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Cast And Audience Both Do 'Saturday Night Live At Home'

There weren't many laugh-out-loud moments during a historic Saturday Night Live At Home episode – 90 minutes of comedy and music produced via remote video by writers, producers and performers stuck at home due to coronavirus restrictions.

But, like so many key moments in SNL history, what really matters is that they tried it. A show known for leaping into the comedy stratosphere without a net took the biggest risk of all, stitching together a program with cast members doing impressions, filming rap video parodies, enacting a game show parody and even presenting a tribute to a fallen staffer from everyone's respective homes and living spaces.

The night started with the show's biggest get, Tom Hanks, who described himself as the "celebrity canary in the coal mine for the coronavirus," appeared as host just a few weeks after he was diagnosed with the disease in Australia. Though early reports said this SNL episode wouldn't have a host, Hanks stepped in with an affable monologue that included asking himself questions while disguised as random people from an imaginary audience.

"Ever since being diagnosed, I have been more like America's Dad than ever before," Hanks cracked. "No one wants to be around me very long and I make people uncomfortable."

It wasn't really a "live" show, as Hanks admitted; the content was filmed in advance. But they offered a wide array of sketches and film shorts, often centered on parodying the video chat and social media technology we're all glued to in quarantine. Standouts sketches included a Zoom call which goes badwhen two receptionists can't figure out the technology; Kate McKinnon playing Ruth Bader Ginsberg filming a workout video in her home; and Chloe Fineman playing Carol Baskin from Netflix's Tiger King series teaching a Masterclass on bike riding.

Other notable guest stars included Larry David playing Bernie Sanders recording a farewell video to supporters and Alec Baldwin dropping into "Weekend Update" — a voice appearance only — playing President Trump answering coronavirus questions. "Update", which is usually a highlight of SNL episodes, floundered a bit, particularly because anchors Michael Che and Colin Jost included audio from several unseen people laughing along with their jokes in real time that was hugely distracting.

(I was much more interested in trying to catch glimpses of the cast members' apartments and homes in the background, including Che's pool table.)

Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin offered a touching version of Bob Dylan's Shelter From the Storm, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, filmed in what looked like a home studio. And the night's most touching moment — a tribute to the show's sketch music composer Hal Willner, who died a few days ago with symptoms consistent with coronavirus — featuring past and present performers, including McKinnon, Tina Fey, John Mulaney and Adam Sandler.

"When it's all working, there's nothing like it," Willner said about SNL in an interview clip used at the tribute's end, that easily could have been a commentary on the evening's show. "I kinda get off on the danger."

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Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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