Over the past year and a half or so, I’ve been making my way through the past 15 seasons of “SNL.” Watching 15 years of satirical history has been fascinating, especially seeing how the world has evolved in the meantime. It’s impressive to consider a show that has somehow stayed relevant for 46 seasons, but the reason why “SNL” has been able to stay successful for so long is the way that they’ve learned how to adapt. They keep their finger on the pulse of American comedy by staying acutely aware of what’s happening in the world, rotating out cast members and writers to send them on to greater things when their time is up. Lorne Michaels is smart: He knows that the show will only remain relevant as long as it reflects the people who watch it, and so the “SNL” of today is nothing like the “Saturday Night Live” of 1975.
Watching old “SNL” episodes now indicates exactly how the world has changed: There are moments from 10 years ago that would never fly today: Bill Hader (“Barry”) playing the President of China, or Fred Armisen (“Portlandia”), who is half Venezuelan and was one of the only people of color on the show at the time, playing President Barack Obama for over two years. Most of the problem is that the show’s cast has been majority white and male since the show started in 1975. During an astounding low point in 2008, the cast looked worse than the U.S. Senate. With the exception of three white women and Kenan Thompson (“Kenan and Kel”), the cast was composed of entirely white men.
This era, I think, was a turning point for the “SNL” cast. Maybe it was the fact that Thompson and Kristen Wiig (“Bridesmaids”) were carrying the show on their backs by playing every Black or female character on the show. Maybe they realized that they should try to broaden their sketches’ appeal to be funnier for all demographics. Or, maybe they realized they wouldn’t have to rely solely on dressing guys in drag if they just hired more women. The point is, “SNL” has tried to adapt to make the show better, and over the past 12 years they’ve gained cast members that allow them to reflect an America of today rather than an America of the past.
In March, the COVID-19 pandemic hit hard on almost every aspect of our society, including live art. Like everyone else, “SNL” found themselves scrambling to create something that could work when the entire cast and crew were spread across the country, isolated in their homes. The result was three at-home shows which were strange and yet still pleasant to watch. While it was odd seeing “SNL’s” typically professional production replaced by endearingly makeshift costumes and videos filmed with ring lights, it was still nice to see “SNL” back in some capacity. After the third at-home show in May, “SNL” took the summer off, as they always do … but a lot happened in the summer between Seasons 45 and 46. After a summer of a deadly global pandemic, a social justice reckoning and a contentious presidential campaign season, it was impossible for “SNL” to come back like they always did. So, they adapted.
In some ways, the Season 46 premiere feels the same as usual. There’s a host and a musical guest — in this case “SNL” alum Chris Rock (“Top Five”) and rapper Megan Thee Stallion. There’s political satire, specifically a cold open featuring Alec Baldwin’s (“Drunk Parents”) infamous Donald Trump with Jim Carrey (“Sonic the Hedgehog”) debuting his notably impressive Joe Biden. Even the Weekend Update segment felt the same, with Colin Jost and Michael Che ribbing on today’s chaotic climate, plus the return of hit characters Chen Biao (Bowen Yang, “The Outs”) and Carrie Krum (Aidy Bryant, “Shrill”).
But all throughout the premiere, there are moments that remind you that right now is not “normal.” The masked live audience had to go through a series of COVID-19 tests before they could enter, and according to Rock’s monologue, the floor seats — usually the most expensive seats in the house — were reserved for first responders to thank them for their service during the pandemic. The new title sequences, rather than the usual videos of cast members doing things out and about in the city, were replaced with masked videos of them around the “SNL” studio. After the end of Weekend Update, the camera panned to the audience to show Kate McKinnon (“Ghostbusters”) dressed up as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — one of her fan-favorite Weekend Update characters — as an homage to the late justice. Most powerfully, Megan Thee Stallion’s performance of her hit song “Savage” featured a strong call to action to protect Black women. These moments drive it home: Even as “SNL” adapts to the current climate, they are not ignoring it.
This season premiere is not the best “SNL” episode I have seen, or even the best season premiere. The show feels occasionally shaky, maybe from the four months off or the tentativeness of doing a live show. The cold open in particular struggled at times: It was a bit too long and felt awkwardly timed, though I can’t tell if the show’s struggle to fully recreate the pain and chaos of last Tuesday night is more of a criticism of “SNL” or the mess that is American politics.
But I think that this Season 46 premiere still offers a good start. Live arts are returning slowly, adapting to the uncertainty to make everything as safe as possible. The laughter and applause of a live audience may be a bit quieter, muffled by masks, but at least it’s audible. I’m just glad that “SNL” is back, in any way it can be.
Daily Arts Writer Kari Anderson can be reached at email@example.com.
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