New York has been hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the cast and crew of "Saturday Night Live," which calls the city home, are feeling that pain personally after beloved music producer Hal Willner died last week of complications related to coronavirus.
"SNL" all-stars past and present, including Kate McKinnon, Adam Sandler, Bill Hader, Kenan Thompson, Pete Davidson and Fred Armisen, offered personal thoughts about Willner during a sweet tribute at the end of Saturday's unusual remote episode, the iconic comedy show's first since coronavirus forced a production shutdown after the March 7 episode.
Their words were complemented by a sweet rendition of Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" by a who's who of "SNL" talent, including Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch, Ana Gasteyer and Molly Shannon.
Willner, 64, joined "SNL" in 1980, choosing music for sketches for 40 years. He worked on the most recent episode, hosted by Daniel Craig, before production went on hiatus last month. He also was a record producer who worked with Marianne Faithfull and Laurie Anderson.
The choice of "Perfect Day" was fitting: Reed was a close friend of Willner, who also produced his music. (Willner's representative Blake Zidell told USA TODAY that he had "symptoms consistent with COVID-19," although he was not formally diagnosed.)
McKinnon, filming at home like all her current "SNL" castmates and host Tom Hanks, introduced the segment, explaining the importance of music choices in sketches designed to have a more cinematic quality.
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"They need to be scored more like a movie in order for them to make sense and make the jokes land," said McKinnon, as a clip of her with host J.K. Simmons in a "Casablanca" sketch from an earlier episode was shown. "The music becomes such an integral part of the sketch that you kind of don’t notice it, but without it, it wouldn’t make any sense. On 'SNL,' the guy who scores it only has a few hours. The guy's name is Hal Willner and we lost him this week."
What followed was a rolling segment of quick-hit remote tributes, with one performer's words leading into another's memorial.
"We are going to miss you so damn much," Sandler said. "You are just a great man, great person."
Comedian John Mulaney, who has hosted and written for "SNL," called Willner "a wonderful friend to me, to so many people who worked at 'Saturday Night Live.'"
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Others talked about Willner's deep knowledge and love of music.
"When I was at 'SNL,' he used to come up to my dressing room and share music with me," said Fred Armisen, who now heads the band on "Late Night With Seth Meyers."
Hader remembered Willner sharing musical recommendations: "'This is Frank Zappa from the late '60s.' … We just liked a lot of the same stuff."
At one point, Fey, Poehler & Co. appeared on screen in eight Zoom-like boxes, singing "Perfect Day." All sang remotely but they sounded amazingly like one.
Mulaney marveled that "somebody who was already friends with Miles Davis had a big enough heart to include me in his life."
Pete Davidson gave the most emotional testimonial: "I've been through a lot over the last six years, especially being part of the show. And Hal has always treated me open arms, warm smile and just was always the funniest dude. I just want to say you will be very well missed and we’re all thinking about you and we love you very much."
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Hader said he and Willner talked about being fathers; Armisen said the music producer also loved puppets.
Thompson, sitting with his two pajama-clad young daughters on a staircase, shared the group's sentiments. "Hal, we miss you and we love you," he said, as his younger daughter squirmed. "Ain't that right, Boo-boo?"
The segment featured photos and video of Willner, who called his "SNL" job "an amazing gig."
The live nature of the show "is what's really exciting to me," he said. "I kind of get off on the danger, (as in) 'Hey, this could really (bleep) up.' Or 'this is going to be so magical.' "