There may not be a single show on television more tied to a specific location than Saturday Night Live—not just an iconic city, but an iconic building within that city, and an iconic studio within that building. SNL’s opening credits pose cast members around various New York landmarks before bringing the audience back to 30 Rockefeller Center, and inside it, Studio 8H. Rare is the production where the casual fan knows the number and letter of the soundstage where it’s filmed; then again, not many productions have lasted for 44 years and counting.
So what happens when SNL can’t make use of its iconic venue?
It’s a more extreme version of the question facing all of television right now, but especially topical shows that draw their inspiration from current events and film live. The category includes news programs charged with informing the public even as anchors and producers are confined to their homes, but also late-night comedy series that help viewers digest and distract themselves from the ongoing crisis. So far, quarantine has bred creativity: Stephen Colbert recorded a monologue from his bathtub; Jimmy Fallon turned The Tonight Show into a family sitcom based out of the Hamptons; John Krasinski entered into the space with Some Good News, a YouTube show with about the same production value as its broadcast competitors, which is to say “good enough.”
Making TV in a pandemic is hard, and late night is only the canary in the coal mine of what’s to come as coronavirus puts most traditional productions on hold. Still, SNL faces a unique challenge. In the show’s final episode before its involuntary hiatus, hosted by Daniel Craig, one memorable sketch had actors in a soap opera take extreme measures to enforce social distancing: misting themselves with Lysol, making out through Plexiglas, and so on. Like so much from the just-before times, the gallows humor has an unpleasant irony in hindsight. Prevented by a shelter-in-place mandate from filming in person, SNL has now found itself in the very situation it once gently joked about—figuring out how the show must go on while also staying safe.
On Thursday, SNL announced it would air a new episode this weekend, branded SNL at Home. The post was paired with a screenshot from the now-ubiquitous video conferencing app Zoom, each cast member relegated to their individual box. Right away, the image emphasized how far SNL would be forced to deviate from its deeply entrenched status quo. Is sketch comedy even possible without performers in the same room? Would there be a host? “Weekend Update” would continue, but what about musical performances? Meanwhile, the pandemic had already affected more than mere logistics; that Monday, “Update” co-anchor Michael Che shared that his grandmother had passed away due to complications of COVID-19.
SNL prides itself on rising to the occasion, however extreme. In his self-recorded monologue, surprise-but-not-surprising host Tom Hanks admitted, “It’s a weird time to try to be funny, but trying to be funny is SNL’s whole thing.” Intentionally or not, the line echoed the show’s first episode after 9/11, another catastrophe with New York as its epicenter. (“Can we be funny?” Lorne Michaels asked Rudy Giuliani then, teeing up the then-mayor to hit back with “Why start now?”) Hanks, who recently recovered from COVID-19 himself, couldn’t fulfill many of the host’s traditional roles: filling out sketches, hyping up the audience, interacting with the cast. He could, however, provide the soothing reassurance of a man who just played Mr. Rogers—which is also to say, be Tom Hanks.
Hanks set up the 90 minutes to follow by managing expectations, cautioning multiple times that the makeshift broadcast would be different than what we’re accustomed to. The effect was most disorienting when SNL tried to proceed with business as usual, bringing out favored guests and standby characters who stood out against an unfamiliar backdrop. Larry David’s suddenly balding Bernie Sanders indirectly paid tribute to the hair and makeup artists who couldn’t pitch in; the handmade posters behind Kate McKinnon’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg went to show set design isn’t an amateur’s game. The evening concluded with a stirring eulogy for deceased music supervisor Hal Willner, prefaced by McKinnon explaining his invaluable role in the show. Long before that, SNL at Home called attention to the unseen professionals most visible in their absence.
Despite the stripped-down setup, SNL bridged the gap between new setup and old with a full stable of recurring characters. McKinnon and Aidy Bryant reprised their role as self-flagellating secretaries ill-suited to new technology, with Zoom subbing in for Powerpoint. Heidi Gardner’s teen film critic Bailey Gismert got her own stand-alone sketch. Other bits repurposed familiar formats, like a dating show for the post-quarantine era or a Masterclass parody ad turned vehicle for house impressionists Melissa Villasenor and Chloe Fineman. (Fineman heroically took on the obligatory Tiger King nod with a dead-on Carole Baskin.) Frequent cameos deprived of their typical outlet found a new one. Even without a cold open, Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression snagged a spot on “Update,” albeit in audio form only.
Other sketches made technology itself the star, wringing comedy from the awkward circumstances. (Awkwardness is, after all, the soul of humor.) Bryant, Mikey Day, and Ego Nwodim took on the particular rhythms of ASMR gurus, Twitch streamers, and beauty tutorials, while Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett took their talents to FaceTime. A lone person talking into their computer screen is inherently uncanny; with these sketches, the uncanniness was at least the point. If SNL has been moved online against its will, it can at least comment on its surroundings.
It takes nothing less than Tom Hanks to soldier through a comic speech to an empty room, and even then with edits to smooth over the practiced applause breaks and quick costume changes. (When you have no castmates to play annoying audience members, play them yourself.) Fortunately, “Weekend Update” didn’t try to go without an audience, putting together a small one on Zoom for the practiced banter between Che and Colin Jost. “Update” may have been the oddest segment of the night, with the co-hosts clearly reading punchlines from offscreen for lack of cue cards behind the camera. Che invoked his grandmother to lure Jost into an off-color joke, as handy a metaphor as any for the night’s project. No one’s far enough past the ongoing tragedy to process it; you might as well lean into the oddity to try for some laughs.
SNL won’t be the last show to figure out a socially distanced version of itself, though its schedule makes it one of the first. It’s unclear if SNL plans to produce more At Home episodes in future; next week, at least, will be a rerun of John Mulaney’s dispatch from simpler times. While often rough or inconsistent, SNL at Home proved itself a workable substitute, especially for a show where roughness and inconsistency are partly the point. But it’s also a perfect time capsule: far enough into the new normal to accept things can’t go on as they were, but not far enough to know how things will become.