketch, it’s going to make for one hell of an oral history some day:

Maya Rudolph’s Kamala Harris coming out to wrangle the candidates as if they were kids having a fight was the most cringeworthy moment in a sketch with a lot of cringe. Even before it became clear that Trump and his family may have exposed everyone attending the debate to the coronavirus, the president’s unhinged bullying wasn’t a both-sides-type situation. But the section where Biden shuts Trump up and marvels at how satisfying it is “just not to hear his voice for a single goddamned second” is as close as comedy can get to articulating the hopes and dreams of an entire nation. Carrey closes with an inspiring vision for America that’s got to be some kind of a first:

I believe in science and karma. Now just imagine if science and karma could somehow team up to send us all a message about how dangerous this virus can be. I’m not saying I want it to happen—but just imagine if it did.

Host Chris Rock’s opening monologue was primarily about general coronavirus frustrations—and term limits, for some reason—but he opened by addressing “the elephant in the room: President Trump is in the hospital with COVID, and I just wanna say my heart goes out to COVID.” That’s a strange way to introduce a stand-up routine with a section about Trump’s indefatigable energy, but it was a strange week.

The sketches that weren’t about Trump didn’t have to walk the same tightrope but faced a different problem: They had to somehow be more interesting than doomscrolling during a national collapse. That’s an impossible task, but Heidi Gardner and Mikey Day came pretty close with this sketch, which briefly feints at being topical before turning into a list of unfortunate names:

The names aren’t all that funny, but making a sketch called “Superspreader Event” the week after a White House superspreader event and then having that sketch be nothing more than a vehicle to deliver jokes like “Any chance of getting back to Mike Litt?” was a refreshing change of pace. Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett also did well in a sketch that would have seemed topical a week ago:

In short, this week’s episode of Saturday Night Live wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it’s pretty clear that events are moving too quickly for the writers to keep pace. These things take time; 64 years passed before the death of Stalin led to The Death of Stalin. That means we can expect the definitive satirical look at the coronavirus pandemic when Saturday Night Live returns for its 109th season, sometime in the fall of 2084.* See you then!

Correction, Oct. 4, 2020: This piece originally misstated that Saturday Night Live’s 99th season would air in the fall of 2084. In fact, that would be the show’s 109th season.