Why "Saturday Night Live's" First-Ever Remote Episode Was Such a Success
April 13, 2020
Were you one of the 6.7 million viewers that tuned into Saturday Night Live this weekend? While watching this show truly “live” on a weekend is usually not at the top of my to-do list (I tend to save it for a weeknight where I can cruise through the commercials), the nerd in me couldn’t wait to see how the crew approached shooting a remote-version of the show.
I had a few guesses as to how the staff would go about producing the show given the many limitations that now exist in this at-home world we’re living in, and I have to say — I was pretty impressed by what I saw. From recreating the feeling of having a live studio audience for the Weekend Update segment to watching Chris Martin perform Bob Dylan’s "Shelter from the Storm" (I’m not crying, you’re crying), overall, Saturday Night Live did not disappoint.
Let’s take a look at some of the tried-and-true best practices and core tenants of the creative process that the entire SNL crew relied on when making content for this episode. Plus, we’ll share some key takeaways you can apply when thinking about your own content strategy during the pandemic.
Low-quality production doesn’t mean low-quality content
It became clear pretty fast that the talented Saturday Night Live cast members were not working with a complete arsenal of video production gear when it came to shooting their segments. There were times throughout the episode where the lighting and audio setups left something to be desired, but it actually wasn’t distracting at all.
Producers were wise to lean-in to this organic, less-than polished filming style. Rather than racing out to ship members of the cast microphones or fancy cameras for recording, they let them use what they had at home, which was often just a webcam. And in 2020, luckily, people have already grown increasingly accustomed to watching this kind of scrappy-looking content. Of course, it helps that some of the sketches were meant to feel more “real” and authentic, like the Zoom-call-gone-wrong skit, but overall, their focus on making the content genuinely entertaining paid off in a big way, production quality be damned.
Our main takeaway: Make your content so good that no one cares about how professional it looks. Quality content will always be more important than high-quality production value.
Setting the context is always important, but more so today
Saturday Night Live is a weekly sketch comedy show, which means their content is almost always grounded in current events, pop culture, news, and the like. But this episode, in particular, is a shining example of how important setting the context is when it comes to creating content and taking up space in your audience’s lives. Just imagine how tone-deaf the show would’ve felt had they not addressed the pandemic up front and acknowledged the state of the world we’re in today.
The writers, producers, and cast gave people the levity and joy they’ve come to expect from the show, without ignoring how times have changed. They noticeably sandwiched the episode with content that spoke directly about the impact of the coronavirus and reserved the bulk of the program for content designed for laughs alone. Sadly, the episode closed with a remote tribute to veteran SNL music producer, Hal Willner, who died after suffering symptoms of the coronavirus. This heartbreaking moment, as well as Michael Che’s acknowledgment of his grandmother’s passing during Weekend Update, reminded us all that the whole team behind SNL is being impacted by the pandemic, just like us.
“The writers, producers, and cast gave people the levity and joy they’ve come to expect from the show, without ignoring how times have changed.”
It’s no coincidence that Tom Hanks, one of the first celebrities to share they had contracted the coronavirus, was the host of the show, just like it’s no coincidence Chris Martin performed Bob Dylan’s heart-breaking “Shelter from the Storm.” Both of these moments added emotional depth to a program that’s largely meant to make people laugh, and gave the show an overall grounded feeling.
Our main takeaway: Acknowledging the state of the world we’re in today goes a long way in making your audience feel heard and understood. By taking the time to set the stage up-front, you give yourself more room to get to what you know how to do best — creating entertaining content that can bring a smile to people’s faces.
Constraints lead to more creativity time and time again
Live studio audiences and elaborate sets — who needs ’em? While there are obviously sketches that benefit from a more polished setup, this episode clearly proved that with the right idea, your environment doesn’t have to be a creative limitation.
One of my personal favorite sketches came at the top of the episode and was brought to us by resident trouble-maker, Pete Davidson. If you haven’t seen the music video Drake dropped last week featuring him walking (and singing) through his palatial home, you probably won’t fully “get” this sketch, but I can almost guarantee a good chuckle regardless. Saturday Night Live typically creates elaborate and over the top sets when shooting music video spoofs (who could forget "Rap Song"?), but Davidson — who lives with his mother on Staten Island — didn’t let that stop him.
Another stroke of creative genius? Saturday Night Live got meta with this skit that anyone in a creative field can relate to these days. Aside from being hilarious, it was also a humbling look behind the scenes at a dramatized conversation that most cast members and writers likely faced throughout the week leading up to the airing of the show — who can’t relate?
And last but not least, producers pulled out their old graphics and animations toolbox to help them polish the content their at-home cast created, which elevated what was likely footage recorded on an iPhone or a webcam.
“While there are sketches that benefit from a more elaborate setup, this episode proved that with the right idea, your environment doesn’t have to be a creative limitation.”
Our main takeaway: As we learned while filming One, Ten, One Hundred, creativity is often born out of creative constraints. Instead of fighting your limitations, try to embrace them and use them to fuel your content.
Know your audience before you make content for them
Saturday’s episode featured a little something for everyone, and I’d venture to guess that was by design. Our experiences with the pandemic, including its impact on each one of our lives, is completely unique. However, one thing that brings us all together is our shared experiences surrounding staying home, self-isolating, and navigating our “new normal” (a special to thank you to everyone who is taking care of us and risking their own lives to do so — you are so very appreciated!).
The episode featured a sketch that spoke to folks who are working from home and feeling the Zoom-call woes with their less tech-savvy coworkers. They had a sketch for the sports fans who are deeply missing the thrill of cheering on a good-old-fashioned competition. They had a sketch for the creatives and freelancers who are struggling to figure out what they can create from home. And of course, the episode would not have been complete without a reference to America’s favorite “it’s so bad I can’t look away” Netflix sensation, Tiger King.
This first-ever remote episode of Saturday Night Live owes much of its success to just how relatable and universal many of its skits were.
Our main takeaway: Staying topical and relevant is always a key ingredient to creating successful content, but what’s even more important, is understanding your audience and what they’re currently experiencing in their day-to-day lives.
What’d you think of the episode?
I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling super inspired after watching this episode of Saturday Night Live take shape in such a unique way. I’m really looking forward to seeing how these episodes continue to evolve over time, too.
One noticeable thread that seemed to be woven throughout was their reliance on using the digital form as their playground and inspiration when it came to coming up with ideas for their skits. What will the next episode look like? Do you think they’ll continue to take this approach? Or will they try to come up with a creative way to get more cast members involved in a single sketch? Let us know in the comments below!