It was perhaps the most anticipated “Saturday Night Live” season premiere in almost 20 years — the show’s first live broadcast in more than six months, hosted by Chris Rock, and its first to be produced under the new guidelines of the coronavirus era.
The last live episode of “S.N.L.” had been broadcast on March 7; it was hosted by Daniel Craig and featured a few segments in which the show tried to find what humor it could in the looming pandemic. Then the show announced it was suspending its season altogether, only to come back with three episodes of remotely produced sketches, filmed mostly at the homes of its cast members.
“S.N.L.” tends to generate its biggest audiences in presidential election years, and the series’s creator, Lorne Michaels, further stoked expectations by tapping Jim Carrey to play former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee.
But the show is also contending with a slew of new health and safety regulations, and as recently as a few days ago, Michaels wasn’t entirely sure that he and his cast and crew could stick the landing: “We’re going to be as surprised as everyone else when it actually goes on,” he told The New York Times in an interview. And questions lingered before Saturday as to whether a live audience would attend. (It did, under visible restrictions.)
That would have all been challenging enough. But then “S.N.L.” had to start its season by recapping a week in which President Trump was hospitalized for treatment of Covid-19 and in which the first lady, Melania Trump, along with several Republican senators and high-ranking Republican officials, tested positive for the coronavirus.
Perhaps the closest comparable moment in “S.N.L.” history was the season opener of Sept. 29, 2001, the show’s first new broadcast after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That episode began with a call for unity from Rudolph W. Giuliani, then the mayor of New York, who was flanked by police officers and firefighters as he told the audience, “Even as we grieve for our loved ones, it’s up to us to face the future with renewed determination.” Paul Simon played “The Boxer,” and Michaels famously asked Giuliani, “Can we be funny?” Giuliani answered, “Why start now?”
This time around, “S.N.L.” simply opened with a sendup of Tuesday’s chaotic debate between President Trump and Vice President Biden.
Table Of Contents
Presidential Debate Parody of the Week
The segment opened with a voice-over promising a replay of the debate, “even though Tuesday feels like 100 days ago.” Onstage, Beck Bennett played the hapless moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, while Alec Baldwin returned to his recurring role as President Trump.
Bennett began to explain the rules. “Each candidate will have 2 minutes, uninterrupted,” he said, only to be immediately interrupted by Baldwin.
“Boring!” Baldwin declared. He said to Bennett, “Tell that to my Adderall, Chris, now let’s get this show on the road and off the rails.”
Asked if he had taken the test for coronavirus, Baldwin answered: “Absolutely. Scout’s honor.”
Playing Biden for the first time, Carrey strode onto the stage in aviator glasses while making finger guns at the audience. He produced a tape measure, sized up the distance between himself and Baldwin, then picked up his lectern and moved it further away.
Asked if he was ready to debate, Carrey answered: “Absolutely not. But I’ve got the beginning of 46 fantastic ideas I may or may not have access to. Now let’s do this. I’m holding my bladder.”
Throughout the segment, Carrey (as Biden) tried to exercise some restraint: “Don’t let your inner Whitey Bulger come out,” he told himself. “Flash that smile they taught you in anger management.”
Bennett, meanwhile, emphasized Wallace’s passivity. At one point he told Baldwin, “Mr. President, if you keep interrupting this debate, I’ll do absolutely nothing about it.”
Maya Rudolph appeared briefly in her recurring role as Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee. She told the two presidential candidates, “America needs a W.A.P.: woman as president. But for now, I’ll settle for H.V.P.I.C.: hot vice president in charge.”
After Baldwin (as Trump) demurred on the topic of white supremacy, Carrey produced a remote control and paused Baldwin in midsentence. “Sorry, but I think we all needed a break,” Carrey said. “Isn’t that satisfying?”
Speaking directly to the camera, Carrey added: “You can trust me. Because I believe in science and karma. Now, just imagine if science and karma could somehow team up to send us all a message about how dangerous this virus can be.”
He looked over his shoulder at Baldwin, then continued: “I’m not saying I want it to happen. Just imagine if it did.”
Before he, Baldwin and Rudolph ended the sketch, Carrey’s Biden introduced his own campaign slogan: “Make America Actively Not on Fire Again.”
