Saturday Night Live made the bold decision to return to studio 8H this fall, following a truncated season that saw the cast sequestered in their individual homes. Those episodes provided some of the freshest sketches SNL has aired in years, indulging its performers’ more absurd, even experimental comedic talents.
Going back to the studio didn’t necessarily mean going back to “normal” for SNL, however: There’s still the issue of Covid-19, its impact on film production, and its continued toll on the society that SNL comments on. Masks are commonplace; social distancing is the norm; more than 1 million people worldwide have died. As of this Friday, right before the season premiere, even President Donald Trump has contracted the illness.
Not only did the season premiere suggest that the cast and crew took an abundance of caution in putting on a show, but it also elegantly commented on or winked at the heaps of news events that have dominated the United States over the past month. Everyone from the onstage band members to the studio audience (composed of first responders) wore masks, as did the cast at the end of the show. And non-Covid-related events, like the mid-September death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, received heartfelt, considerate shoutouts. (Kate McKinnon ostensibly retired her RBG impression with a brief appearance at the end of Weekend Update, followed by a “rest in power” title card.)
All of this is to say that the show felt satisfyingly normal in the face of abnormality. SNL is an adaptable creature, even if it is not always a deeply considered one (see: the episode’s first sketch, which was just a bunch of jokes about silly- and raunchy-sounding names like Edith Puthie and Irma Gerd). The season premiere had its good and its bad, but its successes — to our pleasant surprise — mostly outweighed any missteps.
Winner: Jim Carrey as Joe Biden
Saturday Night Live has had a few different cast members play Joe Biden in the past, but none has quite stuck. Biden’s persona is not as immediately defined as Barack Obama’s or Donald Trump’s, which may be why he’s been a bit of a challenge. Instead of asking someone like Jason Sudeikis to come back and reprise the role, SNL went with a much bigger name to take a stab at a Biden impression: Jim Carrey.
This may seem like an odd choice to some viewers, considering that Carrey is both one of Hollywood’s greatest hams and Canadian. But Carrey walked onstage all lanky and finger-guns ablaze, his teeth as shiny as the real Biden’s. He exuded the same kind of intrinsic chill that Biden often does, the sense of coolness that was a large part of his persona during his vice-presidential years.
The show’s cold open pitted Alec Baldwin’s Trump against Carrey’s Biden in a “replay” of the chaotic presidential debate that aired this past week. But where Carrey truly shined was toward the end of the sketch, when his Biden pressed “pause” on Trump and really took the time to speak his mind. “This November, please get on the Biden train, which is literally a commuter train to Delaware,” said a calm Carrey, a frozen Baldwin-Trump beside him. “And we can all make America not actively on fire again.” —Allegra Frank
Loser: Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump
Spare at least half a thought for poor Alec Baldwin, who never in his wildest dreams thought he’d be stuck playing Donald Trump this long and who will forever be identified with a person he clearly loathes for many reasons. (Though he’s also definitely making bank and could have handed the role over to anyone in the cast by now, so only half a thought is necessary.) Baldwin’s Trump has at times verged on being more exhausting than Trump himself, and this season opener was no exception. Playing Trump at the first presidential debate, he had to shoehorn in a foreshadowing of the diagnosis to come just a day or two after the debate, and it just was not fun to watch.
His puckered visage remains recognizably Trumpian, and he’s certainly nailed the tone of voice, the air of entitled disdain, and the bronzer. (What was up with that wig, though? Is it getting whiter?) But there’s nothing about Baldwin’s Trump that gives any insight into the man or does much of anything interesting. At this point, he’s a stand-in, a foil for Jim Carrey’s Biden, sort of a charisma-free hand puppet that fills up space on the screen. I don’t think he thinks he’s doing anything else, to be fair. But nobody may hope harder for a Trump loss in November than Alec Baldwin right now. —Alissa Wilkinson
Winner: Chris Rock
I heaved a big ol’ sigh of relief when I remembered Chris Rock was hosting; if anyone wasn’t going to get pushed into doing a non-political monologue for the sake of “civility,” it’s him. And on the whole, he delivered. Rock’s hosting was tight, and he only appeared in a few sketches — not surprising, since a number of them were pre-taped — but he was exactly the face SNL needed to kick off the new season.
And his monologue was what the situation called for. He could have thrown up his hands and rattled off a “this week, amirite?”-style monologue. He could have just lobbed a bunch of grenades toward the president, who has not, shall we say, had a good week. He could have nodded to the news and then talked about the challenges of making a show under Covid-19 protocols.
But instead, Rock took the opportunity to talk, albeit briefly and vaguely, about the system being broken. “I think Joe Biden should be the last president ever,” he declared. “We need a whole new system.” He touched on term limits for Congress, voter suppression, and requiring presidential candidates to clear a higher bar than being over age 35 and born in the US. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but it was something, and he concluded by quoting James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” —AW
Winner: Megan Thee Stallion
Megan Thee Stallion’s summer was a mixed bag. Sure, she had huge hits in her remix of “Savage” featuring Beyoncé and “WAP” with Cardi B. But she also suffered gunshot wounds allegedly at the hands of another rapper, Tory Lanez. (Megan was only lightly injured, thankfully.)
