When we say something was “painful” to watch, more often than not, we don’t literally mean it caused us physical pain. When I say “SNL At Home” was painful to watch, I very much mean it caused me physical pain.
I spent most of the episode with my head in my hands, in disbelief over NBC’s decision to air what appeared to be a high school video project. I regretted, for the first time, paying extra to have commercial-free-Hulu, desperate for a moment’s reprieve from the involuntary cringing and grimaces.
Not even host Tom Hanks, America’s Sweetheart, could charm his way out of writing that bad. His opening monologue was historically lame by “Saturday Night Live” standards. The lack of a live audience presented Hanks and the writers with an enormous challenge, to be sure. There’s no downplaying that. But it’s possible to be funny, even very funny, with one person and a camera.
The challenge of putting together a show full of collaborative sketches while everyone works remotely is even more difficult than getting Hanks to deliver some decent jokes. The episode’s parody of a conference call on Zoom was pitch perfect—funny, relatable, formatted successfully.
Indeed, there were bright spots! “Middle-Aged Mutant Ninja Turtles” had its moments. The last joke on “Weekend Update” was hilarious. But, wow, speaking of “Weekend Update,” “SNL’s” decision to use a crackly conference-call laugh track was bafflingly stupid. Like Hanks’ monologue, “Weekend Update” should be one of the easiest bits to translate from in-studio to remote, yet it suffered from more terrible writing. Alec Baldwin’s call-in as President Trump was a great reminder of why his impression is so unfunny. Even Larry David’s appearance as Bernie Sanders was subpar.
The Timothee Chalamet MasterClass sketch was awful. Kate McKinnon’s “RBG Workout” video was stunningly humorless. I don’t know how one of the best writing teams in comedy came up with any of this. “SNL” is hardly at its peak these days, and it wasn’t an easy transition for the show to make, but still. This was bad.
I’m not saying this to be facetious, but Joel McHale’s “Tiger King and I” episode, added to the Netflix original series on Saturday, was much better. Yes, a sketch show and interview show are apples and oranges. But McHale’s opener, which also featured just himself and a camera, was genuinely funny. His timing was great, the writing was sharp.
“Tiger King and I” benefited from a) a veteran “Weekend Update”-style host and b) the docuseries’ naturally entertaining cast of characters, all of whom revealed new information. But the contrast is still unfortunate for “SNL.” As McHale (and David Spade before him) demonstrated, it’s possible to make a funny show on Zoom, and with even less resources than NBC. All it takes is good writing, good ideas, and good comedians. None of that should be out of reach over at 30 Rock.
It’s only fair to give “SNL” more than one week to adjust. The show’s Zoom parody is promising. But I think it’s still a testament to this season’s quality of writers and performers that “SNL At Home” nosedived so hard on Saturday while other shows have been making the arrangement work.