Opening Monologue of the Week
Rock, the stand-up star and “S.N.L.” alumnus, wasted no time in addressing what he called the elephant in the room: “President Trump’s in the hospital, from Covid,” he said, “and I just want to say, my heart goes out to Covid.” He added that this was a unique show for “S.N.L.” and that, like everyone around him, he had been tested frequently.
“I haven’t had so much stuff up my nose since I shared a dressing room with Chris Farley,” he said.
Pointing out members of the “S.N.L.” studio audience that he described as first responders, Rock said, “They’re so good, we let people die tonight so they could see a good show.”
Assuming that Biden would be elected, Rock said that he should be America’s last president ever and that a new system of government should be instituted after him. “What job do you have for four years, no matter what?” Rock asked. “If you hired a cook and he was making people vomit every day, do you sit there and go, ‘Well, he’s got a four-year deal; we’ve just got to vomit for four more years’?”
More sincerely, Rock concluded his monologue with a quotation from James Baldwin: “‘Not everything that is faced can be changed,’” he said, “‘but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’”
Musical Number of the Week
Making her debut appearance on “S.N.L.”, Megan Thee Stallion used her performance of “Savage” to create a powerful and pointed interlude.
During the song, Megan Thee Stallion, who was shot in the feet over the summer, paused in the middle of the stage. (She has said that she was shot by the musician Tory Lanez, who has denied responsibility.)
The sounds of several gunshots were heard and the digital screens behind her were filled with simulated bullet holes. Malcolm X’s voice was heard saying, “The most disrespected, unprotected, neglected person in America is the Black woman,” as those same words appeared on the screens. “Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair, the color of your skin and the shape of your nose?” the recording, an edited version of a 1962 speech, continued. “Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet?”
The next voice heard was that of the activist Tamika Mallory, from a recent speech in which she criticized Daniel Cameron, the attorney general of Kentucky, following the announcement in September that only one former officer would be charged with wanton endangerment after Breonna Taylor was killed in a police shooting in Louisville.
The voice of Mallory said, “Daniel Cameron is no different than the sellout negroes that sold our people into slavery.”
Megan Thee Stallion spoke next, telling the audience: “We need to protect our Black women and love our Black women because at the end of the day, we need our Black women. We need to protect our Black men and stand up for our Black men because at the end of the day, we’re tired of seeing hashtags of our Black men.”
Weekend Update Jokes of the Week
In their return to the Weekend Update desk, the anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che continued to speculate aloud about whether it was permissible to make jokes about President Trump’s hospitalization.
Jost began by saying:
Well, say what you will about 2020, but it’s got moves. This news was a lot for us to process a day before we came back on the air after four months off. And it all happened so fast. I woke up yesterday and heard the president had mild symptoms. And then four hours later he was getting medevaced to a hospital in what looked like the last chopper out of Vietnam. I’ve got to say, it’s a bad sign for America that when Trump said he tested positive for a virus, 60 percent of people were like, “Prove it.” And it’s been very weird to see all these people who clearly hate Trump come out and say, “We wish him well.” I think a lot of them are just guilty that their first wish came true.
After joking that Trump was supposed to host “S.N.L.” next week, Che laughed and continued the riff:
OK, serious voice. While in the hospital, the president isn’t allowed to see any guests, but he is expected to be visited by three ghosts. Probably one from his past, one from his — OK, look, this is weird. Because a lot of people on both sides are saying there’s nothing funny about Trump being hospitalized with coronavirus. Even though he mocked the safety precautions for the coronavirus. And those people are obviously wrong. There’s a lot funny about this — maybe not from a moral standpoint. But mathematically, if you were constructing a joke, this is all the ingredients you need. The problem is, it’s almost too funny. Like, it’s so on the nose. It’d be like if I were making fun of people who wear belts and then my pants just immediately fell down.
As the segment concluded, a camera found Kate McKinnon in the audience, dressed as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom she often impersonated on “S.N.L.” McKinnon put a hand to her heart and wordlessly bowed her head as the screen displayed an image of a robe with a familiar neck collar and a pair of glasses and the words “Rest in Power.”