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AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
When much of the country first went on lockdown earlier this year, "Saturday Night Live" followed suit. "SNL's" latest season premiered in October, and the cast and its audience returned to Studio 8H with COVID-related precautions. So far, "SNL" has had a deep bench of A-list hosts like Issa Rae and Dave Chappelle, plus plenty of election commentary.
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DAVE CHAPPELLE: You're a police officer. And every time you put your uniform on, you feel like you've got a target on your back. You're appalled by the ingratitude that people have when you would risk your life to save them. Oh, man. Believe me. Believe me. I know how that feels. Everyone knows how that feels. But here's the difference between me and you. You guys hate each other for that, and I don't hate anybody. I just hate that feeling.
HARRIS: I'm Aisha Harris. And today we're talking about "Saturday Night Live" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.
Welcome back. Joining me from his home studio in Los Angeles is Tobin Low, former host of the Nancy podcast, who is now with Radiolab. Hello, Tobin.
TOBIN LOW, BYLINE: Hi. Thanks for having me.
HARRIS: Yeah, it's great to have you here. So six episodes in, "SNL" mostly looks and feels much the same as it would in any other year. Behind the scenes, though, the production has implemented safety regulations like rapid tests, mandatory masks for anyone who isn't on camera. And now audience members are being paid as if they were employees in order to comply with New York state regulations around live TV events during COVID. And, of course, there has been no shortage of social-distancing jokes.
Now, Tobin, "SNL" has a very interesting reputation right now. I'd like to say that, you know, in general, there seem to be two types of people when it comes to how they feel about "SNL." There are the people who really like to criticize it but probably haven't watched it in, like, a decade at least. And then there's the people who hate-watch it, but they see it every week or at least seek out different sketches when they post live. Where do you fall in that camp?
LOW: I feel like I fall in the camp of someone who's always enjoyed "SNL," been a fan of it and has sort of a very, I would call it, healthy relationship to what it is, which is just, like - it's, you know, a live show that they put together once a week. And there's some big hits and some big misses. And, like, I sort of fall in the camp of like, I don't think hating "SNL" or saying it's not as funny as it used to be is a personality...
LOW: ...The same way, like, hating Comic Sans is not a personality. Like, I just think that's, like, a boring critique. So to me, the show - like, it's doing what it has always done, which is, like, make some really funny things, make some things that are a miss, you know? I sort of land agnostic on it.
HARRIS: Yeah. I'd say I'm in the same camp. I mean, it's so easy to hate on this show because, you know, they are putting on a 90-minute show every week. And there are always going to be some duds. Sometimes there are more than others. And, like, with the election this year especially, they're writing up to the minute. We didn't find out officially that Biden was projected the winner until Saturday morning. And so the fact that they had to sort of, like, hinge on that and wait on that for this last episode with Dave Chappelle - you know, I have to give it to them for being able to do this every week. And I think a lot of people forget that that's what goes into it every week.
LOW: Yeah. I also was just thinking back to the - even the season debut, which was that atrocious debate.
LOW: And then to have to do sort of a skit about it not so long after - I don't know how anyone finds comedy in that. It doesn't matter where you fall. Like, everyone universally hated that debate. And so then to have to make comedy out of that with, like, no time, I just - yeah, props to them.
HARRIS: Well, the weird thing about "SNL" is that, like, yes, we all are very critical of it. And we like to talk about the things that don't work. But, you know, what I think is really interesting about the show is that as soon as anything happens, we're all like, oh, I wonder what "SNL" is going to do that week. When Kamala Harris was announced, I saw more people on Twitter who seemed excited that Maya Rudolph was going to probably be the person playing her than...
LOW: (Laughter). Yeah, yeah.
HARRIS: ...Actual excitement about Kamala Harris herself being the VP nominee. And so it's really fascinating the way it's kind of held this really particular place in our imagination of, like - it is this institution. We turn to it as this beacon. I don't know if it's - sometimes it's to reflect the things that are going crazy but also just to project the things that are happening now. I'm curious as to, like - what do you think the role of "SNL" is in 2020?
LOW: It's tough to say because I think, just to jump off what you are saying about, you know, when big things happen, we turn to this show. But I think in this post-Tina Fey Sarah Palin world, where the narrative afterwards seems to be, like, oh, you know, her impression really swung how we felt about that election - I feel like ever since that moment, any time big political things happen, suddenly everyone turns to "SNL" not just for a take but also to be like, are you going to influence what's going to happen with, you know, who's playing who and how you depict them, which - I don't necessarily agree that the Sarah Palin impression did anything other than what was probably already going to happen.
