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SNL Has a Cold Open Problem

on February 21, 2021, 10:13am

Saturday Night Live aired its fourth episode since returning from its end-of-year hiatus, and its fourth since the inauguration of President Joe Biden. Though Alex Moffat debuted his Biden impression before the holidays, it has not surfaced in 2021. Nor has Jim Carrey’s. Nor, for that matter, has Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump. It’s tough to say the last time SNL went four shows in a row without sticking some kind of presidential impression into the cold open of its show, but our best guess would be sometime around 2006, when the George W. Bush malaise really set in prior to the 2008 campaigns/election.

It’s strange not seeing a hacky political impression anchoring the show, though it’s certainly something viewers yearned for during Trump’s candidacy. Now, that wish has been granted. In a way, it’s a comedic microcosm of the return to a relative calm that (unrealistically, selfishly, or understandably) a lot of voters were hoping for when they cast their ballots for Biden last November.

Yet much of SNL has felt correspondingly lighter in 2021. It’s as if a burden has lifted, and not surprisingly, this run has been their strongest in quite some time. The sketches have been moving faster, they’ve been getting sillier, and, more importantly, they’ve been regaining the joy that was missing all throughout 2020. Granted, politics weren’t injected into every sketch last year, and it’s not as if the show is now avoiding its trademark middling political commentary. But, it does feel like resources previously spent on engineering a 15-minute all-encompassing presidential debate/topical sketch have been reallocated elsewhere. Like, say, a sketch where a bunch of dudes really appreciate Olivia Rodrigo, or Chloe Fineman rolls out extremely committed impressions of celebs.

Having said that, SNL still needs to produce a cold open — its biggest current-events hook — and that’s been a glaring weak spot. Lately, without Baldwin wheezing through the week’s scandals as Trump, the show has been trying out new formats — most often talk show frameworks where a host figure can walk the audience through a parade of the week’s main characters. Last night, it was Fineman’s Britney Spears hosting a show that invites various controversial figures to take a shot at a sincere apology; Ted Cruz (Aidy Bryant), Andrew Cuomo (Pete Davidson), and Gina Carano (Cecily Strong) all took their best shot.

It’s essentially another Topical Event Mad Libs sketch, the likes of which have served as the de facto cold open sketch in 2021. If you recall, a few weeks ago, Kate McKinnon hosted another fake talk show as herself called What Still Works?, which featured impressions of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Tom Brady. Then, a week ago, Bryant’s Cruz was paired with McKinnon’s Lindsey Graham as guests on, you guessed it, a newsy talk show. Is any of this funny? Not especially.

The most recent iteration lived and died by its impressions. Britney Spears is deceptively difficult to impersonate, and Fineman did an admirable, if slightly muddled, job with her voice, accent, and affect (though she had the moves down). Davidson, no one’s idea of a go-to impressionist, made a surprisingly credible Cuomo. And, well, Bryant is almost always a delight, even when she’s treading into McKinnon’s gimmick-impression territory as a not especially close (but amusingly loathsome) Cruz.

None of these sketches are revelatory, Greatest Hits material, but at the same time, there’s a palpable relief in the show’s avoidance of directly covering the Biden administration. The shift vaguely suggests a grace period by SNL, as if they, too, are waiting to see how this administration figures things out. To their credit, it’s not like they’re going cold turkey on politics, either, seeing how Biden is still the subject of jokes on Weekend Update, even if it is the tedious premise that he’s old and doddering.

Looking back, this shift is right in line with the show’s storied history. After all, it wasn’t so unusual to not see a fake president at the top of the show. Hell, Dana Carvey and Phil Hartman delivered two of the greatest presidential impressions in franchise history with George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, respectively, and yet episodes in their heyday similarly opened with celeb parodies, installments of Wayne’s World, or other recurring characters. Even more to the point, the show’s template-setting first five years took place largely during the Carter years, and it’s not as if each show dutifully opened with Dan Aykroyd addressing the nation.

Throughout the past month, it’s seemed possible that SNL’s understandable lack of great satirical ideas about Biden might lead to experimentation in that sketch slot again. What’s happened, instead, feels like a hybrid between experimenting with the form, and punting on the issue of how to satirize Biden’s White House. Because of this, the sketches feel like anchorless, ensemble pieces that parade an assortment of characters in to signal their jokes rather than display any kind of nuance. “What still works?” It’s a question McKinnon asked a few weeks ago in this very slot, and it’s a question that’s clearly eluded the writers.