In a now infamous clip from July 2015, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) suggested on ABC’s “The Week” that Donald Trump might become the president. To this, host George Stephanopoulos and New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman broke out into laughter.
Then, and since that time, Trump’s words and actions have appeared so ridiculous and terrible that from a certain perspective, it is darkly hilarious this person became the President of The United States.
In the week leading up to the “Saturday Night Live” season finale last weekend, Trump-related reporting went into overdrive, as The New York Times and The Washington Post published extremely damaging stories about the current administration on a daily basis. By Thursday, the Times felt their readers could use a story titled “Trying Not to Drown in a Flood of Major Breaking News.”
After an “SNL” season defined by very popular but hit-and-miss Trump parodies, the show finished with an episode that barely even addressed the major headlines of the past week. In a cold open that mirrored the show’s opening after Hillary Clinton’s loss, Alec Baldwin played Trump while singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The real Trump had had a terrible past few days, and the show probably correctly assumed the viewers already knew that. It seems the writers decided there was little they could possibly add, other than acknowledge it, shrug and wink.
“Donald Trump presents something of a conundrum to political humorists who consider him a gift from God but a man who has repeatedly proven himself zanier, wackier, and funnier than whatever professional ridiculers can come up with,” wrote James Andrew Miller, the author of Live From New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live as Told by Its Stars, Writers, and Guests, back in fall 2015 for Vanity Fair.
Miller continued on about Trump for this piece, describing him as someone “who one-ups and out-does his own comic critics; who out-lampoons the lampooners; and who raises the bar so high that comedians have trouble reaching it.”
“SNL” may have had a very successful season in terms of achieving a relatively large viewership, as they beat out their typical ratings on just about a weekly basis.
But even if this country turned its tired eyes to “SNL” in seeking catharsis for the Trump mess, the 42nd season of the show often faltered in trying to top the inherent hilarity of the news itself.
Trump was a tower, and “SNL” never escaped that shadow.
The problem “SNL” faced this season was not lost on critics.
The Verge published a review of the Alec Baldwin-hosted episode in February with the lede, “’Saturday Night Live’ is enjoying its highest ratings in over 20 years, despite lending absolutely no credence to the argument that comedy might improve under the Trump administration.” The article went on to give praise to Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impression (focusing on her physical comedy gifts), but then argued, “The rest of last night’s mostly political episode was a series of riffs on the easiest possible joke you could make about anything Trump does: he’s stupid and he’s sad and he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
A review on The Ringer of McCarthy’s turn at hosting the show in May pointed out that as this season went on, the writers seemed to struggle to cover Trump in a meaningful way. “SNL is at its best when it uses current events as a segue into comedy, rather than comedy as a means of commenting on current events,” wrote Alison Herman. “That speaks to a larger truth about ‘Saturday Night Live’: Often, the show appears to do political sketches more out of obligation than passion.”
The New Yorker focused on “the limits of Trump mockery,” pointing out that the show’s writers seemed to have more meta-jokes about how they can’t just keep making fun of him forever as the season went on. “If, in the past, ‘Saturday Night Live’ had been goading Trump to lash out, now it seemed that the show, like the rest of us, was asking him to cut it out,” wrote the New Yorker’s Ian Crouch.
Oftentimes, this “SNL” season felt like one big sigh, an under-the-breath muttering of “are we doing this again?” and then a satirical recap aimed at the deluge of bad Trump news. And, of course, none of this was helped by the show’s decision to have Trump host the show while he was still a candidate (an experience former “SNL” star Taran Killam confirmed was “not fun”).
The 42-year-old sketch show is far from in dire straits, though. As previously mentioned, the ratings were good this season. Still, there does seem to be this underlying problem ― an inadequate cog within an otherwise generally well-oiled machine.
