The stage was set for the premiere of the 46th season of Saturday Night Live: There’d just been a presidential debate, Jim Carrey was coming on board to play Joe Biden … and then, just a day before showtime, the president was diagnosed with COVID-19. The news was sure to throw a wrench into SNL’s approach, but it also raised important questions: In a year as chaotic as this one, can the long-running, long-beloved sketch show keep up? And if so, what can its impact be? After watching the Chris Rock–hosted premiere, Ringer staffers answered that question and more.
1. About how much do you think SNL had to scrap following Friday’s events? And all things considered … how’d they do?
Andrew Gruttadaro: Not much actually appeared to be that changed to account for Trump’s diagnosis—aside from Weekend Update, which may have been almost totally rewritten. There were two pre-recorded sketches, a couple of Megan Thee Stallion cameos, and a couple of other sketches that were only tangentially relevant to our current times—even the cold open was more geared toward ripping on Tuesday’s presidential debate than Friday’s news. That end result of all this was … just fine. At some points you were glad SNL was staying away; at other points, it felt like they walked up to the edge of the pool, got scared of jumping in, and then quickly retreated.
Logan Rhoades: The most impacted sketch seemed to be Weekend Update. Colin Jost and Michael Che addressed the news at the top, poked fun at how ripe the irony was for comedy purposes, but then kind of backed away and moved on. My guess is they had a lot of material on the debate, which they then had to scrap, given the timing and uncertainty of everything. It’s a tough thing to navigate, but the show felt pretty weak without that bite, to be honest.
Alan Siegel: To answer the second part of the question, well, most of the episode—particularly the political stuff—provided me no comfort, gave me nothing thoughtful, and worst of all, failed to make me laugh.
Sean Yoo: I understand it’s not easy to make jokes about a sick president, but SNL ran into a problem that has plagued it for a few years now: The discourse on Twitter was far more entertaining than the show.
Matt Dollinger: They should have nixed more given an all-time news cycle, but I’m assuming the pandemic forced them to prebake more than usual. The stunt-double sketch was based on something that went viral in April; NBA players have been in the bubble since late July; and “Superspreader Event” was funny, but name jokes are as evergreen as it gets. This show is almost impossible to pull off under normal circumstances, so it’s easy to understand how COVID-19 would make it even tougher. But the episode didn’t feel very fresh outside of the cold open, and maybe circumstances just rendered freshness impossible.
Alison Herman: The opening scrawl made it clear they pretty much threw up their hands, admitted too much had gone down for them to reconfigure the entire show on the fly, and just stuck with what they had while adding a few winking one-liners. In a no-win situation, it felt like the smallest loss possible. That karma joke was good!
2. Let’s not wait any longer: It’s time to talk about Jim Carrey as Joe Biden.
Yoo: It was less Jim Carrey as Joe Biden and more Jim Carrey being Jim Carrey while looking like Joe Biden. The cold open was generally a tough watch because it was basically a carbon copy of a debate that no one wanted to rewatch. If you want to utilize Jim Carrey, you should probably put Joe Biden in more creative situations to allow Carrey to let it rip.
Herman: It occurs to me that SNL’s approach to presidential candidates is much like the candidates themselves: older players who don’t need any more fame, power, or attention speaking for a group much younger and hungrier than they are. After a few failed early attempts to cast Biden, Carrey’s vague impression is the true complement to Alec Baldwin’s Trump. (I don’t mean this in a good way.)
Gruttadaro: So … you definitely wouldn’t say Carrey’s disappearing into the role. The pro to that: It’s freaking Jim Carrey. The con: You better really like Jim Carrey.
Rhoades: I love Jim Carrey. He’s a comedic genius, and when he has those aviators on, he fully turns into Joe Biden. But the biggest laughs still came from Alec Baldwin as Trump. It’s a great match that is hard to beat at this point—he just has that impersonation down. Jim Carrey as Biden felt like a funny character, but I don’t know whether anything particularly stuck out as quintessentially Joe Biden. I’m looking forward to more from that pairing, though, because Jim Carrey is charismatic and enjoyable, and he can do magic tricks with his face.
Siegel: He at least came relatively close to matching Biden’s cadence. And the teeth thing … that worked. But in the end, it still just felt like Stanley Ipkiss put on a Joe Biden mask and went nuts. That’s fun, but there’s also something unsatisfying about it.
Dollinger: This might make me a simpleton, but I enjoy it when Jim Carrey tries to make me laugh. You can tell how much time he’s put into the impression, and Carrey’s mannerisms and ability to contort his face are truly stunning. I liked the hybrid Mask-Biden character he produced. The fact is, Biden doesn’t offer as much material to work with as Trump, Bernie, either Clinton, or George W. But Carrey’s physical comedy brings an extra layer to the 77-year-old.
