Not so live, but still alive
Saturday Night Live and Second City have weathered decades of creative tumult and changing tastes, but they’ve never experienced what’s happening now; a situation where they can’t perform in front of a live group of people, or even perform comedy together as a group. But strange and desperate times lead to strange and desperate, and intermittently effective, comedy.
Both outfits recently released COVID-19-era episodes of new work. SNL’s April 11 episode was “SNL At Home,” a collection of sketches, musical performances, a memorial segment, and bookend monologues from America’s Dad (the nice Dad, not the evil Stepdad) Tom Hanks. It’s not clear yet if “SNL At Home” will be a regular thing or if it was a one-off experiment.
Second City on April 16 streamed the first of several planned episodes of “The Last Show Left on Earth” on social media with plans to air it on the Topic network after a 24-hour online window. (They’re loosely observing this plan. As of this writing, you can still find it on Second City’s YouTube channel). It’ll have rotating hosts; the first was 30 Rock vet Jack McBrayer.
Help us laugh and feel better
SNL and Second City both cannily chose hosts, Hanks and McBrayer, who seem particularly well suited to easing us through this rough clusterfuck of a pandemic. Each has made a career out of playing exceedingly kind and good-natured figures. Hanks and McBrayer each have a great talent for subverting that innocence when it’s needed, but in this case, the job description must have said something like, “We’re already crying, please help us laugh and feel better.”
After a 17-person cast Zoom meeting introduction and opening credits featuring SNLers doing stuff at home, Hanks performs a monologue in front of his kitchen and it’s exactly the balm you may be looking for. Not too saccharine, not too long, just the right amount of warmth and candor, with the extra gravitas of hearing from someone who has already been sick and survived COVID-19. It’s hard to imagine a better choice of presenter.
McBrayer, dressed in a tuxedo and pretend-playing a living-room piano, cheerfully sings some bland reassurances, then returns later for some very funny physical bits, including a martini-drinking gag that is perhaps the best thing in the entire 37-minute episode. That such daffy ridiculousness can survive the downer days of virus living is in its own way as reassuring as what Hanks is doing.
As far as what follows on each, they are very close to what you’d expect from sketch-comedy performers asked to write, film, and perform in their personal space. On SNL, Kate McKinnon riffs a lot in a solo sketch about Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s home workout routine that feels like it could have gone on for a full half hour or maybe she could have cut it to half its length, depending on your tolerance for McKinnon’s deeply committed wackiness. Bruised peach Pete Davidson appears twice doing weightless but catchy musical numbers. One is a riff on Drake’s “miss my ex” genre of music, the other a Lonely Island-esque song about having $2,000. Given that there are 16 other cast members, SN: should have cut one of these.
“Weekend Update,” which has been a bros-only affair since Colin Jost and Michael Che took it over, makes the baffling choice of including laughs from a few friends watching on Zoom. Not only does it violate the spirit of what the rest of the show is trying to do, it distracts from the material and feels desperate.
Larry David’s Bernie Sanders spot comes across like a last hurrah of a great run, but doesn’t add much new to the Curb Your Enthusiasm creator’s portrayal of the U.S. Senator, while an audio-only appearance from Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on “Update” demonstrates why you’re better off seeing Baldwin’s impression, with its beefy physicality, than hearing it.
“At Home” ends up working best as a showcase for its least-known stars including Mikey Day (unsung, incredibly great straight man Mikey Day) as a Twitch streamer who is not very good at gaming, Heidi Gardner as a bad YouTube film reviewer, Chloe Fineman doing “MasterClass” spots as Timothée Chalamet, JoJo Siwa and Carole Baskin. and Ego Nwodim doing pandemic makeup tips. Of course McKinnon and Aidy Brant steal the show on a group-over-Zoom sketch about clueless office workers, but it’s refreshing to see the raw talent on display that got Day, Gardner, Fineman, and Nwodim on the show.
And then there’s a “Middle Aged Mutant Ninja Turtles” animated sketch that has nothing to do with the rest of the show or COVID-19, but is quite funny.
Second City Up Second
Second City’s effort, on the other hand, feels more grab-baggy with a mix of longtime alums and up-and-coming performers performing at varying levels of finesse.
Tyler Davis knocks it out of the park early with a song about not wanting to watch your Instagram Live videos that makes the Pete Davidson videos look sweaty.
Fred Willard appears in a three-person sketch (maybe it was made before social distancing?) as a crabby acting coach who praises one performer while destroying the other scene partner. It’s supposed to be making fun of the MasterClass series, but doesn’t seem to adhere to that format at all. It feels very loose, unnecessary, and thrown together, unfortunately, given Willard’s talents.
Much better are London Hughes in a sketch about being locked down and horny on YouTube called “Quarantine Hacks” and Mike O’Brien as a school principal dealing with a supernatural entity.
Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy appears for a short interview and musical performance (on SNL it was Coldplay’s Chris Martin), then a very, very long Trump impression from Andrew Knox that he executes well, but maybe it’s not so welcome as an escape right now.
A closing sketch from Edgar Blackmon about a family’s Monopoly rap battle would never work as solid comedy any other time than right now, when it plays as perfectly timed to parents and kids being trapped together at home.
Overall the Second City sketches have stronger writing and more consistently great performances, but it’s also half as short at SNL At Home and takes fewer big swings at the fences, as SNL does in a very dumb, but weirdly effective musical creation from Kyle Mooney and Beck Beckett.
SNL also leaves on the right note with a sincerely great tribute to its late music producer Hal Willner. In the end, the only thing missing is producer Lorne Michaels himself, who doesn’t appear in the tribute or the rest of the episode.
Both experiments work only because of how unguarded they feel. Peeking into the closets and bedrooms and basements of these comedy performers doesn’t really provide much insight or extra laughs, but it does somehow make the comedy feel more intimate, and more necessary in this very strange moment.