The Hollywood Reporter published an oral history of Saturday Night Live’s “yuuuge year” this week, filling in the backstory of its most popular sketches, monologues, casting choices, and brushes with controversy. The piece is a celebration, accompanied by an elaborate photo spread: glamour shots of each major player in costume, and a group shot with Alec Baldwin seated at the center, chowing down on that “beautiful” chocolate cake Trump recalls so vividly from the moment he was bombing Syria.
This season of Saturday Night Live was big, unsurprising at first, as the show always sees a boost in ratings during an election year. But when Trump was elected, there was no post-election dip. By February it was clear that this would be SNL’s top-rated season in 20 years. Six months after the election, with the season finale airing tonight, those ratings have held.
The Trump Administration has given a huge cast of characters to draw from. People like Sean Spicer, Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Miller, and Jared Kushner all hold positions that wouldn’t have made someone famous enough to register in an SNL sketch in any other administration. Even Rex Tillerson’s and Jeff Sessions’ posts would have been slightly outside the average American’s interests. Celebrities are eagerly offering themselves up to play these parts. The President can’t help but publicly rage about the show, and rumors trickled out that he was particularly irate about Melissa McCarthy’s surprise turn as Spicer. For the first time in a long time, Saturday Night Live has a veneer of cool. Of mattering.
What has late-night’s most famous institution done from on top of that hill?
In the THR piece, writer and Weekend Update co-anchor Colin Jost is (surprisingly), the voice to call out the elephant in the room: “Politics right now is probably the closest we’ve come to a full-blown national phenomenon as anything in a long time, and anytime people are paying more attention to politics, it’s good for our show. But you almost feel like a war profiteer at times because we’ve benefited from a situation that’s so tough.”
NBC wasted no time in capitalizing on the moment. In March, the show switched to a schedule of broadcasting live in all US time zones, rather than just the East Coast. NBC’s Robert Greenblatt cited SNL’s renewed relevance, explaining the change as something of a public service: “We thought it would be a great idea to broadcast to the West and Mountain time zones live at the same time it’s being seen in the East and Central time zones. That way, everyone is in on the joke at the same time.”
From then on, Saturday Night Live would be primetime television for anyone who lives on the West Coast, a tacit declaration of cultural centrality that NBC has never dared make before in the show’s 42-year history. Not long after that, SNL was commissioned to write its first advertisements, for Verizon and Apple, which would run during its broadcast.
Being good at the business end of success isn’t the same as stepping up to the plate creatively, and Saturday Night Live has seemed continually and newly daunted by the task at hand.
In some ways, you can’t blame them — the Trump administration has plunged the country into a deep lagoon of unprecedented situations, unfathomable characters, and inescapable dread. Why should they know what to do with it? Does anyone? In February, just as it was becoming clear that Trump could very well launch SNL into the ratings stratosphere for good, The Outline’s Leah Finnegan wrote, “Comedy doesn’t matter under fascism; the best spoof of the Trump Administration is the Trump Administration itself. You know who would really be a hilarious choice to play Sean Spicer? Sean Spicer.”
Her argument calls to mind the last time that SNL was asked to reckon with a surreally ridiculous person making their way towards the White House — Sarah Palin, in 2008, who Seth Meyers (then head writer) and Tina Fey lampooned partially by reciting her own words.
It worked pretty well in 2008, and SNL made use of it a few times with Trump too, but it’s not going to work every week for four years. Saturday Night Live had to make some quick decisions about its responsibilities, if it had any, and it seems what they decided was to have their cake and eat it too: eagerly accept the country’s attention and then service it with some incredibly lazy attempts to make it laugh.
The season is best summarized by viral sketches that, boiled down, were just the easiest, most Facebook-shareable joke to make about the most ridiculous thing that happened in the preceding week: If Russia’s influence on the election or the administration was in the news, Putin would pop up shirtless in the White House and kiss up to a witless Trump. If Kellyanne Conway was putting on a song and dance in the media they’d… have her put on a song and dance. They used the already exhausted framework of “Trump sees the world as a reality TV show” to explain what was going on with Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, setting up a faux-Apprentice showdown between the two in the Oval Office. The sketch never arrived at a joke, but begged you to agree that the comparison was apt.
These sketches read as though they were written by aliens, aware of a handful of pop culture phenomenon and basic storytelling structures — eager to cleave the drama at hand to them, whether or not they fit, and regardless of whether the end result makes any sense.
