As promised, “Saturday Night Live” returned to the air this weekend for the first time in more than a month, and in radically altered form.
Gone were the audience, the sets at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the in-person cast interaction. Following the example of the mid-quarantine talk shows, “SNL” was being performed from the homes of its stars. And the “Live” in the title was a misnomer; as surprise host Tom Hanks admitted, all 90 minutes had been recorded earlier.
By putting Hanks out front, the show (rechristened for this week as “Saturday Night Live at Home”) deployed not just a longtime friend of “SNL,” but also the most famous coronavirus patient in the world who doesn’t lead a European nation. Looking and sounding fit — with an almost bald head that he hastened to note was for a movie role — Hanks explained from his kitchen what viewers were in for while offering plenty of shtick.
“This is the first time I’ve worn anything other than sweatpants since March 11,” Hanks said, feigning that he’d forgotten how to operate the buttons on his suit.
Recalling he had been diagnosed in Australia, he explained that when one’s temperature is checked Down Under in Celsius, “36 is fine; 38 is bad. So basically it’s how Hollywood treats female actors.”
Hanks even worked in a little audience Q&A routine, cutting away to himself pretending to be other people: a Frenchman and an Australian.
Aside from that, Hanks was confined to the most obligatory of host duties: introducing musical guest Chris Martin (covering Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm”) and saying good night. He appeared in no sketches, but a few other guest stars did.
Larry David popped up as Bernie Sanders, lacking the silver wig he usually wears in the role and explaining he lost a lot of hair during his campaign. Now that he’s out of the race, this Sanders said, “I finally have time to relax and finish that heart attack I started back in October.”
Out of necessity, many of the sketches were solo routines: Kate McKinnon as Ruth Bader Ginsburg demonstrating her workout (against a backdrop of adorable hand-drawn paper wall hangings), Mikey Day as a hapless Twitch host whose gaming demos go awry, Alex Moffatt as a sportscaster reduced to staging competitions with matches, popcorn kernels and other household objects.
Outrage magnet Pete Davidson starred in two homemade music videos, as a Drake wannabe (directed by his mom, the screen said) and a rapper using $2,000 in cash for maximum prop value.
But the cast did manage to interact, in the inevitable take on Zoom business meetings (botched by technologically inept receptionists played by McKinnon and Aidy Bryant) and on a dating show for desperate women willing to hook up with losers when quarantine ends.
The usually sleek Weekend Update was considerably looser as anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che bantered from separate quarters, at times going for seemingly free-form conversation instead of the typical tightly honed one-liners. Midway through, Alec Baldwin literally phoned in his Trump impersonation, announcing his new VP will be Joe Exotic from “The Tiger King.”
Though the footage was often grainy, the editing and effects were generally solid or even ambitious, as on the Twitch bit, full of swooshing graphics. Most impressive was the opening, remaking the cast intros to show the actors lolling about at home instead of gallivanting around Manhattan. And toward the end of the show was a lengthy, moving tribute to “SNL” music producer Hal Willner, featuring testimony by Adam Sandler and Bill Hader, and a performance by Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and other women of “SNL” of “Perfect Day,” by Lou Reed, a frequent Willner collaborator.
Will they do it again? Nothing was said, but we know one thing: They won’t do it again next week. A promo noted that next Saturday, the show will air a rerun of the John Mulaney episode from February.