Eighteen days after 9/11, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani took the stage at Studio 8H inside NBC’s Rockefeller Center headquarters for the first episode of “Saturday Night Live” since the terrorist attacks.
It was a solemn cold open. The mayor, flanked by firefighters and police officers, implored viewers to carry on in the face of tragedy. Paul Simon, wearing an FDNY hat, performed a melancholic rendition of “The Boxer.”
But the grave mood was leavened with humor, leading to one of the most memorable moments in the show’s modern era. “SNL” chief Lorne Michaels joined the mayor on stage and asked him: “Can we be funny?”
Giuliani’s deadpan reply: “Why start now?”
The premiere of the show’s 46th season this weekend will take place against a similar backdrop of national mourning and crisis. More than 200,000 people across the country have lost their lives to Covid-19. Millions have been infected. The economy is devastated. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump, meanwhile, have tested positive for the coronavirus, throwing the White House and the presidential campaign into turmoil.
The challenges for America’s marquee sketch show are stark: How do you pull off 90 minutes of broad comedy and political satire in the middle of a pandemic and a public health emergency at the highest reaches of American government? Can you joke about the president when he is battling a deadly virus?
“The degree of difficulty just went up a hundredfold,” said James Andrew Miller, co-author of “Live From New York,” an oral history of “SNL.”
Michaels, who has presided over “SNL” since the show debuted in 1975 (with the exception of a brief period in the 1980s), suggested in an interview with The New York Times last month that he feels a responsibility to provide “sanity” and “community” in times of national distress.
“We did a show with anthrax in the building. We did a show after 9/11,” Michaels said. “That’s what we’ve always done. To our audience, it’s really important we show up.”
But this year, even showing up — and in particular, returning to the high-stakes live format — is no simple matter. The coronavirus pandemic, which forced “SNL” to suspend live broadcasts in March and wrap its previous season with three remotely-produced episodes, has thrust the show into a tangle of unprecedented creative obstacles and logistical hurdles.
“There are numerous challenges that manifest themselves in everything: the construction of sets, makeup, wardrobe, the choreography that goes on backstage,” Miller said.
“It’s not simple, and it’s going to require significant adjustments,” Miller added.
The jarring new Covid-era reality for the late-night institution was plain to see in a pair of photos posted this week on the show’s official Instagram account.
The first photo shows Chris Rock, the host of the season premiere, leafing through a script while wearing a white mask. The second photo provides a zoomed-out view: cast and crew…