Critic's Notebook: 'Saturday Night Live at Home' Finds Humor Amid Pandemic Pain

Back before Rudy Giuliani became a regular punchline on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update" segment, he opened one of the most important episodes in the show's history.

Just three weeks after the horrors of 9/11, SNL began its 27th season with executive producer Lorne Michaels asking Giuliani, "Can we be funny?" to which the New York mayor cracked, "Why start now?"

SNL is no stranger to working through pain on-air, whether in that post-9/11 moment or the regular tributes to castmembers lost too soon or the struggles to comprehend the election results of November 2016. Sometimes those efforts have yielded laughter, sometimes just a welcome nervous release and sometimes they've just been an acknowledgement of, "Yes, we feel it, too."

It was very much in that spirit that SNL returned this week with its first new episode since March 7, which isn't really such a long time by the show's standards, but might as well have been a million years ago. Daniel Craig making jokes about … I have no idea what we were making jokes about a month ago.

Saturday Night Live at Home — the episode wasn't live and anybody who had dealt with scattershot technology in the past month can understand why nobody wanted to risk the show's careful pacing on a Google Hangouts connection — began with a really fun revamped credit sequence, basically putting all of the castmembers in their quarantine contexts, adding to our favorite recent pastime of, "What do TV personalities' apartments look like?" Between seeing which castmembers were quarantining in Los Angeles, what Pete Davidson's mom's basement looks like and which featured players are still living in their first Manhattan pads, that probably would have been enough for that smile of human recognition that the episode demanded.

Stars: They've stopped grooming, too!

Tom Hanks, shooting in what my colleague Michael O'Connell very accurately described as his "second or third kitchen," was the perfect semi-host for the evening. They weren't able to weave him into any sketches, but he introduced musical guest Chris Martin, closed the show and established a tone that straddled "business as usual" — does this even count as his 10th hosting stint? — and an unavoidable reminder of, well, everything. Hanks referred to his own coronavirus recovery as the "celebrity canary in the coal mine," and it's truly impossible to put a number on how many lives he and his wife Rita Wilson saved through the visibility of their shared Australian diagnosis.

Getting his own "Why start now?" moment, Hanks articulated the episode's mission statement: "Is it going to look a little different than what you're used to? Yes. Will it be weird to see sketches without big sets and costumes? Sure. Will it make you laugh? Eh. It's SNL. There'll be some good stuff, maybe one or two stinkers."

Ultimately, if we're being perfectly honest and candid, there were more than one or two stinkers. How we ended up with an episode featuring not one, but two lo-fi Pete Davidson musical numbers — the second far superior to the first — is beyond me. Whatever humor there's been in Larry David's Bernie Sanders impression failed to come through in this context, or at least was dwarfed by the much funnier "Stay at Home" video David made as himself two weeks ago. Alex Moffat as a British sportscaster and Mikey Day as a gamer getting roasted on Twitch felt thin. I'm still trying to figure out the perspective in teenage movie critic Bailey Gismert's (Heidi Gardner) plug for frequent SNL host Louis C.K.'s new comedy special. [Note: A colleague points out that Bailey generally ends her segments with a wildly un-PC sendoff, but they tend to be drowned out by applause, plus they tend not to be about people who hosted multiple episodes of SNL even in the middle of swarming rumors.]

I liked the makeshift production values of Kate McKinnon's RBG workout sketch, with its hand-drawn butcher paper signs and a cameo from her cat. Like nearly everybody else who has done more than one office meeting on a streaming platform — plus one Seder — I found recognizable and relatable humor in the sketch highlighting more than a few familiar Zoom faux pas. I was relieved that Donatello of the Middle Aged Mutant Ninja Turtles only had a benign cyst instead of a tumor and I was relieved that Chloe Fineman's eerie Carole Baskin impression was the show's most extended riff on Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.

Yes, Tiger King came up again in a vocal cameo from Alec Baldwin's Donald Trump in a "Weekend Update" segment that swung a wild creative pendulum. Mostly, "Weekend Update" was crushingly unfunny, made all the more so by the strange decision to have designated laughers cackling via Zoom at the limp punchlines. We've seen most of the late-night hosts make some sort of return in the past couple weeks and they've had different strategies for handling the lack of feedback, from John Oliver's hermetically sealed silence to Desus and Mero using writer-producer Julia Young as an oddly effective one-woman giggle factory. There are many ways to make this awkwardness work. This was not a good way.

But I still ended the segment laughing and tearing up because of Michael Che's effective use/acknowledgement of his late grandmother, who died earlier this week from COVID-19 complications, to get Colin Jost to do a particularly embarrassing joke swap. It's hard to imagine being in Che's position, grieving a loved one and yet understanding the need to find humor even within the context of that sadness, but he located the right balance in humiliating Jost and his "I'm Martha's grandbaby" sendoff.

The show came together to do something similar in the episode's last segment, a tribute to late music supervisor Hal Willner. With generation-spanning testimonials from the likes of McKinnon, Adam Sandler, Bill Hader, Fred Armisen and a clearly moved Davidson, as well as a well-orchestrated cover of Lou Reed's "Perfect Day," it managed to be devastating and, at the same time, a celebration of one of those essential "glue" guys on the show's behind-the-scenes team — a figure who will obviously be missed deeply.

What Saturday Night Live did with this episode wasn't an attempt to restore normalcy. There was nothing normal about these 90 minutes. It was more of an acknowledgement-with-humor, an effort for the sake of collective recognition, the gang coming together and saying, "We know you're doing the best you can to work, to stay healthy, to stay sane, to stay positive, to put on pants. … We'll do the same for one night." That effort, and not the stinkers, will be remembered.