The Surreal Comforts of the SNL Quarantine Episode

Hosted by COVID-19 survivor Tom Hanks and filmed remotely, the show’s latest broadcast is a cultural document of the times.


“There’s no such thing as Saturdays anymore … Every day is today,” said Tom Hanks, introducing last night’s unusual edition of Saturday Night Live, a TV show whose traditional format is wildly unsuited to a time of social isolation. SNL is usually written in cramped offices, filmed in front of a packed audience in bustling Midtown Manhattan, and aired in celebration of the weekend, which is a little harder to enjoy right now. Given America’s ongoing lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, the cast and crew of SNL could be forgiven for taking the next few weeks off. Instead, they returned for a remotely filmed cavalcade of sketches that felt perfectly matched to the strange era that the world is living through.

The various missives were filmed by cast members in their own homes and assembled into something legible by SNL’s nimble post-production team. The sketches varied in quality—some went on too long, others were too brief, and the show’s energy had undeniable peaks and valleys. But all of this is fairly typical for SNL. As Hanks said in his introduction (filmed in front of his very tastefully appointed kitchen), “There’ll be some good stuff, maybe one or two stinkers; you know the drill.” What carried the entire experiment through was the can-do, show-must-go-on spirit, a reminder that comedy can still thrive under the strangest of circumstances.

Hanks, a frequent SNL guest host, was a perfect choice for virtual emcee, even if he declined to don a David S. Pumpkins suit for his opening monologue. He’d become, as he put it, “the celebrity canary in the coal mine” for America’s understanding of the coronavirus threat when he and his wife, Rita Wilson, were diagnosed with the virus in early March. Something was soothing about seeing Hanks in good spirits to kick things off, as he warned viewers that the episode might feel a little jarring, given the lack of colorful sets, fancy costumes, and a live audience.

In fact, it was quite the opposite. Watching cast members such as Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant, and Pete Davidson rattle around in their homes may have had a touch of public-access strangeness to it, but each of their performances had a pent-up quality that many a home viewer could probably relate to. They’re performers, after all, and they have nobody to perform for. As McKinnon bounced around the room doing home workouts as part of her Ruth Bader Ginsburg impression, her exuberance at finally unleashing some energy felt contagious.

Even Saturday Night Live knows how disastrous Zoom conference calls can get. (NBC)

Other offerings included Davidson filming music videos in his basement (with direction credited to his mother, with whom he lives); a series of impressions from up-and-coming cast member Chloe Fineman; a seated dispatch from Larry David (nominally in character as Bernie Sanders); and a Twitch video-game-stream parody starring Mikey Day. As is typical for SNL, almost every sketch was grounded in the events of the past few weeks, which called for satire of Zoom conference calls and home makeup tutorials. Most poignant was a tribute to Hal Willner, the show’s legendary music producer, who died on April 7 from symptoms consistent with COVID-19. The “Weekend Update” host Michael Che also paid tribute to his grandmother, another victim of the pandemic, by having his co-host, Colin Jost, read a particularly tasteless joke.

The most recent episode broadcast before last night, a March 7 edition hosted by Daniel Craig after his James Bond film was pushed back on the release calendar, feels like a lifetime ago. That entry included a couple of cute sketches nodding to the building paranoia about the pandemic, but it also featured a daytime-TV cooking parody and a guest appearance by Debbie Downer. For decades, one of SNL’s best functions has been as a recorder of topical history, often contributing to lasting cultural impressions of world-famous figures. Delving into the show’s archives can serve as a reminder of America’s instant reactions to presidents, wars, sporting triumphs, and pop phenomena. On rewatch, the shift in format from Season 45, episode 15 to episode 16 will be particularly unforgettable.

Most likely that’s why SNL honcho Lorne Michaels shepherded this “at home” edition of the show to production, and why future installments could follow as the season continues. One of Michaels’s most repeated aphorisms is that “the show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.” It continues to be 11:30 on every Saturday night, despite all of the chaos that the coronavirus has wrought on the world, and it’s reassuring that this indestructible show is finding new ways to honor that tradition.