The show just can’t beat actual news about Trump for hilarity. Even if the former is darkly and perversely funny, it still creates a huge elephant in the room for every “SNL” episode tasked with responding to the trending topics of the week. It’s always Trump. And this new reality is consistently more absurd than the political satire Americans are typically accustomed to.
Baldwin admitted to this problem in an interview with his wife, “Extra” correspondent Hilaria Baldwin, last February. “Another thing I find that’s so weird about the stuff we’re doing, we’re just repeating back what he says ... Doing this is strange, but what is even more strange is this is real.”
In April, Splitsider had a great review of the show that also focused on this feeling that “SNL” inherently just goes through the motions as a result of Trump’s increasingly absurdist presidency. Here’s a passage:
“Saturday Night Live” hasn’t gotten edgy or daring or important in the age of Trump: instead life has turned into a mediocre “Saturday Night Live” sketch. “Saturday Night Live” is uniquely qualified to capture that particular moment in our zeitgeist. “What if Donald Trump were president, and he was, of course, super vulgar and obnoxious and arrogant but also super racist?” is the half-assed “Saturday Night Live” sketch idea that has become our horrifyingly half-assed reality.
Week to week, the show became predictable as well. Trump and his administration were super popular characters every single week. And so the show beat jokes to death, as if “SNL” had done featured more cowbell or Stefon over and over again, multiple times, in all its episodes.
On top of this, viewers could essentially know most of the jokes beforehand, having read about or watched it all in the news. During the week, it was likely people on social platforms like Twitter and YouTube would have made better riffs on the weekly headlines. Days later, “SNL” could offer a team of writers, expensive set design, costumes and movie stars to act out the news, but that wasn’t always enough.
This season had a few truly inspired Trump-related sketches that are deserving of the heaps of praise they received. “Through Donald’s Eyes,” starring the wrestler John Cena, comes to mind. The first iteration of McCarthy’s Spicer, obviously. “Black Jeopardy” with Tom Hanks, which came before the election but still holds up.
“SNL” undoubtedly had many highs this year, but the season finale could not come soon enough. With Trump still in office, how many times could the show really have something new to say? The man’s been the best joke in New York City for decades. At a certain point, all anyone can do is shrug and agree that the guy is still just as absurd as the week before.
Over the course of Trump’s rise, “SNL” has been far from alone in struggling to parody him. The creators of “South Park,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone expressed frustration that Trump is so ridiculous and hinted a desire to stop including him in their show. In the latest press tour for “Veep,” the team behind the show spoke out repeatedly about how their political show could never match the absurdity of the real-life Trump presidency.
“[Trump] is ruining comedy,” executive producer David Mandel matter-of-factly told HuffPost last year.
And on top of this, very obviously, Trump making comedy tricky is far from the worst thing the existence of his administration has wrought. This is something “SNL” is aware of, too. In a Hollywood Reporter interview, “Weekend Update” anchor Colin Jost summed this up well as he said:
“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.”
The higher ratings this season reflect that “SNL” was mostly successful in addressing these problems. Baldwin’s Trump was funny!
But Trump was funnier.
HuffPost reached out to the Live From New York author, James Andrew Miller, to see if he’d comment as a follow-up to that prescient 2015 summarization of the Trump problem “SNL” would face.
Miller had this to say about the show’s future:
As a politician and president, Trump is an outlier in virtually every respect, so it stands to reason that even after 42 years, “SNL” is swimming in uncharted waters. And looking ahead, that means questions like, “Will the audience get burned out on Trump sketches?” and “If investigations reveal more troubling information, will things get too serious for satire?” are difficult to answer. “SNL” has seen a lot in its history and will do its best to adapt to whatever happens, but one thing can clearly be said as of now: The Trump victory was one of the best gifts to the show since it first went on the air in ‘75.
Given the seemingly endless amount of damning leaks about the Trump administration, “SNL” may not even have to reckon with a Trump presidency come next season. But in the off chance that’s not the case, the show may be doomed to exist in Trump’s dark, looming shadow.