When it comes to “Saturday Night Live” ― NBC’s flagship sketch comedy and variety show, which began airing in October of 1975 ― it seems as though audiences speak in hyperbole or not at all. If “SNL” enters the conversation on a Sunday morning, it will either be to assure readers and internet perusers that the show has unveiled some sort of devastating piece of political satire, or that once again the program is a 90-minute tire fire that its parent network should have extinguished right after Chevy Chase signed an eight picture contract with cocaine. There’s rarely an in between. Modern-day “SNL” is either an essential and vital part of the comic landscape or a disappointing shadow waiting to be euthanized.
Luckily for Lorne Michaels and company, the tenor of discussion in the past few weeks has tended more towards the former than the latter. With the debut of Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump impersonation (replacing Darrell Hammond), NBC’s old faithful has found its way back into Facebook newsfeeds and the hearts of bloggers looking to find the latest television clip to “eviscerate” conservative politicians.
And indeed there have been aspects of its most recent season that are unequivocally deserving of praise. Kate McKinnon’s Clinton impression has become increasingly surreal and unhinged, the establishment Democrat as one of the robots of HBO’s “Westworld” (sans prestige pretension and sexual assault exploitation). Last night, in the program’s send-up of the second presidential debate McKinnon continued to dial up the wackiness and affected normalcy that defines her Clinton, narrating her movements towards an undecided voter just under her breath, lest she forget how to appear relatable.
Still McKinnon has not been the focal point of the recent outpouring of praise (though her impeccable work has not gone unrecognized). Rather, it is Baldwin’s Trump ― vulgar, bloviating, spray painted to the nines ― that seems to have drawn the most attention. Certainly, he is a welcome evolution from Hammond’s own Trump, who read more like an egotistical imbecile than a misogynist xenophobe with fascist aspirations. That Baldwin’s portrayal has started to address the fundamental monstrousness of its target seems enough to qualify it for praise as effective satire. That just this morning Trump called it a “hit job” on Twitter, calling for its cancellation and implicating it in his imagined media conspiracy, will no doubt lend the impression even more credibility among audiences.
The sort of satire 'SNL' is employing is also designed to make us feel more moral than Trump and (most importantly) blameless in his ascendency.
I would argue that this praise is wholly undeserved and, in fact, symptomatic of our continued failure to reckon with the rise and implications of Donald Trump, viable presidential candidate. I don’t mean this as an insult to Baldwin. His portrayal of the Republican nominee is very much in line with the character of “SNL.” It’s, in many ways, a natural successor to Tina Fey’s puzzlingly-praised Sarah Palin impression that pushed “SNL” back into mainstream discussion in 2008. Still, Baldwin’s Trump is frustratingly toothless: a jumble of exaggerated tics and mannerisms assembled as a delivery device for nearly verbatim quotes from Trump himself, along with the gleeful acknowledgment of the candidate’s grotesquerie, leveled so artlessly at the camera that Baldwin might as well simply walk out on stage; face his audience; proclaim, “I am Donald Trump, multiple sex offender and racist pustule. You’re fired;” and march back off. Baldwin’s Trump never reads as anything more than a caricature that dependably addresses the aspects of the Donald we know we must condemn, feeding them through the sort of mockery that might be temporarily satisfying, but is ultimately impotent. It’s Trump’s dog-whistling as played on a kazoo.
Take, for instance, last week’s cold-open, in which “SNL” addressed the horrific Access Hollywood tape that had exploded onto the scene just over 24 hours previously, along with Trump’s ugly non-apology. Baldwin’s vocal and physical impersonation is serviceable, mouth somehow simultaneously pursed and slack whenever he is not talking. “I’d like to formally apple-a-gize,” he explains to a befuddled CNN reporter, played by Cecily Strong.
“Are you trying to say ‘apologize?’ she inquires. “No,” Baldwin elaborates. “I would never do that.”
The joke here is clearly that Trump’s apology was not really an apology, but what comes from taking this shot? The skit continues with Trump making a number of sexual remarks, but Strong’s reporter (or the script off which she’s working) never takes the opportunity to differentiate between sexually explicit and rape-related. The sketch ends with a shot of the Clinton campaign throwing a victory bash instead of preparing for the debate, continuing with the running joke that Donald Trump is more or less handing Clinton a November win.
Last Sunday, when this bit started making its rounds, nearly every publication that posted it did so alongside glowing praise. What they were referring to, I could not tell you. Because at no point does Baldwin’s Trump or the sketch around him ever try to address what is so inherently insane and troubling about the Friday tape: 1) that it showed a presidential candidate admitting to sexual assault and 2) that the backlash was comparatively minimal, with only a few Republicans withdrawing support for their candidate. Sure, “SNL” wants to acknowledge that Trump is a pervert but the portrayal feels in line with the cartoonish (and gross) archetype of a parking lot flasher: gross and disturbed, but ultimately laughable and isolated in his grossness. Obviously, this is not the case (with either Trump or the fictional flasher). Both are legitimately dangerous, and both are fundamentally condoned, even if we do not acknowledge it.
Perhaps “SNL” is simply not capable of adequately addressing how uniquely dark our current Trump situation is. Where the program wants to portray him as some backwards caveman, running around honking breasts and grab-assing, while spouting some mockable misinformation, the actual Donald Trump has assaulted and traumatized multiple women, has encouraged his supporters to harass people of color to prevent them from voting, is currently sowing the seeds for violent civil unrest if he should lose, and has his anti-democratic leanings regularly defended on national television while a large swath of America nods along.
