Eighteen days after September 11, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani took to the stage at Studio 8H inside NBC’s Rockefeller Center headquarters for the first episode of “Saturday Night Live” since the terrorist attacks. .
It was a solemn cold open. The mayor, surrounded by firefighters and police, implored viewers to continue in the face of the tragedy. Paul Simon, wearing an FDNY hat, melancholy interpreted “The Boxer”.
But the serious vibe was lifted with humor, leading to one of the show’s most memorable modern era moments. “SNL” head Lorne Michaels joined the mayor on stage and asked, “Can we be funny? “
Giuliani’s impassive response: “Why start now? “
The show’s 46th season premiere this weekend will take place against a similar backdrop of national mourning and crisis. More than 200,000 people across the country have lost their lives to Covid-19. Millions have been infected. The economy is devastated. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, meanwhile, have tested positive for the coronavirus, plunging the White House and the presidential campaign into turmoil.
The challenges of the great American sketch show are startling: How do you pull off 90 minutes of great comedy and political satire in the midst of a pandemic and public health emergency at the highest level of U.S. government? Can you joke about the president when he battles a deadly virus?
“The degree of difficulty has increased a hundredfold,” said James Andrew Miller, co-author of “Live From New York,” an oral history of “SNL.”
Michaels, who has chaired “SNL” since the show started in 1975 (except for a brief period in the 1980s), suggested in an interview with The New York Times last month that he felt responsible for providing “reason” and “community” in times of national distress.
“We did a show with anthrax in the building. We did a show after September 11, ”Michaels said. “This is what we have always done. For our audience, it’s really important that we show up. “
But this year, even showing up – and in particular, returning to the high-stakes live format – isn’t easy. The coronavirus pandemic, which forced “SNL” to suspend live broadcasts in March and end its previous season with three remotely produced episodes, plunged the show into a tangle of creative hurdles and logistical hurdles without previous.
“There are a lot of challenges that show up in everything: the set construction, the makeup, the wardrobe, the choreography that goes on behind the scenes,” Miller said.
“It’s not straightforward, and it’s going to require significant adjustments,” Miller added.
The shocking new reality of the Covid-era for the late-night institution was evident in a pair of photos posted this week on the show’s official Instagram account.
The first photo shows Chris Rock, the host of the season premiere, flipping through a script while wearing a white mask. The second photo provides a magnified view: cast and crew members individually seated at folding tables spaced 6 feet apart.
In a recent interview with New York magazine, Michaels said he was immersed in meetings focused on “the absolute physical challenge of what we can do in protocols.”
“The physical issues of doing it – the number of people that can be in the studio, the number of people that can be in the control room, the way you break up the group so they’re not in danger – it’s all part of the meetings, ”Michaels said.
During the Covid era, the producers of late-night comedy shows and daytime talk shows devised various ways to create a sense of normalcy. “The Tonight Show” returned to 30 Rock without a studio audience. Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah host their shows from their homes. “The Kelly Clarkson Show” features a virtual audience.
For their part, the producers of “SNL” are moving forward with plans for a “limited studio audience,” according to a statement from NBC’s entertainment unit. The show was working closely with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office on the details, the statement said.
Cuomo’s office, along with the New York City Department of Health, provided “SNL” with the criteria to meet to invite an audience back to Studio 8H, a state official told NBC News. The criteria, outlined on a state website, state that indoor production facilities should not exceed 50 percent occupancy, among other rules.
The 1iota ticketing website recently allowed potential audience members to sign up for a “screening process” to “determine eligibility to participate” in the show’s audience. The list said anyone selected would have to take a mandatory Covid-19 test, undergo a temperature check and wear a face mask, in addition to other guidelines.
Miller stressed that a studio audience is an integral part of the format and formula of “SNL”, describing it as the “oxygen and lifeblood” of the show.
“I can’t tell you how many cast members I’ve spoken with over the years who have talked about audience impact: how it shapes their performance and sets them up,” said Miller, who at alongside television critic Tom Shales spoke to dozens of “SNL” players for the oral history book.
But will actors have to wear masks during sketches and other on-air appearances? Michaels provided some clarity to The Times, explaining that artists “will wear masks until such time as the red light comes on, at which point the Velcro is removed.”
If the first part of the new season – “SNL” begins with five consecutive episodes on October 3, 10, 17, 24, 31 – plays out with some technical glitches or obvious glitches, the show could serve as a model for concerts. , Broadway shows and other forms of live entertainment that have been blocked by the Covid-19 related shutdowns.
“I think people in the television industry… will come away with a better understanding of what they can and what they can’t do” during the Covid-19 crisis, Miller said. “I think a lot of people will be watching this. “
But as with any season of a show widely known for its political satire and ripped riffs from the headlines, “SNL” should struggle with more than the restrictions of the Covid era when the clock strikes at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday.
The show is set to hit the airwaves in the home stretch of a fierce presidential campaign unlike any other, a race that offers an inordinate number of comedic possibilities.
The first presidential debate, a chaotic melee in which Trump interrupted and repeatedly yelled at former Vice President Joe Biden, likely provided the show’s editorial staff with particularly fertile ground for parody . But the president’s coronavirus diagnosis, announced early Friday, could have prompted the show’s writers – and regular Trump impersonator Alec Baldwin – to potentially soften their edges when it comes to mocking the president.
Nick de Semlyen, author of the book “Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the 80s Changed Hollywood Forever,” speculated on Twitter that the series might need to cut much of its Trump-centric content being given his diagnosis.
“Presumably, they’re going to have to remove a lot of it,” De Semlyen wrote.
Jim Carrey was hired to play the Democratic nominee – filling the shoes of Woody Harrelson, who played Biden several times during the primary campaign, and former cast member Jason Sudeikis, who portrayed him as the administration of President Barack Obama.
“With this election, it’s not an original thought or statement to say that there is a lot at stake,” Michaels told New York magazine. “Coming back to Ford / Carter, we had a voice, and we will try as hard as possible to maintain that voice.