When Saturday Night Live Tried to Keep the Lights On

The show just aired one of its strangest and bleakest episodes, courtesy of the Omicron variant.

Kenan Thompson, Tom Hanks, and Paul Rudd on 'SNL'
Will Heath / NBC

Saturday Night Live’s final episode before Christmas is usually a festive affair, and this year’s was supposed to be even more triumphant than usual. As the last show of 2021, it would’ve marked the end of a full year of uninterrupted programming, after the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 led to canceled episodes and remote sketches. The actor Paul Rudd was set to be inducted into the Five-Timers Club, the league of celebrities who have hosted the show at least five times. A-list stars, per tradition, would have stopped by Studio 8H to welcome him.

Except, well, the pandemic’s not over. Only hours before the show was set to air, amid the rise of the coronavirus’s highly contagious Omicron variant, the show announced that, “out of an abundance of caution,” there would be no live audience and the episode would be handled by a limited cast and crew. The musical guest, Charli XCX, then released a statement that she would not be performing. If the show went on at all, viewers wondered, how different would it be?

As it turned out, extremely. Tom Hanks—who’d been slated to appear as one of the guest stars in the Five-Timers Club sketch—introduced the show, confirming in his reliably reassuring tone that the cast and crew had been sent home, save for a handful of people. Sketches the writers had planned all week could not be performed without the full ensemble, nor could they be rewritten or reconfigured in time with the remaining staff. Instead, the episode would operate in a semi-canceled limbo: Rudd would still deliver a monologue of sorts, receive his smoking jacket for being a Five-Timer, and react to a prerecorded segment from Steve Martin and Martin Short. Tina Fey, originally set to cameo in the Five-Timers Club sketch, would replace Colin Jost for the night as “Weekend Update” co-anchor with Michael Che, delivering jokes without any graphics or the usual set. And the pre-taped sketches would air in between older Christmas-themed favorites picked by Fey, Hanks, Rudd, and Kenan Thompson, the only cast member aside from Che to remain in Studio 8H.

Given the bare-bones camera crew and band, the show felt loose and intimate at times, like staying in the classroom too long after the final bell of the day. Yet more often than not, the rigid format—with every sketch introduced by one of the performers reading a hastily written lead-in—yielded a disconcerting, even apocalyptic, atmosphere. No laughter greeted the jokes in the pre-taped sketches. During “Weekend Update,” Thompson, Hanks, and Rudd sat in the audience to offer reactions, but their enthusiastic applause couldn’t distract from the rows of vacant seats. This was a bleak, strange night in SNL history. Not even the combined charm of Hanks and Rudd could overcome the gloom of having to put on an irregular show.

And yet, last night’s pseudo-episode may be the one I'll remember the best from this year’s collection—not in terms of the individual sketches, though Aidy Bryant’s pronunciation of grandchildren from “HomeGoods” will stay with me. Rather, I found it remarkable to watch, as the night went on, the way the performers’ professionalism melted into an exercise in grinning and bearing the emptiness of the room they were in. Both Fey and Che started inserting asides about Hanks’s reactions during “Weekend Update” as they cringe-laughed between jokes. Rudd, as game as he was to continue to “host,” sounded drained by the time he introduced an old sketch that featured him as an intense adult One Direction fan, which had nothing to do with the night’s Christmas theme. The goodnights—the traditional final segment, where the cast gathers on stage to hug and wave goodbye—saw the fivesome awkwardly negotiate whether to elbow bump one another and then exit the stage long before the credits finished rolling.

In other words, reality seeped into Studio 8H this weekend. As chipper as Rudd and the cast tried to be, the truth is that contending with a new threat in a pandemic that has lasted almost two years has dealt a psychological blow unlike what has come before. In 2020, SNL could cancel shows, move to doing a series of “at-home” episodes, and then implement rigorous safety protocols. But now, with a variant that is contagious enough to cause a spike in breakthrough infections among the vaccinated? The road map is less clear, even for an institution that has dealt with many crises before.

SNL will be back before long, and the perfect storm of issues that led to a night in which no one uttered the words live from New York is unlikely to occur again. But that doesn’t mean the episode should be forgotten as a one-off. It provided a time capsule, bottling up a precise moment of pandemic déjà vu in New York, when Broadway shows are being canceled and long lines are winding around rapid-test sites again. Onstage, the cast captured the moment’s particular anxiety as well: They were professional, but they looked wary and vulnerable, having had to discard almost everything they’d worked on for the past week.

Early 2020 felt dire; late 2021 feels dissonant. Here was SNL putting forth its oddest episode in history and transparently stating its pandemic-induced reasons, while the commercials that aired during its time slot encouraged viewers to go back to theaters and celebrate the holidays with family and friends. People are questioning whether to reconsider their plans while the White House combats vaccine hesitancy by recruiting the a cappella group Pentatonix to perform a punny ditty about boosters. There’s probably a joke in all of this somewhere, and the quintet of stars on SNL last night tried to find it. In the attempt, I saw an admission: Yes, yes, the show must go on. But it’s exhausting.