Political debates are like catnip to “Saturday Night Live,” which will return this weekend – just in time for Jim Carrey to spoof Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s performance in Tuesday night’s debate. That’ll be Jim Carrey from Studio 8H, not Jim Carrey from wherever it is he normally lives, as the sketch comedy show will return to 30 Rockefeller Plaza for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic started.
“We’ll do it live!!!” Lorne Michaels presumably yelled as he outlined the plan to get Colin Jost and Michael Che in the same room again. Season 46 is set to feature the entire cast from last season (including honorary member Alec Baldwin as President Donald Trump) plus three newbies. Everyone in 8H will have to abide by special covid-19 protocols, from crew members to the live studio audience that, yes, will be present once again.
Michaels has said in recent interviews that he looks forward to bringing back some semblance of normalcy: “It’s an election year,” he said of “SNL’s” in-person return. “It’s what we do.”
Here’s a breakdown of what to expect from this season.
– The cast
With new players Lauren Holt, Punkie Johnson and Andrew Dismukes, “SNL” now boasts a whopping 20 cast members. That doesn’t include Carrey’s Biden, Baldwin’s Trump or Maya Rudolph’s Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., who will appear in sketches but are not to be considered “celebrity cameos,” according to Michaels, who told Vulture “that’s sort of the New York Times approach to thinking about things.” Actual cast member Beck Bennett will be playing Vice President Mike Pence, so at least there’s that.
A few folks won’t be present in 8H as often as they normally would be because of the pandemic shifting summer filming schedules. Aidy Bryant will be in New York for some shows but has also committed to shooting “Shrill,” Michaels said. Cecily Strong has a project in Vancouver but will appear on “SNL” via green screen. Kenan Thompson will be flying back and forth to Los Angeles for an NBC sitcom, Michaels continued, but a long-tenured player like him “can come in the day before and he’ll be fine; he just knows the drill so well.”
– The logistics
Leaving behind the remote and audience-free production models that have sustained late-night television during the pandemic, the “SNL” team is aiming to get as close to the pre-covid-19 experience as they can. That mark is still quite far off, of course, as they’ve been working with the governor’s office to sort out protocol. Michaels told Vulture they’ll try to shorten dress rehearsals and simplify the show’s production design, given that cast members have to vacate a space before stagehands can enter.
In an interview with the Times, Michaels revealed that there are heat sensors and rapid coronavirus tests required to get into 30 Rock. Meetings that once hosted 40 people have been whittled down to three. There are new limits on how many people can be on the studio floor at a time, so camera operators will leave until they are needed once again. Masks are mandatory until the second the red light flickers on.
“Obviously, I take my responsibility for people’s health and lives very seriously,” Michaels said. “But we did a show with anthrax in the building. We did a show after 9/11. That’s what we’ve always done.”
– The approach
“SNL” is big on precedent even in unprecedented times. Michaels indicated in the Times interview that viewers hadn’t seen the last of Kate McKinnon’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg impression despite the Supreme Court justice’s death on Sept. 18. Presidential election sketches are to be expected, of course – “Going back to Ford/Carter, we’ve had a voice, and we will try as hard as possible to maintain that voice,” he told Vulture – but it remains to be seen whether the racial and political reckoning sparked this summer will nudge the 45-year-old comedy institution in any way.
Asked whether he feels the political sketches ever overshadow the rest of the show, Michaels said, “No. We’re a topical show. And that’s what we’ve always been. I mean, the first time Chevy (Chase) did Gerald Ford or Dan (Aykroyd) did Jimmy Carter, it wasn’t less of a comedy show, you know? I can’t really explain how it evolved, but it clearly evolved, and it somehow still feels right.”
– The audience
With comedy, Michaels told Vulture, “you need the audience.” “SNL” advertised tickets to Saturday’s premiere this week, directing social media followers to a web page detailing the show’s covid-19 policies. There is a pre-screening process for those who managed to snag spots for themselves and members of their “social bubble.” Guests who make it through will take self-administered coronavirus tests upon arriving at 30 Rock, after which they will be required to wear masks the entire time they are inside the building.