I am 52 years old. I remember the first Saturday Night Live, if not from watching it live (I would have been six), then certainly from the pop cultural scuttlebutt I was, even at that tender age, innately and improbably attuned to. Now, as a freelance TV writer lying on my bed (I write lying on by stomach—now you know), with a sleeping cat nestled unconcernedly on my butt and the grumbling moan of a Maine snowstorm outside the windows, I feel alone, and unaccountably unsettled. That with the spectacle of Lenny Pickett’s sax (and SNL’s keyboard player, whose name I am sorry not to know) playing off the handful of present and past SNL luminaries who’ve just put on some semblance of a 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. 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.
SNL did yeoman’s work in fashioning something that looked somewhat but not quite like Saturday Night Live for three episodes closing out a COVID-scuttled Season 45, cobbling together remote sketches and musical performances with an admirably scrappy resourcefulness born of necessity. And no doubt, this final 2021 episode would have performed similar patchwork professional plate-spinning, if the 8H quintet here weren’t so clearly doing their best amidst the scattered pages and abandoned coffee cups of an in-progress disaster movie. If you’ve ever seen the TV news crew gamely putting on a mid-zombie apocalypse broadcast at the beginning of the original Dawn Of The Dead, it’s hard not to feel a chilly twinge of recognition.
Am I making too big a deal out of this? Hell, I have no idea. New York had a record 21,000 new cases on Friday, as each new variant teaches the world the Greek alphabet, one letter at a time. The NFL has moved game days in an attempt to keep the football and CTE economy marching on, while essentially telling players they’re on their own by eliminating all the pesky testing that has deprived fans of their favorite stars. Meanwhile, the NBA is basically trolling the local YMCAs for players to fill in for its COVID-stricken rosters. Hell, even the Rockettes are down for the season.
Should SNL have shut it down (to pull from Tina Fey’s other former gig)? Hanks joked about his show-opening monologue appearance, handing over Rudd’s Five-Timer’s Club smoking jacket in an anticlimactically stripped-down ceremony. “I came here from California,” joked Hanks to open the show, “And if you think I’m going to fly 3,000 miles and not be on TV, well, you’ve got another think coming.” Fey came out to josh that Hanks “started COVID” like he started the Five-Timers Club, displaying the sort of gallows humor vibe that carried through much of the extremely sparse live content tonight.
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.
There was a smattering of actual new material tonight. Apart from Fey and Che doing some raggedly untested Update material (Fey happily blew the same line she apparently blew in rehearsal), the show had banked three filmed pieces, one as early as 5 a.m. Saturday morning. That one, “An Evening With Pete Davidson,” struck an unintentionally creepy note in that there was a malfunctioning Colin Jost-bot as part of the film’s aging Pete Davidson’s cynically rehashed stage act. A Raging Bull parody, the film saw a potbellied, balding older Pete dutifully playing the hits (“Do Chad!,” Mikey Day’s audience member shouts) and wallowing in has-been self-regard.
I liked it. The would-be heartwarming element of the black-and-white short came when Rudd, as former SNL writer Eddie Corbin, manages to hand the cold-hearted Pete a Christmas present, complete with a note reading, “I saw this and I thought of you.” (It’s a box of weed.) Rudd makes his forgotten writer (Davidson credits him with the runaway joke of “How I was a famous sex symbol for reasons that no one could understand?”) sweetly, pathetically loyal, with Davidson’s patronizing change of heart seeing the actor gift his former pal, “one of my Oscars.” (It’s Viola Davis’ no-doubt inevitable Lifetime Achievement award.) The film looks great, and the joke that the aged Davidson is still performing duets with Machine Gun Kelly (or his urn, as Kelly apparently dies in 2051) is solid. It’d be a nice, self-referential little sketch if not for how Davidson’s farewell song to his bored but well-heeled audience echoed with unintentionally creepy “Don’t Look Back In Anger” vibes. “Goodbye, for now. We’ll see each other again.”
Kate and Aidy managed to film (on Thursday night) a commercial for a popular last-minute-gift department store chain alongside Rudd, in what felt like the best realized sketch of the three we got tonight. Anytime Aidy and Kate team up is guaranteed gold, and here, as a pair of elderly shoppers giving a testimonial about their favorite store, their gradually revealed grandchildren fetish is, in their hands, very funny. With exasperated commercial director Rudd vainly attempting to steer his subjects back to the chain’s nondescript wares (“Just say ‘sweater.’” “Why?”) in lieu of truthfully expressing their monomaniacal desire for grandbabies, the sketch builds on Kate and Aidy’s ever-perfect timing and chemistry.