But I do think it has taken on this role of, like, kingmaker, and I don't necessarily know that I agree with that. So for better or worse, I do still feel that energy of, like, tell us how we're feeling as a country, "SNL," you know?
HARRIS: Yeah, yeah. Well, I want to talk a little bit more about that guest-starring role because one of the things you mentioned, Tobin, before we started recording was the way in which "SNL," especially this season, has really turned to people who are not actually in the cast...
HARRIS: ...To do all the heavy lifting. You know, obviously, we have Joe Biden being played by Jim Carrey. We have Alec Baldwin, who is probably very happy that he will hopefully not have to play Trump for much longer on "SNL."
HARRIS: He's been doing it for so long now, for years.
HARRIS: And, of course, Maya Rudolph as Kamala Harris. But, yeah, they've been doing a lot of turning to people who are not in the cast. You know, obviously, Kenan Thompson and Kate McKinnon are still kind of the stars of the show, but I kind of feel as though "SNL" is having trouble making new stars. How do you feel about that?
LOW: I would agree with that. I mean, I feel like we're in an era of nostalgia television. There's a lot of turning back to our favorites for comfort and rebooting and reunions and that sort of thing. And I do feel - as much as "SNL" has always relied on, you know, its favorite talent to come back, I do feel like it has fallen into this thing of sometimes bringing back the Tina Feys, the Maya Rudolphs, the Kristen Wiigs, to sort of just bring that energy into the room of, like, oh, our favorite is back - we love it. And let me be clear - like, I would lay down my life for these women. Like, I do love them.
LOW: But I also just wonder what that does when they take up literal airtime from a younger cast member getting to make their stamp. For example, with the Maya Rudolph-Kamala Harris impression, like, over the next four years, that could be a real star-making turn, who gets to do that impression. Like, can you turn that over to somebody in the cast so that that is their big moment, you know, as opposed to bringing Maya Rudolph back every time you need to comment on something Kamala Harris has done?
HARRIS: See, the thing, though, is, is to me, like, Maya Rudolph is probably - she's so pitch perfect as Kamala.
LOW: She is.
HARRIS: She kind of looks like her. She has the attitude down perfect. Like, I agree with you. I would love to see one of the other stars take over. But I also think, like, Maya Rudolph is just so perfect that it works. It's not quite like Fred Armisen playing Obama, you know? Like, that felt always weird to me (laughter).
HARRIS: And then they, finally - you know, finally gave it to Jay Pharoah. But, like, in that instance, I completely agree with you. I do have to say, though, I think that Carrey as Biden - I don't necessarily know if I want him to come back. I do think that it's taken him a long time to sort of, like, really gel into that role. At the beginning of it, he was very much playing him as, like, a mixture of his character in "The Mask" mixed with, like, Fire Marshall Bill from "In Living Color" and, like, mugging and just doing all these crazy things. And I think also part of that might be the writing as well, but it just felt not like Biden. Like, I didn't feel like he was channeling it.
I think this last episode with Chappelle really, really cemented - like, it felt a little bit clearer to me. But, again, that could be a star-making role. I think that - in that case, that could be a star-making role for someone else who's already in the cast.
LOW: Yeah. I mean, I think what you're pointing out, too, is, like, I don't think that they have located the sort of center of their take on Biden yet, either. It seemed from one skit to the next it would be, oh, it's that he's old. Or the next one would be like, he has too many ideas; he talks too much. But it sort of hasn't, like, coalesced around, like, what their take on Biden is yet, which - yeah, you know, again, it's - they're figuring it out on the fly in real time.
LOW: But I also think that was, like, a thing with Carrey's impression that I noticed.
HARRIS: Yeah. One other thing I kind of wanted to talk about was just the way in which to me, you know, "SNL" has always been sort of hit or miss, I think, even in its glory years, depending on when you think those glory years were because everyone has a different (laughter) era, depending on how old they were and all these other factors.
HARRIS: But it seems like "SNL," I think, to me, is having a hard time figuring out how to adjust to all of us being on Twitter all the time and all of us being able to make the quips that they normally - like, we would normally turn to "SNL" for. So while we all are like, yeah, I can't wait to see Maya Rudolph as Kamala, there's also just this sense, especially in the writing of a lot of the sketches, that - the opening sketches for the season basically sounded like, if I was on Twitter, these are the things we would be commenting on.
So let's actually listen to a short clip of Maya Rudolph as Kamala Harris, and she's facing off against Mike Pence, who is played by Beck Bennett.
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MAYA RUDOLPH: (As Kamala Harris) Now, I'd like to hear the vice president's response. And while he speaks, I'm going to smile at him like I'm in a TJ Maxx and a white lady asked me if I work here.
