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COVID outbreak resulted in a bleak, strange and memorable night in SNL history

  • Host Paul Rudd, guest-stars Tom Hanks and Tina Fey and cast members Kenan Thompson and Michael Che were the only performers to appear on camera last night as the Omicron variant disrupted Saturday Night Live's Christmas show plans hours before airtime. "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," says Shirley Li. "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....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."


    • What SNL presented amounted to an "eerie, deserted clip show": "Saturday Night Live is over for the week (for the year, in fact), closing out 2021 with a skeleton crew’s defiant bravado, Paul Rudd’s anticipated Five-Timers Club Christmas Show turned, at the obvious last moment, into a clip show," says Dennis Perkins. "With word still trickling out as to just how many of the SNL cast and crew were hastily sent home thanks to COVID protocols and a rumored raft of positive tests, Rudd, Kenan Thompson, Michael Che, Tina Fey, and Tom Hanks gamely held down an otherwise evacuated fort. (Platinum Lounge member Steve Martin made a filmed appearance, airily congratulating [insert star’s name here] into the Five-Timers Club, with three-time host Martin Short serving him a drink while doing shtick.) I suppose some might quibble about the seemingly slapdash selection of old holiday sketches SNL trotted out in this unnervingly sparse trouper’s effort to fill 90 minutes of network airtime. Saturday Night Live’s had to scramble before in its long, long history, whether coping with drunk and/or intransigent hosts or the occasional anthrax attack. But this was different. With the five hardy souls on hand gamely ensuring that the show must, indeed, go on, the empty Studio 8H sounded cavernous, and oddly funereal. When Fey (filling in for an absent Colin Jost) and Che sat on director’s chairs and rattled off the night’s 'Weekend Update' material to Hanks, Rudd, and Kenan seated in the empty front row, the cutaways for their reactions were chillingly intimate, their laughter the knowing camaraderie of people living through something powerfully strange and potentially perilous, together." Perkins adds: "Still, it was fitting that Hanks was there. SNL brought him out for the last show before the ominously looming 2016 Election Night, sensing rightly that America’s dad was what we needed. And Hanks did, unfortunately for him and wife Rita Wilson, bring the reality of COVID home by being one of the first famous people afflicted by the virus, with SNL’s decision to book the recovered Hanks to introduce the first of those pandemic at-home shows a similar emergency reassurance call. Whatever plans the show had for Hanks to goof on new kid Rudd’s Five-Timer’s admittance, SNL unwittingly gave us another dose of Hanks on a night where the sight of a shockingly empty 8H otherwise signaled doom and gloom."
    • Lorne Michaels deserves credit for the show going on -- and saving "mega-millions" for NBC: "SNL has done amazing things in 47 yrs, but throwing together a show on hugely short notice after a disaster wiped out most of its plans (and cast) is near the top," tweets The Late Shift author Bill Carter. "The backstory was probably wild. But congrats to L Michaels. The show went on; and it went on well." He adds: "How valuable is SNL to NBC? They just held it together and put on a fine show that contained a BUCKET-load of commercials for holiday season movies abt to open, all of which surely paid big premium to be in last SNL of yr. Mega-millions saved for NBC."
    • SNL could've canceled Saturday's episode, but that wouldn't fit with Michaels' famous quote: Michaels has said, “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.” That's why SNL wasn't going to opt for cancelation. "First, considering all of the last-minute decision-making going on throughout the day and up until only hours before going live, I have mad respect for what Lorne Michaels and the team were able to put together," says Ray Flook. "Did it feel a little weird? Definitely, but for me that had more to do with COVID-related feelings than about anything the show did or did not do. Second, while I can understand folks questioning why they didn't just call it a wrap for the year I don't think SNL is deserving of getting sh*t for it. Just the opposite. Because if there's one thing that the folks who work on SNL have been known for and for quite some time is its 'The Show Must Go On!' approach to their craft. I have a feeling Michaels had more of an issue sending people home who wanted to appear than he did finding folks to take part. Because the show being on the air means something. It sends the message that even in a time of crisis, art can still shine through and bring a little light into the darkness. And while last night's last-minute 'Episode 2.0' may have felt a bit odd here and there, it was still 1000x better than running a repeat or the SNL holiday special."
    • It was awkward, but it was memorable: "Overall, not a very good episode," says Dustin Rowles, "but also kind of cool to see them actually put a show together in the midst of all of this, which is to say: It wasn’t good, but it was memorable."
    • NBC's rigorous daily testing protocols were able to identify SNL's outbreak early: "IATSE crew members on the show are said to have became vocal on Thursday and Friday amid the increasingly dire reports of infection rates and hospitalizations from the variant," reported Variety's Cynthia Littleton ahead of Saturday's show. "Sources close to the situation said executive producer Lorne Michaels and NBC were in 'constant contact' with crew members and local health officials to determine the best course for delivering SNL's final installment of 2021." Littleton adds: "A source close to the situation noted that NBC already has mandated daily testing protocols for all SNL cast, crew and production staff members as well as guests, and that rigor allowed them to identify the outbreak early on. Michaels and NBC were quick to make accommodations for (Saturday's) show given the chance that cast, crew or audience members might become exposed and have to quarantine right before the holidays."
    • SNL's last show without an official musical guest was on Oct. 11, 1986: As EW notes, "there isn't a ton of precedent for an episode to not have a musical guest — Rob Reiner didn't have one during the third episode of the first season, but John Belushi did his Joe Cocker impression to fill the gap. In season 4, at Walter Matthau's request, Garrett Morris sang an aria from Don Giovanni. Sigourney Weaver didn't have an announced musical guest at the start of season 12, but Buster Poindexter (of New York Dolls fame) was on hand to perform. Anyways, I am curious how they pull this one off, folks…"
    • Tina Fey joined Michael Che on "Weekend Update," filling in for Colin Jost, who reportedly tested positive for COVID
    • SNL was able to complete filming of a washed-up Pete Davidson parody of Raging Bull early Saturday morning
    • SNL played a lot of random old sketches, such as "D*** in a Box"
    • A Louis CK ad appeared in some markets during SNL's first commercial break

    TOPICS: Paul Rudd, NBC, Saturday Night Live, Colin Jost, Kenan Thompson, Lorne Michaels, Louis CK, Michael Che, Tina Fey, Tom Hanks