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‘Saturday Night Live’ Review: ‘SNL at Home’ Is a Rocky Return, Despite Timely Humor and a Touching Tribute

A month since the last episode, "Saturday Night Live" is back, with prerecorded sketches from the homes of its cast.

SNL

SNL/screenshot

Before this week’s “Saturday Night Live” special aired, the last brand new and live “SNL” was March 7, hosted by Daniel Craig and with musical guest The Weeknd. Next to be up were first-time host and first-time musical guest John Krasinski and Dua Lipa, but by that point, quarantine became the new normal. Now, over a month later, “SNL” is back. Sort of. Last night’s return saw the cast perform a series of pre-taped sketches, using the power of Zoom and other virtual media in order to provide viewers at home with some semblance of normalcy in an abnormal time.

Host: Tom Hanks

Tom Hanks — looking well a month after being diagnosed with COVID-19 in Australia — filled in as the episode’s emcee. Hanks performed a pretty tongue-in-cheek “SNL” monologue — actually continuing this season’s early pattern of hosts being in on the joke that “SNL hasn’t been funny since…” — and then wrapped up the show. Using Hanks’ status as “America’s dad” by having him show up to navigate this episode at the very beginning (and then the end) and speak in that comforting Hanks tone was probably the best thing “SNL” (or any show) could do to get things going. And for that, Hanks was a terrific “SNL” host.

Plus, he brought back the question and answer “SNL” monologue, which apparently only really works as well as it does when there are other people to play off of other than just Tom Hanks with a fake mustache.

The prerecorded and virtual nature of this episode makes it hard to critique. There’s no fancy production team, no impressive sets, no elaborate hair and makeup. And there’s no audience for the cast to play off of, which really becomes an issue come Weekend Update (despite Michael Che and Colin Jost’s efforts to have the opposite effect). Whether you believe “SNL” is funny or not, it’s still a show with a talented cast and writers, who now have to reframe their comedy without an audience.

The sketch that reveals that difference this week is the return of Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant’s receptionist characters in “Zoom Call.” Originally introduced in last season’s Idris Elba episode, this is the kind of sketch that would kill with a live audience. (And did.) But this time, the format is an early example of an “SNL at Home” sketch going too long. Because of the prerecorded nature of these sketches — and the fact that they technically had to play more for the online crowd than usual — short sketches were the way to go. This “Zoom Call” sketch went on for nearly six minutes — with “RBG Workout” going nearly four — making it the longest of the night.

And with that length and the lack of live audience, this sketch exposed something “SNL” should avoid doing if they do “SNL at Home” again — and they should — which is the type of sketches where a cast member or cast members “take over.” It works in the live format, especially as it often leads to the cast breaking… but in this cast, all that happens is Bryant and McKinnon seemingly hijacking the sketch while the rest of the cast members do basically nothing.

Which is why the rest of the episode’s focus on just one cast member or a couple doing a bit is so much better. Not only does it allow these cast members to showcase their work more than ever — which was the case for featured players Chloe Fineman and Ego Nwodim in this episode — it allowed the sketches to be more focused.

For Chloe Fineman’s “Masterclass; Quarantine Edition,” Fineman got to show off her skills as an impressionist with impressions that absolutely no one would’ve expected. A true power move. Her Timothée Chalamet impression is spot-on, but then there’s the JoJo Siwa impression, and the topical Carole Baskin (Netflix’s “Tiger King”), which aren’t exactly what you consider people’s “go-to” impressions. Unless you’re Chloe Fineman, that is.

Pete Davidson’s raps — “‘Drake’ Music Video” and “Andre 2000” — revealed the true power of the post-production team. The lack of money and finesse was definitely “the point” in the case of the latter. The former, however, was good but felt like it needed maybe one more pass to feel great. The fact that Davidson seemed to do a Drake music video without an attempt at an impression was the missing piece.

Best Sketches of the Night: “Bailey Gismert YouTube Channel,” “Visualizations with Aidy Bryant,” & “How Low Will You Go?”