SNL’s triumphant 42nd season is also pockmarked by bizarre, inconsistent takes on the women closest to the president: Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump, and especially, Kellyanne Conway. Saturday Night Live had no idea what to do with them. Scarlett Johansson’s viral turn as Ivanka in a parody ad for a fragrance called “Complicit” is solid, but it also underlines the fact that SNL doesn’t take the First Daughter’s power too seriously — else they would have made it a priority to assign someone to play her permanently. The year-old Beyoncé divorce-pump-fake in Lemonade was its best shot at getting into Melania’s head. Conway was slotted randomly and repeatedly into classics of the “crazy blonde lady” film genre.
In general, the show’s writers don’t seem to know how women play into any of this, and so they spun Elizabeth Warren as a shrill, overwhelmed try-hard, Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the spunky old lady gearing up to do battle with Trump (based on… what real world event, exactly?), and Omarosa, who by all available evidence seems to be nothing more interesting than wildly dumb and grossly opportunistic, as Trump’s reluctant, conflicted and disappointed “black friend.”
By turns giving these women too much credit and too little, SNL never developed a cogent, funny piece of satire about any of them.
Oddly, the whole season contained less than 15 cumulative minutes on Mike Pence. If I were to hazard a guess as to why it’d be that Beck Bennett’s impression of him is bad and his shirtless Putin is a reliable viral video. It’s fitting, I suppose, that the reason Bennett has no time to satirize the super-powerful man eager to roll back gay rights in the United States is because he has to continue hitting the one-note “Trump has a crush on Putin” joke week after week.
To be fair, one of Saturday Night Live’s biggest problems is not their fault. An impossibly, constantly escalating news cycle is rendering a show written during the week, about the whole week’s events, a nearly impossible task. Familiar narrative structures don’t hold any water in that environment, and too often the joke is already and irreversibly on all of us. Perhaps that why more insightful, frank, and enjoyable comedy about the Trump administration happens on the internet every day — where jokes made by individuals, in contrast to those made by TV shows, succeed more often in underlining how specific and personal many of the horrors of the last six months have been.
In that vein, the best thing Saturday Night Live made all season is still the December digital short, “Jingle Barack.” The rap bit celebrated one final Christmas without the various, specific worst-case scenarios faced by each marginalized demographic in the United States (the loss of Obamacare, threats to gay marriage, doors closed to immigrants), making it a tender, considered musical tribute to the type of gallows humor that brings people closer together. Chance the Rapper grins, chin up, on the words “it’s the last Christmas before Trump next year” and, seconds later, mutters “there’ll probably never be another Christmas Eve.” It’s goofy and charming, without being toothless, and it’s timely without dragging out a famous person who’s dedicating at least 20 percent of their brainpower to sartorial ideas for their Variety cover.
Those same factors make Aziz Ansari’s post-Women’s March opening monologue one for the history books and a recent Handmaid’s Tale sketch the rare pop culture spin-off that finds a sharp, smart joke in something painful.
These moments are so good they set the rest of the season in harsh contrast, making it plain that failures of empathy and imagination are what’s holding the show back. (The fact that the writers room is heavily white and male has rarely been more pertinent than it is now.)
Take Alec Baldwin’s constantly-in-the-news Trump impression, for example, which shows Donald pouting and preening, but always stationary, always harmless. Another stand-out in the THR roundtable is writer Kent Sublette quoting Lorne Michaels: “Half the country voted for Trump, and our show’s for those people as well.” Sure, but shouldn’t a show founded 42 years ago as a counterweight for primetime TV’s saccharine vagueries be about what’s funny and what’s true, regardless of who it might put off?
Alec Baldwin is obviously not the first to turn a weak presidential impression into a personal boost. Will Ferrell’s, loose, hammy George W. Bush helped make him a star, and the style of it defined his early career. But it feels different now. Ironically, Baldwin’s contributions to the THR piece read like Trump-style boasts: “I’m not going to name names, but a cabinet member walked up to me at a restaurant in Manhattan — Manhattan, that’s a hint — and he goes, ‘I gotta tell you something. This thing you’re doing is good, it’s really good.’”
Delighting in his own personal renaissance, Baldwin even recalls asking if NBC would reach out to President Trump to guest star in the episode that he hosted. He was, it turns out, a fitting choice as the poster boy for the season.
At the end of its 42nd year, Saturday Night Live is a little too interested in enjoying its unexpected comeback, and a little too eager to brush off responsibility as “just a TV show” even as it wants recognition as the country’s biggest and most important TV show. It can still be good for something, but only if it looks a little deeper.