In Early 2020, ‘Saturday Night Live’ Acts Like It’s the Fall of 1975

Analysis: "SNL" went on the air last night freed of the many rules and traditions that have governed it for decades

In Early 2020, ‘Saturday Night LIve’

In a different era, the episode of “Saturday Night Live” that was broadcast last night would never be shown again.

“SNL” took itself out of a weeks-long production hiatus spurred by the coronavirus pandemic and tried to give the world a substitute for its more traditional efforts. The show was filled with attempts to emulate the look and feel of a regular “SNL” gig, with a quick introduction by Tom Hanks, a Bob Dylan cover by Chris Martin, a low-fi “Weekend Update” with a Zoom-infused laugh track, and a series of quick sketches that had no in-studio audience to help them bounce along between commercial breaks. Of all the offerings, only Chloe Fineman’s “MasterClass” impressions of Timothee Chalmaet, JoJo Siwa and “Tiger King” figure Carole Baskin even approached the production quality of a “real” episode.

“That’s our show. We hope it gave you something to do for a while,” said Tom Hanks, who hosted, during the broadcast’s final seconds.

It might be tempting to think of last night’s effort as a curio, something to be exhumed only for a clip reel in one of NBC’s once-a-decade “SNL” anniversary celebrations. But the late-night mainstay’s “At Home” edition put the show in a place it hasn’t been in years: working without a rulebook or guidelines. In many ways, last night’s “SNL” was reminiscent of an early-era showcase, where the cast members were ready to throw stuff at the wall just to see what sticks, even if some of it didn’t.

Many observers are calling the broadcast a first — a pre-taped show done remotely without the threat of live on-air mishaps. It’s not.

In October of 1978, NBC broadcast “Things We Did Last Summer,” a series of pre-taped vignettes featuring a good chunk of the original cast in comic documentary moments. Bill Murray tried out for a minor-league baseball team, then bid adieu Lou Gehrig style. Gilda Radner offered tours of her New York apartment. Laraine Newman took an off-putting island vacation. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd released some in-concert appearances as The Blues Brothers. Murray and Radner sang the opening theme to the production, which was, like all things “SNL,” presided over by executive producer Lorne Michaels.

That oddball special and last night’s frenetic effort to get a show on the air have a lot in common. They both were aired in moments where everyone agreed the usual conventions had no sway.

“SNL” started as a revolution. It made fun of everything and did whatever it liked. The true format of the show was that it had no format, aside from a guest host who would come on for ten to fifteen minutes to serve as a would-be M.C. In one early broadcast, Radner appeared as an ersatz Patti Smith and uttered lyrics that were crafted to make the audience think she was dropping an F-bomb, a real no-no at the time. The show made fun of commercials, even though it appeared on a medium that depended on them. It even poked fun at the network that aired it, NBC. Executives ranging from Fred Silverman to Jeff Zucker were not spared over the years.

As “SNL” has matured, however, it has developed into an institution. It’s hard to imagine today’s writers taking a shot at Brian Roberts, who leads NBC’s owner, Comcast, and the program never laid a hand on NBC News anchor Brian Williams when he went through his much-publicized 2015 fall from “NBC Nightly News.” This is a show that once savaged cereal commercials with parodies about products like “Colon Blow” or “Little Chocolate Donuts.” In 2017, however, “SNL” removed from repeats a satirical ad about Safelite Auto Glass — a real company — that showed Beck Bennett as an employee who deliberately cracked windows in order to meet a customer’s underage daughter. Safelite had complained.

In 2020, there are ways of doing things: “cold opens,” “Weekend Update,” tried-and-true game-show sketches and recurring characters. “SNL” has gotten codified to the point that many viewers understand the show’s most surreal sketches usually turn up at 12:50 a.m.

Yes, the rules keep evolving. “SNL” these days, for example, relies more on “surprise” celebrity cameos, and the recurring characters tend to show up more in force during “Update” segments rather than getting their own sketches.  But the show’s history –- not a factor in the 1970s and 1980s — is now ever-present. Never before has “Saturday Night Live” spent more time acknowledging its past, whether it comes in the form of Rachel Dratch returning to do a full “Debbie Downer” sketch, Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler hosting full shows after years-long absences, or, sadly, the many nods made to various “SNL” contributors — Rick Ludwin, Buck Henry, and, most recently Hal Willner — who have started to pass away.

Last night’s “SNL At Home” didn’t have to follow any of those dictates. It just had to get on the air.

“SNL” aficionados have likely never seen an original broadcast launch without a politically themed cold open, or a chyron telling them the program was recorded earlier. Last night, they did. Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump did make an appearance, but only by voice. How could the actor do all that hair and makeup from home without breaking current social-distancing norms? Kate McKinnon played a character taking part in an office Zoom session who ended up going on a diatribe about her personal hygiene so raunchy that it’s difficult to envision it making the cut in a more normal program.

In an era when a rising generation has grown increasingly accustomed to rougher production techniques, last night’s show may offer new ideas. The tribute to Willner at the end of the program brought together three different generations of “SNL” cast members: Adam Sandler, Maya Rudolph, Molly Shannon and Ana Gasteyer, all at once, beaming in via little cutaway Zoom windows. Beck Bennett and Kyle Mooney’s oddball smartphone-video conversation with Fred Armisen proved intriguing. And Colin Jost and Michael Che’s “Update,” complete with squawky, tinny digitally compressed feedback, was more winning in some instances than the usual thing.

This wasn’t the funniest episode of “SNL” or its best. But it may be the one that has hewed closest to the show’s original spirit in quite some time.