Eighteen days after 9/11, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani took 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 open cold. The mayor, flanked by firefighters and police officers, begged viewers to move forward in the face of the tragedy. Paul Simon, who wore an FDNY hat, performed a melancholy version of “The Boxer”.
But the grave atmosphere was imbued with humor, leading to one of the most memorable moments of the modern era of the show. SNL boss Lorne Michaels joined the mayor on stage and asked him, “Can we be funny?”
Giuliani’s impassive answer: “Why start now?”
The show’s 46th season premiere this weekend will take place in a similar scenario of mourning and national crisis. More than 200,000 people across the country have lost their lives due to Covid-19. Millions of people have been infected. The economy is devastated. President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, meanwhile, tested positive for the coronavirus, throwing the White House and the presidential campaign into chaos.
The challenges for the American sketch show are clear: how do you manage to make 90 minutes of comedy and political satire in the midst of a pandemic and a public health emergency at the top of the American government? Can you joke about the president when he’s battling a deadly virus?
“The difficulty level just 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 premiered in 1975 (with the exception of a brief stint in the 1980s), suggested in an interview with the New York Times last month that he feels responsible for provide “sanity” and “community” in times of national suffering.
“We did a show with anthrax in the building. We did a show after 9/11,” Michaels said. “This is what we’ve always done. For our audience, it’s really important that we introduce ourselves.”
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, threw the show into an unprecedented tangle of creative and logistical hurdles.
“There are numerous challenges that manifest themselves throughout: the construction of the sets, the makeup, the wardrobe, the choreography that goes backstage,” Miller said.
“It’s not easy and will require significant adjustments,” Miller added.
The shocking new reality of the Covid era for the late-night institution was evident in a couple 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 offers an enlarged view: members of the cast and crew seated individually at folding tables 6 feet apart.
In a recent interview with New York magazine, Michaels said he was immersed in meetings focused on the “pure physical challenge of what we can do within the protocols.”
“The physical problems of doing it – how many people can be in the studio, how many people can be in the control room, how to separate the band so they’re not in danger – everyone is a part of the meetings,” Michaels said. .
In the Covid era, producers of night comedy shows and daytime talk shows have come up with 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 Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office on the details, the statement said.
Cuomo’s office, along with the New York Department of Health, provided “SNL” with the criteria it would have to meet in order to invite an audience into Studio 8H, a state official told NBC News. The criteria, outlined on a state website, dictate, among other rules, that domestic production facilities must not exceed 50% occupancy.
The 1iota ticketing website recently allowed potential audience members to sign up for a “pre-screening process” to “determine eligibility to attend” show audiences. The list said whoever was selected would have to take a mandatory Covid-19 test, undergo a temperature check, and wear a face cover, in addition to other guidelines.
Miller pointed out that a studio audience is integral to 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 talked to over the years who have talked about audience impact: how they shape their performance and prepare them,” said Miller, who along with TV critic Tom Shales spoke to dozens of “SNL” players for the oral history book.
But will the cast members have to wear masks during the sketches and other pieces on the air? Michaels provided some clarity to the Times, explaining that the artists “will wear masks until the red light comes on, at which point the velcro will be removed.”
If the first stretch of the new season – “SNL” begins with five consecutive episodes October 3, 10, 17, 24, 31 – resolves itself with a few glitches or obvious hiccups, the show could provide a model for concerts, Broadway shows and other forms of live entertainment that have been halted by the outages related to Covid-19.
“I think people in the television industry … will come with a better understanding of what they can do and what they can’t” during the Covid-19 crisis, Miller said. “I think a lot of people will be looking for it.”
But as with any season of a show widely known for its political satire and ripped-off riffs, “SNL” would face more of the Covid-era restrictions when the clock strikes 11:30 pm. Saturday.
The show is set to hit the airwaves in the final stretch of a fierce presidential campaign unlike any other, a contest that provides too many comedic possibilities.
The first presidential debate, a chaotic scrum during which Trump repeatedly interrupted and yelled at former Vice President Joe Biden, likely provided the show’s writing team with particularly fertile ground for parody. But the president’s coronavirus diagnosis, announced Friday, may 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 show may need to cut much of its Trump-centric material given its diagnosis. .
“Presumably they will have to discard a lot”, De Semlyen wrote.
Jim Carrey was cast to play the Democratic candidate, filling the shoes of Woody Harrelson, who played Biden a few times during the primary campaign, and former cast member Jason Sudeikis, who played him during the president’s administration. Barack Obama.
“With this election, it’s not an original thought or statement to say there’s a lot at stake,” Michaels told New York magazine. “Back at Ford / Carter, we had a voice and we will do our best to keep it.”