Heidi Gardner’s teen movie reviewer character, Bailey Gismert, has somehow only existed as a featured character on Weekend Update, a choice that now seems baffling after seeing her in a different format with “SNL at Home.” It makes even more sense for the character to exist as a YouTube reviewer, though it does lack her awkwardness around Michael Che. Still, she got to say she doesn’t have a crush on the Invisible Man, which would’ve been the best line of the sketch… if not for her calling out how “‘Emma’ definitely stole a lot from ‘Clueless’.”

Best Male Performer: Kenan Thompson

It actually looked like Pete Davidson was going to get this accolade, but Kenan Thompson stole that honor with his “How Low Will You Go?” character Townsend. “How Low Will You Go?” is probably the one sketch that really would have been great to see with the audience. The bit works as it is, but the reactions of Thompson’s Townsend — as his extravagant nerdiness got greater and greater — would have been a delight. After decades of enjoying Kenan Thompson in front of a studio audience, it really sticks out when that’s not the case. And yet, he’s still able to steal the show.

Best Female Performer: Aidy Bryant

“What about World War I?”

“Visualizations with Aidy Bryant” might need to become a recurring sketch, even when we’re not sheltering in place. While Bryant gets to show off with McKinnon in “Zoom Call,” her “Visualizations” sketch is honestly Bryant at her best. Like “Sport Report” and “How Low Will You Go?,” Bryant captures the spirit of these quarantimes, only she does so by bouncing back and forth between a chill meditative state to panic and anxiety.

Worst Sketches of the Night: “RBG Workout,” “Zoom Call,” & “Twitch Stream”

“RBG Workout,” “Zoom Call,” and “Twitch Stream” were all sketches that definitely needed the live audience reaction to really work. But “Twitch Stream” featured a new character altogether instead of established “SNL” bits, so it at least had that going for it.

Final Thoughts

It’s kind of strange Chris Martin decided to perform a Bob Dylan song when Coldplay also has a song with quite the appropriate title for these times (“Don’t Panic”), isn’t it?

While a lot of stuff in this episode worked surprisingly well despite the format change, some stuff just didn’t work at all. Even if it should’ve worked perfectly for the format change. For example, while it made sense for Larry David to show up as Bernie Sanders after Sanders dropped out of the presidential race, boy did David phone that Sanders performance in. And considering David’s Sanders “impression” hasn’t ever really been more than just shouting about how he’s old, that’s saying a lot.

However, the part hit hardest by this whole change was “Weekend Update.” This should’ve been the best part! But the first issue was the attempt at having a live audience during the Zoom call. It was a decision that came from the right place, and Michael Che — a stand-up comedian — made a good point about feeling more comfortable with an audience. But it probably would’ve been best for this segment to have just used the canned “SNL” audience like Tom Hanks’ monologue, because the few listeners on the Zoom call ended up sounding more like hostages than a captive audience. With so few people, the individual laughs stood out, and that was both distracting and disconcerting in a way a large live audience (with a few “woo”-ers even) just wouldn’t have been. And it didn’t help that the segment wasn’t even funny. The exception was the final joke swap bit at the end, in honor of Che’s late grandmother — but the bit itself was the funny part, not even the joke.

When Alec Baldwin shows up on audio to bring in his poor Trump impression, it’s apparently the funniest thing in the world to this terrifying Zoom audience… even though he’s seriously making “covfefe” jokes in 2020 — come on, already — and doing nothing more than making racist “jokes.” It’s funny because he says things wrong and funny, right? No.

“SNL at Home” felt off at parts because of the lack of an audience reaction, but was still able to end things with a beautiful and touching tribute to Hal Willner, “SNL’s” longtime sketch music producer who passed due to complications of COVID-19 symptoms during this month-long break. The tribute to Willner captured something a lot of what “SNL at Home” also captured, that this comedy establishment isn’t just bells and whistles: It’s a home for a bunch of talented individuals to become a family, even when they’re not even together.

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