If Baldwin’s Trump is darker than Hammond’s it is only slightly. It is more or less the same character with some more disturbing subject matter mixed into the text. The attitude, however, is the same: Trump is a buffoon. We should look down on him. We know better. Look at this moron. This was, of course, the same approach SNL took to Sarah Palin, whose questionable grasp of geography was apparently in more need of scrutiny than her racist and xenophobic policy suggestions, or the vehemence with which a huge chunk of America championed her. Now, she’s busy saying that men who don’t speak like Trump (i.e. brag about rape) are “limp-wristed” (i.e. queer), essentially reinforcing to the thousands of men and women who still listen to her that sexual assault is an inherent component of acceptable masculinity, and that men who denounce that sort of behavior should be met with the sort of shaming and violence that encourages young boys to enable abusers and stay silent in the face of misogynist violence.
But she can see Russia from her house!
There’s much more than a mouth that looks like a butthole to make fun of in Donald Trump -- though, of course, that might involve making the audience a little too uncomfortable.
Ultimately, calling someone like Trump or Palin unintelligent is a weak weak attack, and one that will do nothing to limit their appeal. Rather, it only reinforces their image as a victim of an elitist establishment that probably thinks all average Americans are dumb as well. Furthermore, it misses the point completely. It’s less that people like Trump or Palin don’t know the essentials of history or geography or environmental science, but that they don’t need to. By creating a rhetoric predicated around the idea that facts and figures are a way for the top tier to obscure fundamental truths about this nation and the world, they have put themselves in a position where those facts and figures are beside the point. It’s not too hard for Donald Trump to understand the nuances of foreign affairs. It’s that he’s made it so he doesn’t have to. Facts are not an intellectual challenge for him so much as they are a logistical inconvenience. He doesn’t need to pronounce “China” correctly.
Furthermore, in addition to making white middle class liberals feel smarter than Donald Trump, the sort of satire “SNL” is employing is also designed to make us feel more moral than Trump and (most importantly) blameless in his ascendency. Not in the dumb sense that we’ve neglected the white working class and that’s the only reason they’re racist, but in that, most of the men who will laugh at those jokes on “SNL” have been Billy Bush. Most of us, myself included, have at some point failed to interrogate ourselves in a way that potentially normalizes the views that, in their extremes, we are so quick to condemn.
Everyone who endorsed Trump and who will vote for him deserves a great deal of blame. There’s no escaping that. But if you are a white man in America, there is a good chance that you have, knowingly or unknowingly, acted in a way that has reinforced the historical currents of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and homophobia on which Trump is feeding and riding. Choosing to vote for Clinton will not erase that.
Effective satire of Donald Trump needs to be satire of America: a takedown of a long history of conditional freedoms and wanton violence through which racial and gendered strata were established and are continually maintained.
Perhaps the best (though far from perfect) example of this comes in the form of the “Trump vs. Bernie” comedy series, that imagines a number of debates between the Donald (Anthony Atamanuik) and the beloved Senator Sanders (James Adomian).
A few eagle-eyed writers have already noted that Baldwin has pilfered a number of his mannerisms from Atamanuik’s Trump (the mispronunciation of “China” probably the most immediately apparent), but I think that criticism misses the point, since it seems to suggest that the power of Atamanuik’s impression comes from those mannerisms. It doesn’t. In fact, in comparison to Baldwin, Atamanuik doesn’t look all that much like Trump. Ultimately, though, this is unimportant. Because his Trump relies on a gleeful sadism rather than any buffoonish antics, constantly looking at his audience and announcing that they themselves love what he is doing. They’re getting in on it.
If Baldwin’s Trump is the dumb ‘80s bully, completely unaware of how horrible he is, Atamanuik’s is more of a calculating sadist, who knows exactly how much he can get away with, and how much others will turn the other cheek, and even play along. At the end of his nearly 45-minute special with Adomian, Atamanuik’s Trump asks if he can read the audience a poem. It includes such lines as: “let the nukes fly/bursting/prostate-choked pearls of shit/spilling from my gnarled acorn.” For a joke that ends on Trump’s penis that’s really not what you take away from it.
[Trump's behavior] is only new and novel and uniquely horrifying to the small sector of the population that hasn’t lived alongside it all their lives...
I doubt “SNL” has any plans to adjust their Trump, even as his speeches become more deranged, and his rants more reminiscent of rhetoric history has already shown us leads to action. Ultimately, that’s not really the sort of satire “SNL” is known for, and Baldwin does a nice enough job with the mannerisms that they will most likely get by on what they’re already peddling. Still, it’s disappointing to see―even as we become more and more aware of the depths of Trump’s madness―that we are still comfortable assailing him with the same sort of comedy, hoping that calling him a clown is enough.
Though I hesitate to belabor the always popular Trump-Hitler comparison, the writers of “SNL” might do well to sit down and watch a classic ― Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” (1940) ― which is a reminder that making something look ridiculous is not the same as revealing its terrifying absurdity. There’s much more than a mouth that looks like a butthole to make fun of in Donald Trump ― though, of course, that might involve making the audience a little too uncomfortable.
Here’s a thought: Why not make a joke about how many of those vehemently condemning Trump as monstrous fail to recognize that Trump’s behavior ― his rape brags and racism, abusive mind games and encouragement of violence ― is only new and novel and uniquely horrifying to the small sector of the population that hasn’t lived alongside it all their lives? Or one about how once we defeat Trump, another will step up to say the exact same things, and the longer we wait to acknowledge that this doesn’t end with Trump, the longer and denser that queue of successors will be?
Or the mouth-as-asshole thing.
I guess we can just stick with that.