A recent poll conducted in part by The Hollywood Reporter found that 39% of participants believed that Saturday Night Live had ‘gotten too political’ since Donald Trump became President. 30% of those polled disagreed with that, although 40% of them still believed the sketch comedy staple to be liberally biased. Of course, it’s tough to argue in reason with that assumption given that the most powerful man on the planet is obsessively pitting himself as the victim of the show’s approach, victimizing himself as the beleaguered underdog of American society whose status as the main joke of the show’s past two years is founded on jealousy and Democratic conspiracies. Not that anyone expects Trump to be aware of much these days, but it’s especially ironic how utterly unaware he seems of the fact that SNL’s recent dance with the zeitgeist is almost entirely because he forces it. The show itself has done little to earn its status as the leading comedic voice on network television in this age of political madness. It’s gotten there mostly because it’s stuck around long enough and it feels right to describe it as so.
We talk about about SNL on this site, partly because lots of people talk about it and partly because Trump’s fanaticism around it has made every mild joke or vague attempt at satire the stuff of hot takes glory. Indeed, the President seems to be more invested in how SNL portray him than in petty issues like foreign policy. When Trump was elected, I remember hearing a lot that, at the very least, we would get some great political art and comedy from his shambolic administration. In reality, Trump has been very bad for art and even worse for comedy. When the subject is beyond parody and cruelty is the point, ‘why bother trying’ seems to have become the default mode for many. Nowhere is this more evident than SNL (unless you count whatever Jim Carrey is painting these days).
SNL is in this strange position where its history has granted it a lifetime of free passes and the current administration takes any slight as a personal attack, so they’ve mostly been able to coast on guest appearances and easy one-liners for the past couple of years. It doesn’t matter that Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression is awful because it upsets Trump and that’s all it needs to do. You don’t even need to give Robert De Niro anything funny to do when he plays Robert Mueller because the joke is that it’s Robert De Niro playing Robert Mueller (badly while evidently reading off cue cards). There are moments of genuine humour, such as Melissa McCarthy’s unhinged Sean Spicer, but by and large these big name cameos exist only as power plays.
And then there’s the rest of the show.
We’ve dedicated enough time on this beautiful site of ours to discussing the dirge of mediocrity that is the Jost/Che double act and their approach to politics. Steven Hyden of Uproxx wrote a piece offering the perfect summary of why Colin Jost in particular continues to feel like the most ill fit possible for his position in the current clime (Michael Che responded in his usual calm and collected manner). Hyden got to the heart of one of the things that makes Jost so aggravating to many, that ‘his comedy comes from a place of centrist, dispassionate pragmatism. In that respect, the Trump era has been both a boon (in that it’s focused the public on politics) and a curse (because centrists are now magnets for criticism) for Jost.’
There’s an overwhelming sense in the current generation of SNL that the stakes don’t exist for the people making the show, but that conflicts heavily with their self-imposed status as satirical moral arbiters. They don’t want to say anything really radical or transgressive but there’s a pressing urge to do something because guess who’s watching? The weight of that supposed responsibility also leads to both lazy jokes and questionable targets. One joke from 2016, where Jost said that Tinder offering multiple gender identity options was the reasons Democrats lost the Presidential election, proved especially galling in this regard. A racist misogynist who had been caught on tape bragging about grabbing women by their pussies was elected to the highest office in the land but the problem was gender inclusivity? Whatever way you try and break the joke down, it doesn’t work, and it only emphasizes further the pointlessness of the current SNL approach.
Of course, it may be the problem that SNL has always had this approach. People remember the highlights, like Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression, but they don’t always recall what made it so effective. Sure, Fey looked and sounded a lot like the Alaskan Governor and Vice Presidential candidate but the real sharpness of those skits was in the specificity of the portrayal and awareness that this politician was genuinely dangerous. The parody of her interview with Katie Couric is so devastating because it just repeats so much of the actual interview verbatim.
Tina Fey recently appeared on David Tennant’s podcast and confessed relief that she was no longer on SNL during this ‘ugly’ political climate, and also noted that her Palin impression wasn’t the nail in her political coffin because ‘she was the nail in her own coffin’ while the show simply ‘shined a light on something’. But she also harkened back to the old days of SNL where ‘we could always have everybody on because you could. You’d have bush Sr. come do a thing with Dana Carvey’, which suggests an age of the series and political discourse where the playing field was level and everyone stood to gain the same thing from ‘being a good sport’. As we saw with the recent puffing up of Congressman Crenshaw on the show, that’s obviously not the case. Self-deprecation can be a powerful tool for a politician but if SNL does its job right then they shouldn’t gain much from it.
Because Donald Trump certainly gained a lot from his SNL boost. There’s not much more I can say on the shambolic display of toadying that was Lorne Michaels having Trump on to host the show while he was running for President and spewing the most abhorrent rhetoric. Watching clips from that episode is borderline impossible because it’s clearly the work of a team who don’t want to be there and who are adhering to the demands of someone without a sense of humour who only wants to help himself. The post-election Hillary piano solo may be the thing that aggrieves me more, however, a pathetic attempt to inspire hope in a crushing moment that forgets who helped to open the door to the chaos in the first place. The solemnity of such a loss is tough to swallow as it is, and even more so when positioned as a beacon of hope by people who didn’t seem to care all that much in the first place.
In many ways, the plight of SNL and its unearned clout reminds me a lot of Britain’s most prominent bastion of political comedy, Have I Got News For You. The panel show has been on the air in the UK as long as I’ve been alive, and once upon a time a politician could risk their reputation by appearing on it to potentially be ripped to shreds by Ian Hislop and Paul Merton. But when the truly reprehensible Boris Johnson made multiple appearances, including one now infamous guest hosting gig, he became beloved. Look at this buffoon with his big yellow hair and bumbling Bertie Wooster style vernacular. Wouldn’t it be a right laugh to see him in a position of authority? And then he became Mayor of London. He’ll probably be Prime Minister one day, despite decades of proving himself to be an insidious narcissist who only wants to be leader because he feels entitled to it (boy, he sounds familiar). Have I Got News For You made him loveable because he was just so game to be laughed at.
The jokes used to be much sharper against Johnson - like bringing up his endless lying and him maybe arranging with a friend in prison to have a journalist beaten up - but soon everything boiled down to ‘he’s posh but he’s fun’. Nowadays, watching Have I Got News For You is a much less enjoyable experience than watching even Jost/Che era SNL. The jokes are weak, the targets suspect, and there’s an unbearable cynicism to the entire affair. Maybe it was always like that. I once went to a taping of a 2010 episode while Gordon Brown was still Prime Minister and we were encouraged to boo when he appeared in a clip.
Nobody should place their political hopes in a comedy show. We saw how the burden of that responsibility got to Jon Stewart and how South Park only encouraged the misanthropy of a ‘but both sides’ attitude to life. Maybe if SNL were willing to do away with the weighty mantle of being ‘the comedic voice of our times’ then things would improve for everyone, but they’re stuck with it as long as Trump keeps tuning in.
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