It's always better to control the narrative. Trial lawyers do it by revealing bad things in their clients' character before the prosecution does; politicians do it by getting out in front of a scandal with a plausible explanation or by attacking the media; and Saturday Night Live Executive Producer Lorne Michaels tried to do it by getting comedian Larry David to yell "You're a racist" at Donald Trump during the GOP front runner's monologue last weekend.
Michaels had reason to try and control the narrative, but he failed.
SNL's announcement that Trump would host the show was met with a loud and passionate outcry among Latino groups and civil and immigrants' rights organizations. SNL's invitation to Trump was an anathema to Americans who are appalled by his labeling of Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers and his draconian platform of mass deportation. Since he announced his candidacy in June, Trump's presidential campaign has been replete with ugly anti-immigrant and nativist language aimed at maligning Latinos and Mexicans in particular.
The community's response to Trump's planned appearance on SNL was massive. The National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino advocacy group, slammed SNL for showcasing "a man whose campaign has been built on bigotry and demagoguery" and for giving him a platform to "mainstream his message of hate." Several pro-immigration reform groups, including America's Voice, collected more than half a million signatures calling on SNL to Dump Trump because of his racist statements against Mexican immigrants and other Latinos. One group, Deport Racism, even released a controversial video of Hispanic children shouting obscenities at Trump and offered $5,000 to anyone in the SNL audience who shouted "Trump is a racist" during the show.
The anger engendered by SNL's attempt to make a joke of Trump's racism was palpable and justified.
Of course getting Lorne Michaels to cancel the GOP candidate's appearance on SNL was, at best, a long shot. No question he was putting ratings and revenue before principle. As the New York Times' James Poniewozik put it SNL "had chased ratings by casting the controversial candidate." Yet, what was important to those who care about immigrants' rights (not to mention common decency) was the fact that Donald Trump's brazen racism could not go unanswered or unchallenged.
So when Larry David heckled "you're a racist" at Trump during the candidate's monologue--as a scripted part of the show--it was a stunning admission by Michaels that he'd heard the rage of the millions of Americans offended by Trump. What's more, it was evidence that he and Trump were afraid about what such an unscripted outburst might mean. Trump has indeed run his campaign by targeting Latinos and calling for them to be deported en masse, along with their U.S. citizen children (whom he refers to with the vile term "anchor babies"). So Michaels and Trump had no choice but to go on defense; they clearly did their best to take control of the narrative and take the shock and punch out of any real outburst that might come during the show.
What Michaels and Trump could not control however was the reaction to Trump's appearance. Not only from the immigrants' rights community but from the television critics who turned in nearly unanimous reviews panning the real estate mogul's appearance. As the Washington Post's Hank Stuever wrote,
Donald Trump's highly touted and almost certainly inappropriate hosting gig on NBC's 'Saturday Night Live' turned out to be an anemic and halfhearted dud. The ratings were high -- SNL's best in years -- but they come with a heavy tax on the show's integrity
He wasn't alone. Bloomberg Politics' Will Leitch asked,
Did Trump do himself any good with his appearance? It's tough to see how. He wasn't particularly funny--it's always good to remember that being a showman in the realm of politics and a showman in the realm of entertainment are two far different things--and he didn't look comfortable either
And Fusion's Jack Mirkinson lamented,
It is hard to find anyone who has a good word to say about Trump's "SNL" hosting gig. The protests, the fears about racism, the equal-time controversies--all melted away as viewers gazed in gobsmacked confusion about what was unfolding in front of them. Trump barely spent any time onscreen, and the moments he did participate in featured such satirical gems as "Donald Trump will be an awesome president" and "Donald Trump plays lasers (?)" For good measure, the show continued its stellar history of getting white people to play Latinos by getting a white guy to play the president of Mexico. The cast members often gave off the air of appearing in a highly priced hostage video, telegraphing "Save me" looks to the audience.
The lesson for Lorne Michaels? Racism isn't funny. And sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you cannot control the narrative.