Megan seemed like she’d moved beyond that ordeal during her SNL performances, however. She performed twice, and she also appeared in two separate sketches. One was a pre-taped song in which Pete Davidson, Chris Redd, and Kenan Thompson asked women what was under their masks — how do we know that they’re totally hot if everything from the nose bridge-down is covered? Megan appeared to reinforce that, well, some things are better left discovered in the bedroom. Later, she took part in a sketch about an NBA Draft for participation in the “bubble,” the training space the league has set up for several teams so that they may quarantine without losing practice time. Megan played a flirtatious basketball girlfriend with aplomb; the 25-year-old’s got several talents, it seems.
But where Megan really stood out was in her musical performances. Her first song was the “Savage” remix, using Beyoncé’s vocals to allow Megan and her dancers to show off more choreo. Megan is an excellent stage presence, with slow and sexy moves demanding attention during this TikTok-favorite jam. And once our eyes were locked on her, she pivoted to show that her fabulously black-and-white inkblot set actually read “protect Black women” — which she then implored all viewers to do. Using this moment to promote the power of Black Lives Matter and speak out against violence toward Black women felt powerful and appropriate: SNL truly has a lot of catching up to do after a heavy summer, after all. —AF
Winner: Kenan Thompson
I love Kenan Thompson. He just makes me happy. The man is starting his 18th season on Saturday Night Live, and yet he still shows up and seems to bring his all, no matter how he may be feeling about the whole situation privately. For his many What Up With That sketches alone, which I watch whenever I’m having a particularly terrible day, he has my eternal gratitude.
He’s now the longest-running member of the cast, which means he is becoming an institution in his own right. And in the season premiere, the show paid him homage in the “Future Ghost” sketch, in which Kyle Mooney circa 2000 sees into his future (in 2020, he’s become Beck Bennett) and discovers that he’ll still be playing Tony Hawk in his mom’s basement. But the twist is that his mom has married Kenan Thompson, and he’s on a show called My Mom Married Kenan Thompson.
That’s it. That’s the joke. And somehow it’s a very funny punchline. Someday, Thompson will actually leave SNL, but for now, it’s really nice that he’s around. —AW
Loser: Donald Trump
We’ve come a long way from 2015, baby, when Donald Trump himself — then a presidential hopeful who’d only months earlier completed the 14th season of his reality show on the same TV network as SNL — hosted the show. At the time, it was seen by many as a massive miscalculation on SNL’s part, a way of legitimizing someone who was not as much of a joke as the bigwigs at SNL presumably thought he was. Members of the cast have talked about it since then, both on and off the air. For many, it will forever be a stain on the show’s history, a mark of how unserious and ill-equipped for this era it is.
But this weekend, if Trump was watching, he was watching from a (presumably very cushy) bed at Walter Reed medical center, and it’s unlikely he was happy with what he saw. Baldwin’s impression of him is listless and annoying, especially next to Carrey’s kinetic Biden. He was the butt of a raft of jokes, some funnier than others, fired off by Colin Jost and Michael Che during Weekend Update. (“I wish him a very lengthy recovery,” Che said with a smirk.) And Chris Rock needled him throughout his monologue — “Like, Donald Trump left a game show to run for president because it was easier” — and concluded by essentially deeming him irrelevant. It’s been four very long seasons of SNL since Trump was elected and five since he last showed up in person on the show. By now, he’s not even a good punch line. —AW
Jury’s Still Out: Covid-19 precautions
How exactly do you make Saturday Night Live right now? Especially in New York City, where legal restrictions are so fierce that restaurants only opened indoor dining this week at 25 percent, movie theaters are still closed, and comedy clubs and indoor performance venues are not allowed to open?
In interviews, SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels has hinted at some of it, although the show is obviously making things up on the fly. The audience for the premiere, made up of first responders, was notably smaller and masked (though seated in non-distanced clumps around the studio). The traditional between-sketch shots showed the crew in masks and face shields, scurrying around as usual to prepare sets but also disinfecting them. Plexiglass separated the band members from one another, allowing them to sit in their usual perch on the stage. More sketches were pre-recorded than usual; at one point, I wondered if the whole cast was even there, though they came out, wearing masks, at the end of the show. Even the opening credits — still shot all around New York City, as always — featured a number of the cast members sporting masks, clearly signaling to the audience that this is the new normal, and it’s okay, we’ll deal with it.
Was the whole thing ... legal? Presumably, the answer is yes, but I still wondered how SNL got around some restrictions. And more importantly: Was it safe? There’s no such thing as a risk-free activity these days, but you still have to wonder. Even masked in the studio audience, you’re still inside, with performers removing masks for sketches or for musical numbers. Yes, presumably the airflow has been checked and double-checked, and experts have been consulted, and people have been tested for Covid-19, and everyone’s just doing the best they can. Nobody wants an episode of SNL to become a superspreader event.
But it seems impossible to say whether the precautions worked, for now. This season premiere was a good-faith effort to make live entertainment feel as normal as possible, and that’s pretty much all you can ask from a show like Saturday Night Live. Still, I think I won’t be the only one crossing my fingers for everyone in that room for a few weeks. —AW