NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - It was perhaps the most anticipated Saturday Night Live (SNL) season premiere in almost 20 years - the show's first live broadcast in more than six months, hosted by comedian Chris Rock, and its first to be produced under the new guidelines of the coronavirus era.
The last live episode of SNL had been broadcast on March 7; it was hosted by actor Daniel Craig and featured a few segments in which the show tried to find what humour it could in the looming pandemic. Then the show announced it was suspending its season altogether, only to come back with three episodes of remotely produced sketches, filmed mostly at the homes of its cast members.
SNL tends to generate its biggest audiences in American presidential election years, and the series' creator, Lorne Michaels, further stoked expectations by tapping actor Jim Carrey to play former United States vice-president Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee.
But the show is also contending with a slew of new health and safety regulations, and as recently as a few days ago, Michaels was not entirely sure that he and his cast and crew could stick the landing: "We're going to be as surprised as everyone else when it actually goes on," he told The New York Times in an interview.
And questions lingered before Saturday (Oct 3) as to whether a live audience would attend. (It did, under visible restrictions.) That would have all been challenging enough.
But then SNL had to start its season by recapping a week in which US President Donald Trump was hospitalised for treatment of Covid-19 and in which the first lady, Mrs Melania Trump, along with several Republican senators and high-ranking Republican officials, tested positive for the coronavirus.
Perhaps the closest comparable moment in SNL history was the season opener of Sept 29, 2001, the show's first new broadcast after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks.
That episode began with a call for unity from Mr Rudy Giuliani, then the mayor of New York, who was flanked by police officers and firefighters as he told the audience, "Even as we grieve for our loved ones, it's up to us to face the future with renewed determination."
Singer Paul Simon played the song The Boxer, and Michaels famously asked Mr Giuliani, "Can we be funny?" Mr Giuliani answered, "Why start now?"
This time around, SNL simply opened with a send-up of last Tuesday's chaotic debate between Mr Trump and Mr Biden.
Presidential Debate Parody of the Week
The segment opened with a voice-over promising a replay of the debate, "even though Tuesday feels like 100 days ago."
Onstage, actor Beck Bennett played the hapless moderator, Chris Wallace of Fox News, while actor Alec Baldwin returned to his recurring role as Mr Trump.
Bennett began to explain the rules.
"Each candidate will have two minutes, uninterrupted," he said, only to be immediately interrupted by Baldwin.
"Boring!" Baldwin declared.
He said to Bennett, "Tell that to my Adderall, Chris, now let's get this show on the road and off the rails."
Asked if he had taken the test for coronavirus, Baldwin answered: "Absolutely. Scout's honour."
Playing Mr Biden for the first time, Carrey strode onto the stage in aviator glasses while making finger guns at the audience. He produced a tape measure, sized up the distance between himself and Baldwin, then picked up his lectern and moved it further away.
Asked if he was ready to debate, Carrey answered: "Absolutely not. But I've got the beginning of 46 fantastic ideas I may or may not have access to. Now let's do this. I'm holding my bladder."
Throughout the segment, Carrey (as Mr Biden) tried to exercise some restraint: "Don't let your inner Whitey Bulger come out," he told himself. "Flash that smile they taught you in anger management."
Bennett, meanwhile, emphasised Wallace's passivity. At one point he told Baldwin, "Mr President, if you keep interrupting this debate, I'll do absolutely nothing about it."
Actress Maya Rudolph appeared briefly in her recurring role as Senator Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee.
She told the two presidential candidates, "America needs a WAP: woman as president. But for now, I'll settle for HVPIC: hot vice-president in charge."
After Baldwin (as Mr Trump) demurred on the topic of white supremacy, Carrey produced a remote control and paused Baldwin in mid-sentence.
"Sorry, but I think we all needed a break," Carrey said. "Isn't that satisfying?"
Speaking directly to the camera, Carrey added: "You can trust me. Because I believe in science and karma. Now, just imagine if science and karma could somehow team up to send us all a message about how dangerous this virus can be."
He looked over his shoulder at Baldwin, then continued: "I'm not saying I want it to happen. Just imagine if it did."
Before he, Baldwin and Rudolph ended the sketch, Carrey's Biden introduced his own campaign slogan: "Make America Actively Not on Fire Again."
Opening Monologue of the Week
Rock, the stand-up star and SNL alumnus, wasted no time in addressing what he called the elephant in the room: "President Trump's in the hospital, from Covid," he said, "and I just want to say, my heart goes out to Covid."
He added that this was a unique show for SNL and that, like everyone around him, he had been tested frequently.
"I haven't had so much stuff up my nose since I shared a dressing room with Chris Farley," he said.
Pointing out members of the SNL studio audience that he described as first responders, Rock said, "They're so good, we let people die tonight so they could see a good show."
Assuming that Mr Biden would be elected, Rock said that he should be America's last president ever and that a new system of government should be instituted after him.
"What job do you have for four years, no matter what?" Rock asked. "If you hired a cook and he was making people vomit every day, do you sit there and go, 'Well, he's got a four-year deal; we've just got to vomit for four more years'?"
More sincerely, Rock concluded his monologue with a quotation from American novelist James Baldwin: "'Not everything that is faced can be changed,'" he said, "'but nothing can be changed until it is faced.'"