3. What was the best sketch of the night?
Dollinger: I once saw Chris Rock as a surprise guest at the Comedy Cellar and the first thing he told the audience was: “Lower your expectations immediately.” I felt like we all needed to do that before his opening monologue. Rock’s timing was off and it seemed like the emptier-than-usual room spooked him. The Chris Farley joke was pretty cringe-worthy and his political commentary didn’t land the same way Dave Chappelle’s has in recent years. That said, it’s still Chris fuckin’ Rock. It’s like watching LeBron shoot 7-of-20 from the field but still end up with 30 points. He produced enough laughs and thought-provoking lines to win me over.
Yoo: The last 30 seconds of “Future Ghost,” when it’s revealed that it’s actually a sitcom called My Mom Married Kenan Thompson, legitimately had me cracking up in an otherwise disappointing sketch.
Gruttadaro: I will ride for Kyle Mooney until the day I die, and the punch line of “Wait, my mom married KENAN THOMPSON?!” was the hardest I laughed all night.
Rhoades: Everyone will be talking about the opening sketch on the presidential debate and not much else, but “Stunt Performers” was the best one of the night. It was a clever perspective on a subject (unlike the NBA Bubble sketch) and few things are better than Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant together.
4. Who’s going to be the sneaky MVP of Season 46?
Gruttadaro: After basically being the show’s main character for the past few seasons, it seems like Kate McKinnon might be transitioning out, which leaves a void—and also space for Bowen Yang to take a huge leap in his second season.
Dollinger: Bowen Yang was the funniest person on Saturday night. He has the chops to steal a skit with one line or carry it with the best character. He’s still only a featured player, but with so much personality he’s bound to become a favorite soon.
Herman: Either Chloe Fineman getting free rein to mimic every facial tic in Hollywood or Bowen Yang continuing his upward trajectory into the stratosphere.
Yoo: CHLOE FINEMAN! Her impressions have clearly gained momentum following the end of last season and now she’s being given a spotlight—just look at her iso performance in the Drew Barrymore sketch and marvel.
Rhoades: Assuming Kate McKinnon is the MVP and Kenan Thompson is an obvious pick, then I’m going with Chris Redd. He’s quietly helped carry the Lonely Island torch of digital sketches and he can also lead a scene or just be an effective side player. He’s extremely versatile and doesn’t get enough credit.
Siegel: As long as he’s on the show, the answer is Kyle Mooney.
5. Right now—in the middle of a pandemic, and just weeks before the election—what does SNL mean, and what can its impact be?
Herman: The same as sports: an institution whose reassuring presence helps make this pandemic feel livable, which is either an inspiring show of resilience or a dangerous, profit-minded attempt to make the abnormal feel normal. Just as it was in unquarantined times, the result is middling as entertainment but invaluable as anthropology.
Rhoades: Well, we’ve unfortunately seen that it can literally impact the opinion of the president of the United States. So there’s that. But putting that aside, I think a common reaction to wild news will always be to see how SNL handles it. We crave it, even if it doesn’t always scratch that itch.
Dollinger: Donald Trump is comedy fool’s gold. At first, he seemed like an embarrassment of riches after the even-keeled Obama. But now not even a comedic genius could find something edgy to say. All the mics have been dropped on this buffoon. How do you make fun of a caricature that is the living embodiment of stranger than fiction? The jokes are too easy. You can’t embarrass him more than he’s already embarrassed himself. Bringing in star power like Carrey and Maya Rudolph (Kamala Harris) provides a spark, but it’s the writing staff that’s ultimately responsible for reigniting the show’s fire.
Yoo: While SNL’s current iteration has been centered on politics, it’s never been the strongest voice in the room. That goes to people like John Oliver and Stephen Colbert. What makes this show so special is that it’s the last constant piece of television. Every Saturday night for 40 plus years, SNL has always been on, it’s always been live, and they’ve always maintained a quality of taste. That won’t ever change and in a completely absurd year where chaos reigns on a daily basis, it’s just comforting to know that we’ll have SNL in the same way we’ve always had, live on Saturday night.
Gruttadaro: That seems to be a question SNL itself is still trying to figure out. You have to give it a little leeway this week, when Friday’s news put the show in a tough, hard-to-navigate spot; perhaps a truer test will be next weekend’s episode. But then again, the truth is that late-week, seemingly earth-shattering news reports are just part of our world now, and you do get the sense that even with more time to plan, this current iteration of Saturday Night Live doesn’t want the smoke (for lack of a better phrase). Saturday’s premiere was the most-watched premiere in four years—people come to this show in times of chaos, expecting it to take on culture and current events with a sharp knife. That’s the expectation the show has built up over decades. But after an enjoyable-yet-uncontroversial opening night, it seems the show might want to abdicate that position. I get the feeling that SNL’s cast is looking at all of us like Jon Moxon in Varsity Blues, yelling “I don’t want your life.”