Tanzina Vega: It's been six months since Saturday Night Live viewers last heard those iconic words, but this weekend, SNL's cast and crew are returning for the show's 46th season. While most television shows have not filmed in front of a studio audience during the pandemic, SNL is taking a very different approach and welcoming the fans back inside. To make this possible, temperature checks and mandatory mask-wearing will be enforced and audience members will also be given rapid COVID-19 tests before entering the studio. With me now is Jesse David Fox, senior editor for Vulture, to break all of this SNL news down. Jesse, thanks for talking to me.
Jesse David Fox: Thank you for having me.
Tanzina: Jesse, you interviewed Lorne Michaels a few weeks ago, and what did he tell you about his decision to bring audiences back inside to see SNL during the pandemic?
Jesse: Sure. Yes, we talked about a lot of subjects but the things that really struck me was how important he felt audiences were to the show and the process. I think he thinks of the comedy as a type of comedy that needs an audience to laugh at it. It's of a broader, physical type often, but also the process of how SNL works is very audience-dependent. They work all week and then they do a dress rehearsal before the show, usually at eight o'clock, where they run through more than the amount of sketches that will be on the show.
They use that audience to determine what gets on the show and how long sketches would be if things need to be cut, if things need to be punched up. Lorne felt without that audience and then also the audience feedback from the main show audience, it was not the same show. It's how they've been functioning and I think, when you're doing it for 46 years, it becomes such a defining element.
Tanzina: I will say, I've been one of the lucky people in my life to have been to a dress rehearsal for Saturday Night Live. It's a big studio, there are lots of people packed in for that first performance. I'm just wondering, how are they going to social distance? How, Jesse, did they get their hands on all these COVID-19 rapid tests?
Jesse: [chuckles] Yes, I think it's a rare thing to be SNL in this position. It's like where most TV producers might talk to a person somewhere in the New York government-- You have to imagine Lorne has probably had at least one conversation directly with Cuomo and it has special treatment. It's seen as a little bit more central than other comedy and other TV shows.
Tanzina: It's like a New York institution in that sense.
Jesse: Yes, exactly. They say, "Live from New York," every week and I think that moment when after 9/11, when they had Rudy Giuliani on, was seen as a very important moment for specifically New York. I think for that reason, it gets special treatment and also NBC invests in it more greatly because it's such an institution and they know around the election, they're going to get more eyeballs than they normally will. That can justify the insane cost of giving every single audience member a rapid COVID test before they enter, which lots of people would love to do, but I think that the access to these tests are obviously so limited and too cost-prohibitive at this point to make it a regular policy for audience members.
Tanzina: I was just going to say, how does Saturday Night Live expect to continue to pull these shows off from now to the election? I guess they're willing to assume the financial cost of doing that because, as you said, in politics, especially a presidential election and especially one in this 2020 year, is their bread and butter.
Jesse: Yes, that's one of the things that Lorne told me that I was most surprised by, is that they're going to do the show every week until the election is settled. He said, "That'll be the next five weeks, but if the election goes on, that'll be the next six weeks, the next seven weeks." Usually, they don't go over three weeks. Maybe a couple times they've gone four, but five really has never happened. I think Lorne is-- He believes the hype of SNL is a thing. It's an institution to this country. It's how we process a lot of our information, especially political, and he knows it needs to be around and he's doing whatever it takes.
I think because it's been so successful and because the eyeballs are there, NBCUniversal trust him. He'll always say, if he's not there, you're not going to have the show continue. It's not a type of show that you could start again because it doesn't make sense to do a live show every week with a cast of 20 people at this point. It's a weird thing, this Saturday Night Live, but because it's so special, I think a lot of people go above and beyond to make sure it can still happen.
Tanzina: Let's talk a little bit about casting here. Alec Baldwin is going to be President Trump, Maya Rudolph is returning as Kamala Harris. Jim Carrey was recently cast as Joe Biden. Are we to expect any other surprises here? This seems like a pretty intense all-star lineup for a very significant election.
Jesse: I don't know who's going to play, like, Chris Wallace. I assume they'll probably have a cast member do that, but if for some reason some famous person has a real specific Chris Wallace take-- When I talked to Lorne, I asked him specifically if any of the candidates will come on the show. As you know, periodically the candidates will come on, and not just like when Trump hosted when he was still running for the Republican nomination, but Hillary stopped by and Barack Obama. That has happened, but he said--
Tanzina: With the folks, just to poke fun at themselves with the folks who caricature them, right?
Jesse: Yes, but he said that is not going to happen. I was actually surprised that he was so explicit that no one's coming on. I think we have enough. I think we have enough surprises as is that I think he thinks that SNL is more of a steadying force at this point than a thing to shake us up. I think this election has enough surprises as is.
Tanzina: Jesse, we know that the comedy industry is one of many that has taken some hard hits, particularly comedy clubs, which tend to be not the best ventilated or open spaces. SNL, to its credit, is reserving a number of the tickets that they're going to give out to health care workers. That seems like a nice gesture, but let's be honest, we are still in the middle of a coronavirus global pandemic. Indoor seating and events are not the ideal way to go here. A, is it worth to put all this time and money into a show like SNL, and B, when you look at the smaller folks, they seem to not-- They're not going to be able to participate in some of the riches of this moment.
Jesse: Yes. I think it's really hard, but I think the feeling is comedy is a need. I think this is a time where what comedy offers, which is relief and tension relief, is really in need. SNL can offer that to a lot of people all at once, where all the comedy clubs who really do need some support, ultimately need financial support, to just be able to stay open. They are out there reaching a group of people at a time. I think the idea is, "Oh, we have SNL, 10 million people will get some amount of tension relief. That is a good. That is a thing that we can do all at once." It is much harder to figure out how to ad hoc make clubs work, because, as you said, they're often in basements with no windows. They are the worst-ventilated places and people are opening their mouths and-
Tanzina: Laughing and [crosstalk].
Jesse: -laughing. It's such a bad fit and I think this makes sense to me as a person who believes comedy has a use. I think how to help comedy clubs is another conversation that I think is really important, but ultimately, the easiest way is figure out how to just supplement them or find out ways for them to do things online or do things outdoors.
Tanzina: We'll be watching and hopefully laughing. Jesse David Fox is a senior editor for Vulture. Jesse, thanks so much.
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