And so at the end of a strange week, "Saturday Night Live" returned to the air — and, significantly, the studio. In the ordinary run of things, the Biden-Trump debate would unquestionably be the subject of the cold open, usually attuned to current events. But more current current events have transpired since, and some fraction of America has been wondering how the show would handle it. It is a simple thing to mock the president, but something else again when that person, whatever blame he shares for his own and other infections, is — notwithstanding official assurances — in a potentially fatal situation.
Or so one might think.
"President Trump's in the hospital with COVID," said host Chris Rock, getting straight to it, "and my heart goes out to COVID."
Up until Trump’s hospitalization, this was just going to be the season opener, with series alumnus Rock (now starring in the fourth season of “Fargo”) hosting and Megan Thee Stallion (now, you know, just starring) as a musical guest. Beyond the eternal question of what percentage of sketches would be any good — "SNL" is the very definition of "hit and miss" and this Saturday was no exception — the questions were more formal: What would it look like? How would it sound? What sort of precautions would be taken, and where on the scale between COVID "SNL" and pre-COVID "SNL" would this episode fall?
For better or worse, it was very much like a typical "SNL," half an entertainment, half a duty. Players performed side by side, if not at particularly close quarters, unmasked; the band was masked where practical, and behind Plexiglass. Most significant, there was an audience, masked, but not distanced; first responders occupied the prime seats on the floor, close to the stage. "We let people die tonight so they could see a good show," Rock joked in his opening monologue, in which he referred to the protocol: "Everybody in the audience has been checked and all week I’ve had things going up my nose. I hadn’t had so much stuff up my nose since I shared a dressing room with Chris Farley." Still, one worried about the proximity.
As it happened, the debate remained the subject of the cold open, but with many foreshadowing references to Trump's diagnosis. "Just imagine that science and karma could somehow team up to send us a message about how dangerous this virus can be," said Jim Carrey as Biden, a part he had suggested himself for. "I’m not saying I want it to happen, just imagine it." Alec Baldwin was back in his mustard wig, while Beck Bennett played Chris Wallace: "I think I'm going to do a really good job tonight." Baldwin has been playing Trump for so long he has become a sort of hybrid beast; Carrey's Biden was about 90% Carrey, and about 50% Carrey as the Mask, and his material largely concentrated on Biden's age, mental acuity, bladder control and fight to remain calm amid Trump's interrupting. The sketch — as "SNL" sketches do, and like the debate itself — seemed to go on forever.
When Maya Rudolph came onstage as Sen. Kamala Harris to bring order, treating them all like children, it was as much a relief as if it happened during the actual event. "America needs a WAP," she said, dropping a reference to the Megan Thee Stallion song. with Cardi B, "a Woman as President…. But for now I’ll settle for HVPC: Hot Vice President in Charge." There was vocal support for this idea.
The political through line to the evening ran from the cold open to the monologue to Weekend Update to the musical numbers — Megan incorporating recordings of Malcolm X and activist Tamika Mallory (“Daniel Cameron is no different than the sellout negroes that sold our people into slavery”) into "Savage" — to a single shot of Kate McKinnon as the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, smiling wordlessly.
Rock, who spent a relatively short time on the show as a very young man in the early 1990s before rocketing off into several sorts of stardom, brought his sunny-serious energy to the opening monologue, beginning with "the elephant in the room…. President Trump's in the hospital with COVID and I just want to say my heart goes out to COVID."
His monologue, which took up the rest of the show's opening half hour, pivoted from the effect of COVID on people's plans ("I had tickets to Coachella, man. I know 200,000 Americans are dead, but I’m not seeing Rage Against the Machine this year — that's a travesty") and relationships ("A lot of breaks ups, a lot of divorces, and a lot of like renegotiations — we’re going to stay together but I’m telling you exactly what I don’t like about right now”) to the state of the nation.
"I think Joe Biden should be the last president, ever. We need a whole new system," he said. "What job do you have for four years no matter what? … If you hired a cook and he was making people vomit every day, do you sit there and say, 'Well, he's got a four-year deal.' " Term limits for Congress was also on the menu: "We agreed we cannot have kings, yet we have dukes and duchesses running the Senate, making decisions for poor people… rich people making decisions for poor people. That’s like your handsome friend giving you dating advice… 'Yeah, that works for you, Idris.' "
The Trump situation was a subject of "Weekend Update," the part of the show where Michael Che and Colin Jost say what you might have been thinking.
Colin Jost: "I gotta say, it's a bad sign for America that when Trump said he tested positive for a virus, 60% 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."
Michael Che: "A lot of people on both sides are saying this is 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. It'd be like if I was making fun of people who wear belts and then my pants just immediately fell down." Later, he wished Trump "a very lengthy recovery."
The sketches and filmed bits were mostly fine and generally nothing to remember. These included a news report from a "legal change of name" office, closed by a report of COVID, which was a long string of mostly rude puns ("Burton Ernie" is one I can print here) and attendant sexual innuendo. A muddled routine on the "NBA Bubble Draft" involving players' "wives, their girlfriends and whoever else they want to see" felt like an oddly judgmental parade of sexual stereotypes. This is part of what "SNL" has long done — parading stereotypes, usually to burst them — but there wasn't much to it; it just went on for a while and then stopped. A filmed parody promo for Drew Barrymore's new talk show posited Barrymore (Chloe Fineman) as the anti-Ellen — too much eye contact, too much warmth — and had this spot-on exchange:
Barrymore, to Nicole Kidman (also Fineman): Thank you for allowing me to be on your show.
Kidman: Drew, this is your show.
Barrymore: Oh, my God, thank you.
As usual, the cast assembled onstage at the finale, all masked. "Wear a mask," said Rock. "Be safe out there." After 90 unmasked minutes, it was good to hear him say it, and all in all, good to be back.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.