Saturday not quite Live

SNL in the era of quarantine? It’s impossible in the usual way:

  • The eager audience in Studio 8H of the Comcast Building (the one many of us know as the “RCA Building”)
  • The cold opening
  • The monologue
  • The musical guests singing or playing live before that eager audience
  • Fake News (currently presented as “Weekend Update” or some other imitation of a newscast)
  • Comedy sketches, impersonations

Two weeks ago they tried it in a scaled-down social-distanced way. It was just as bad as that sounds, pretty deadly. There were some flashes of wit but it was almost entirely deadpan without any sort of audience. I suppose they were also mindful that comedy is perhaps a problem in a pandemic, and so there was at times a solemnity & self-consciousness to what they were doing.   And so no wonder that it felt very lonely & cold watching the usual members of the SNL cast trying to be funny, seeming at times unable to figure out what they were doing. The one little bright-spot was Weekend Update, when Colin Jost & Michael Che did a bit of back-and-forth banter, briefly breaking the frigid isolation.

The world of comedy is not known for being especially kind. A century ago if you were boring you’d get the hook, literally. Hecklers are never friendly.

NBC faces a particular pressure with SNL from the biggest heckler in the country, not known to be a fan.

 

Lorne Michaels & his team took a very smart but safe path last night in the second attempt at a work from home (WFH) SNL. I can picture them sitting & thinking:

  • “what do we best”?
  • “what do they want to see”?

Brad Pitt doing a cold opening as Dr. Anthony Fauci was a good start. It wasn’t hugely funny, but it doesn’t have to be, not when the main purpose of the opening is to get us watching, to get us hooked.

Where we were falling asleep in my house last time, this time? we watched the whole thing and it was funny.

I wonder if this is a clue to how to approach the pandemic, as a creative, as a vendor. Maybe instead of trying to do something bold & new, we need to stick to what has worked in the past, something safe & recognizable rather than something alien. That’s especially important for NBC and their SNL brand, which has had seasons of mediocrity along the way, but keeps rolling along with new talent, reinventing the product along the way.  It’s a very conservative strategy.

In the short term? This is no time to be radical or bold as you seek to keep the attention & loyalty of your audience. That’s likely true for any product you’re selling. In this period of disorientation it’s really good to recognize what we’re seeing, to be presented with something familiar.

So we saw a version of Kenan Thompson hosting his show “What’s up with That?” featuring, what else, Kenan Thompson bursting into the infectious song “what’s up with that”?

He interrupted his own interview with Charles Barkley (who was talking about the new documentary about Michael Jordan & the NBA). Irritation & illogic trumps clarity. Bill Hader was there impersonating Lindsey Buckingham, who is always waiting to be interviewed, for many years now.

And last night was no exception.

When the song begins we get backup dancers, this time a pair from the current cast, and funny animals dancing. While they were superimposed digitally, the point is our screens had multiple persons dancing, including – I think—Jason Sidekas doing his total nerd dance.

[the video has been removed…I gotta ask what’s up with that?]

But you get the idea right? This is still a WFH version but animated & alive rather than cold & distant.

So we saw Pete Davidsen singing a song with Adam Sandler jumping into the middle

We saw Thompson reprise his impersonation of Big Papi David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox in fractured English with a heavy Dominican accent.

For the WFH version of Big Papi he’s teaching us how to cook. There are seven meats, and to make it you will need a “big ass pot”.

One of the great things they can do right now is hidden in plain sight. Doing live performance is hard, right? Doing something on tape you can make it perfect.

And so we were treated to Miley Cyrus singing “Wish you were here”, an apt song of loneliness, in what might be the best musical performance I’ve seen on this show in a very long time.

Are there lessons to be learned? If you’re a business stick to what the customer knows, what we can recognize.  Be positive, be happy, and avoid alien and new for the sake of being new.

The fact that Adam Sandler is trending on Twitter this morning is a good sign.

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