Escalating from turning every product into an admonishment for their adult kids to get down to business already (“A fuzzy blanket... to swaddle grandchildren.”), the pair eventually get glassy-eyed weird with it. (“Scissors... to cut holes in condoms to give to Kelsey.”) Finally converting Rudd (always so good at infusing comic characters with unlikely humanity), the three riff delightfully on their imagined joys of grandparenthood, with Rudd noting that grandkids ask nothing, they just, “play clarinet and get into college.” It’s a nice little sketch that would have settled nicely into an actual show. Here, its air of normalcy sticks out amidst all the old sketches and effortful introductions.
That perennially mocked, ludicrously overwrought Christian holiday ballad “The Christmas Shoes” is the target of the third and final filmed piece, with department store shopper Rudd taking pity on Kyle Mooney’s adorable little boy, who just wants to buy his momma some socks for Christmas. Patton Oswalt memorably (and rightly) termed “The Christmas Shoes” “the eeriest, most horrific” Christmas song ever, but this musical sketch, instead, just leans into the absurdist possibilities of a strange man and a little boy holding up a line of holiday shoppers with a shared tale of woe and bird ownership.
Rudd, again, so great at imbuing a silly bit with ultimate commitment, listens intently to Mooney’s story about his family’s pet bird, whose recent escape is causing all his mother’s worry. That the bird is named T.J. Rocks, and eventually revealed as fronting a rockabilly Christmas band named T.J. Rocks and the Junkyard Boys (Charli XCX making her one, pre-taped appearance), and that the boy’s confused mom (Aidy) is understandably taken aback at this adult man’s interest in her son (“Well, I don’t love that,” she sings) are all the sort of weirdo embroidery I enjoy in a sketch. As is Rudd’s prying into the unspeaking nature of said bird, “To me, that’s kind of a waste of a bird.” Again, on its own, the piece is the sort of above-average entry that might or might not have made it into the final show. Here, these three in-the-can films are the carefully interspersed excuse for there to be a show tonight at all.
Yeah, like the rest of my traditional, dopey, review-spacing categories (and an episode grade), let’s skip this one for—at least—this week. If there’s one thing tonight’s eerily echoey live show made all too clear, it’s that anybody in New York City coming together in genuine risk of their goddamn lives just so we can have a few laughs is very valuable indeed. Special credit to Kenan and Che, while I genuinely spent the entire show hoping that everybody not onstage is all right. As for the rest of us: Get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask, don’t be a selfish asshole, and let’s all do our part to ensure that a night like this never has to happen again.
- The show-padding handful of old sketches were a wildly mixed bag. I guess “Dick In A Box” is still worth a chuckle (and, technically, it mentions Christmas). Honestly, though, complaining about the amount of effort spent plucking out previous years’ sketches to put out an episode in the midst of an abandon-ship health crisis is the sort of thing I’ll leave to other quarters of the internet. I just don’t have it in me.
- That said, my nostalgic appreciation of the pretty funny, Hanks-anchored “Global Warming Christmas Special” from 1991 was dampened by my realization that most of the people being portrayed (Carl Sagan, Dean Martin, Dom DeLouise, Linda McCartney) and the people impersonating them (Chris Farley, Jan Hooks, Phil Hartman) have died.
- The sketch did feature right-wing former cast member and global warming denier Victoria Jackson, who remains among us.
- The Eddie Murphy Christmas sketch reminded everyone once again just how goddamn brilliant Eddie Murphy can be in front of a live TV camera.
- Rudd’s director, musing upon the other benefits of being a grandparent, looks forward to having “weird opinions about Israel.” “Not bad, weird” asserts Rudd, with Aidy’s would-be grandma chiming in, “It’s the wrong shape!”
- The show’s long commercial interludes kept cutting to a presumably live shot of crowds congregating at the 30 Rock skating rink and Christmas tree. Good luck, everybody.
- Fey, reminiscing about a long-ago post-show skate on that very rink, notes that Kenan was the only one who knew his way around the ice. “Mighty Ducks forever, bitches!,” noted former knucklepuck virtuoso, Russ Tyler.
- Che, after a joke about Lousiana judge Michelle Odinet, suspended after being caught on tape using racial slurs (she’s a Republican, if you can believe it), asks in an aside, “Why are me and Kenan the only cast members here?”
- Rudd comes out to the tinny, scattered crew applause deadpanning expertly, “Thank you for coming—I’m extremely disappointed.” Not given much opportunity to be funny live otherwise, Rudd’s best joke was in the goodnights, where he beamingly misquotes, to a a masked but aggravated Hanks, “Life is like a big, weird chocolate bar.” You know, in that sometimes an eagerly anticipated, much-deserved treat is filled with orange creme and you eat it anyway since at least it’s something.
- Anyway, that’s a fittingly dispiriting wrap on SNL’s 2021. Please be safe this holiday season, and, just for a change, remember your responsibility to your fellow humans, howsabout.