BECK BENNETT: (As Mike Pence) Look. I promise you the president has taken this virus seriously since the very beginning of last week.
RUDOLPH: (As Kamala Harris) OK. Now, Susan, what I'm going to do is I'm going to switch to more of a Clair-Huxtable side-eye.
HARRIS: So there's just this sort of, like, I'm going to tell you exactly what I'm doing. And it's super, super-meta. But it's also - these are all the jokes that we make on Twitter. And I don't think they necessarily quite - they feel like sort of lazy jokes to me. And I don't know if that is what I want out of "SNL" right now.
And this has happened in a lot of the sketches - not just with that one but also when Kate McKinnon was playing Savannah Guthrie during the town hall that Trump had. There's a lot of that going on, too. And it's like - and I think it speaks to just how difficult it continues to be to make comedy about politics in this era. Like, what can you do when not only is politics just so out there and crazy at this point and there's that whole Four Seasons thing about...
LOW: (Laughter). Yeah, right.
HARRIS: Like, that in itself sounds like it could be an "SNL" sketch. But then, like, what is that comedy for? And I wish there was a different way to remedy that.
LOW: Totally. And, I mean, I think to your point, you just - personally, the stuff that I have found more funny and more successful is the stuff that's completely in left field and has nothing to do with what is happening right now. Like, I know it was kind of hated on the Internet, but that whole, like, Montreal news sketch where they were just doing dumb accents...
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BOWEN YANG: (As Jean-Lawrence) Bonjour. Hi. Welcome to "Bonjour Hi," the French-Canadian morning new show live from Montreal. Montreal - the best parts of Canada and the worst parts of France.
LOW: I loved that because it was just so stupid and so funny. And then in the Chappelle episode, the sketch where they were celebrating the anniversary of Mario and...
HARRIS: (Laughter) Yes.
LOW: ...That, I actually, like, laughed at and felt a release from. And then I completely agree with you. The stuff that is very much about this moment we're in - it's like none of us knows what's funny right now. At least for me, I don't know what to take from what's happening right now and say, oh, that's objectively funny, what's happening and - or, like, there's a joke to be made here. I, like, kind of can't figure it out. So the stuff that's, you know, just dumb, I am loving.
HARRIS: Yeah. The bird sketch from the Halloween episode (laughter)...
LOW: The bird sketch, yes.
HARRIS: ...Where it's like - where they were imagining, like, a deleted scene from the Alfred Hitchcock movie "The Birds" and - that was just a lot of physical comedy...
HARRIS: ...That I thought was just hilarious - like, the fake birds and then, like, a bird, like, with a gun. Like, it was just like - I really loved that.
LOW: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I guess the other thing I was just thinking about that I'd be interested to hear your take on is the, like - there's sort of, like, two camps of "SNL" impressions, right? Like, either they choose the person because they can do it spot on - like, get the accent, the look and everything right kind of imitation - or they sort of choose the person and choose, like, one quirk about them and run with it. And I put sort of, like, Kate McKinnon in that bank of impressions. So, like, her Giuliani I love because it's not a particularly good Giuliani impression. It's actually pretty bad. But she's chosen a bit and a physicality that, like, absolutely works.
LOW: And that sort of made me think back to these, like, political sketches because they've chosen Alec Baldwin and Jim Carrey partly just because of the accuracy - like, the core accuracy of, how well can they do these impressions? And I wonder how the show or these, like, cold opens would play different if they allowed more of, like, a stronger choice or just something quirkier about these impressions in the takes on each of these people.
HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, Jason Sudeikis played Biden when he was on "SNL."
HARRIS: I'm assuming Jason Sudeikis was probably, like, filming "Ted Lasso," which (laughter) people seem to love. And we will have an episode up tomorrow, so check that out. It also could've been just because Jim Carrey is, like, a huge name. And people love him, and he seems totally game. And he's made paintings about Trump, so he feels very passionately about it (laughter). But yeah, I feel like I would've loved to see how Jason Sudeikis would've tackled that role.
And I agree with you that, like, there is this sort of difference between the impressions that we see on the show. And I think it all just depends really on the person that they're impersonating on whether it works to just go off of their personality or really create their own character. Who knows how long Kate McKinnon will be playing Rudy Giuliani? Hopefully not much longer.
HARRIS: So we want to know what you think about "Saturday Night Live." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. And that brings us to the end of our show. Tobin, thank you so much for being here. It was great to have you.
LOW: Thanks for having me. This was fun.
HARRIS: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second and you're so inclined, please subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. And we will see you all tomorrow.
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