On the most recent episode of Saturday Night Live, Alec Baldwin returned to open proceedings with his hilarious impression of Donald Trump, wherein the new President conversed with his advisor Steve Bannon, who took the form of the Grim Reaper. The following monologue from guest host Kristen Stewart had her poking fun at Trump too, particularly his habit of slamming her on Twitter and telling her ex-boyfriend Robert Pattinson he could do better, and mockingly proclaimed “I’m like so gay, dude!” The highlight of the night came in a sketch focused on press secretary Sean Spicer’s use of “alternative facts”, with surprise guest Melissa McCarthy’s boorish, hysterically spot-on impression surely defining his image for as long as he’s in that position. All in all, it was a strong episode, one made even funnier by the knowledge that Trump himself was probably watching along and hating every minute.
Many comedians have wondered how satire would work in the Trump age, as “fake news” reigns supreme and the seemingly ridiculous came true. Even “no holds barred” big names like Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park admitted defeat and said they’d back off politics as a target on the show for a while due to the impossibility of parodying a walking, talking parody. SNL seem to have reacted to the presidency with a renewed zeal, and have been praised for some of their strongest, most pointed satire in years. While the comedic institution’s relationship with the most powerful people in America has offered some iconic moments that cemented their place in the wider narrative – Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, Dana Carvey as George HW Bush, an assortment of comediennes as Hillary Clinton – the show has never been as relevant in the conversation as it is under Trump, and that’s for one key reason: Donald Trump hates to be mocked.
When the man with tissue paper skin enters the White House is one who actively courts the comfort of celebrity and used it to his benefit when running his campaign, the opportunities for mockery are seemingly limitless, and this is something Trump doesn’t quite understand. Trump has always used celebrity to get what he wants, and to position himself as an authority over other celebrities. Look at his feuds with Rosie O’Donnell or Bill Maher, or the way he acted as gossip commentator through his Twitter account on everyone from Kristen Stewart to Russell Brand, or his use of fluffy celebrity tabloids to get the narrative he wants. This is the guy who used to be a reality TV show judge, after all. He is used to being the judge, not the judged, and his inability to stop SNL from mercilessly prodding him week after week has made the show not only relevant again but powerful. Every Saturday night, the show has an opportunity to aim its gags directly at the intended target, knowing he will be enraged by what he sees.
Of course, this relationship was not always an adversarial one. SNL’s producer Lorne Michaels was only too happy to use Trump’s controversy for a quick ratings boost when he asked the then-Republican primary candidate to guest host the show, mere weeks after his “Mexican rapists” comment. The episode, an excruciating 90 minutes of awkwardness, weak writing and visible discomfort from the ensemble, may be the nadir of the show’s 42 years. To watch it is to watch a group of immensely talented people realise what a huge mistake they’ve made. The long stretches of near silence from the audience drag out the experience even further, and even Trump’s daughter Ivanka, never one to turn down an opportunity for self-promotion, got in on the uncomfortable charade. The worst of it all was the show’s utter refusal to truly skewer Trump in any way. The series has never been shy about twisting the knife in, even when the actual candidate is right there – just look at the Sarah Palin episode – but it was clear that Trump knew he was safe from any real opposition. While he never came across as truly likeable (and he never will because he lacks any ability to be something other than detestable), the show’s restraint in its writing helped to minimise the controversy surrounding him that would only increase as he became the Republican candidate. Between the Drake parodies and a tone-deaf use of Bobby Moynihan’s Drunk Uncle character as a Trump supporter, the show helped to make Trump normal.
SNL wasn’t the only show doing this. The wider narrative of news and entertainment did little to truly tackle the abhorrence of Trump’s rhetoric and tactics. I would argue that Jimmy Fallon’s hair ruffling moment was even more damaging in the long-term because it exposed the cowardice of power and the desperation of men like Fallon to cling to it, but SNL helped to open the floodgates on Trump as a normalized force, and for that, I can never truly commend them for their realigned priorities now that the man is in the Oval Office.
Trump’s presence, be it his own or in the shape of Alec Baldwin, has done wonders for SNL’s ratings. His guest hosting brought in big numbers, and their YouTube views for this week’s episode segments sit in the millions. The show’s targeting of Trump can be very funny and often seem brave due to the trigger-happy nature of the focus, but it’s a relationship that relies on his implicit co-operation in the game. It’s a game he happily played along with when it benefited him, and one Lorne Michaels aided for his own gain. It’s one further normalised by Weekend Update anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che when they defended Trump as “super smart” and “super hardworking”, then adding “there’s probably somebody in your building way worse than Donald Trump, and you buy bagels from him, and it’s fine.” It’s one they helped push to Trump’s favour when, like so many others in comedy and news, they positioned Hillary Clinton as somehow equivalent to Trump in his awfulness.
SNL may have now decided to truly act as the beloved cultural institution that speaks truth to power, but they only did so when it became their best option, having passed the buck repeatedly when it really could have made a difference. In a Vanity Fair interview, Michael Che defended the choice to have Trump guest host and the lack of truly pointed jokes for his show by saying “We had a couple that might be mean towards Trump but we don’t want to burn them here because we might still be able to do it.” Frankly, that time has come and gone.