Saturday Night Live used to be a place where politicians were taken down a notch and mocked, often acerbically. But those salad days are gone. Executive Producer Lorne Michaels has grown comfortable with the comedy-entertainment-industrial complex. Unfortunately, what we’re left with is toothless, listless, handler-approved political amusements for the young and bored.
No, there is no danger for the powerful…at least not at NBC Universal corporate television headquarters in New York City. SNL is more comfortable being frat brothers with politicians than satirists of them. As such, Donald Trump as SNL guest host succeeds mightily. He is good-natured and affable (much like comely Hillary Clinton was a couple of episodes ago!), an awful sketch comedian, but no matter. The message is clear: would-be Presidents are people, too! (well, not doltish Ben Carson), and to that end, the revolution will be televised…live from New York!
It is a sincere joy to see the return of ad hoc featured player Larry David as Bernie Sanders in “MSNBC Forum Cold Open.” Though David nails Sanders’ voice and general grouchiness, so much of the fun in his impersonation comes from the writing, which is built on following Sanders’ rants to their most absurd conclusions: “So if you ever see a soaking wet man pulling a kayak out of a river and screaming about bridges, give him a hand. Cause he’s your next President!” (As good, it is Larry David—as himself—who taunts host Trump during his opening monologue, “Trump’s a racist!” “I heard if I yelled that, they’d give me $5,000,” he shrugs.)
Every sketch Donald Trump appears in, with one exception (“Hotline Bling Parody”) seems not fully realized, ill-formed, or awkwardly played. Clearly the elephant in the room (pun intended) is Trump himself, and the general confusion about what his personal intentions are.
If he is a serious contender for the GOP Presidential nomination, why the odd fantasy piece, “White House 2018,” which teases Trump’s outlandish lifestyle and campaign promises, while non-ironically touting his “winning” attitude and wife’s First Lady ambitions? If he is here to blunt criticisms of his combative, disagreeable personality, what are we to make of “Live Tweeting,” a complete flop of a sketch where Trump ostensibly live tweets a throwaway SNL sketch?
And then there’s this: “Porn Stars: Donald Trump,” a definitive low point for modern American politics where a leading, national party candidate for President, willingly participates in a completely obscene sketch where two drug-hazy sex workers offer an unrelenting litany of sex puns…on broadcast television.
Recent polling data suggests that Trump’s campaign has stalled and may be in decline. Is Trump’s appearance on Saturday Night Live simply a renewed courtship with his former television bosses? It is hard to see any upside for him in this appearance. And this is truly baffling, because the man’s instincts for mass media manipulation are well-honed. Could it be that he’s just tired? Worn slap out from the day-in-day out of a national campaign?
Weekend Update has gone all-in for the Colin Jost as benignly-racist-white-kid-foiled-by Michael Che subplot, and it seems to be working…if you like that sort of thing. The jokes (particularly Che’s) feel fresh, pointed (if not edgy), and well played. But the highlight of the segment was Bobby Moynihan’s Drunk Uncle.
Drunk Uncle has become something of a controversy among SNL diehards. There is a sense among many that the character has run its course, that Moynihan needs a new character. But make Drunk Uncle a Trump supporter, and the character reignites. Moynihan’s drunk act has always amused, even when the writing waned, but both elements are in sync here, and it is glorious: “Finally, Colin…someone is saying the things that I have been thinking. As well as, saying. It’s like I’m running for President!”
Pop’s avant-garde princess Sia was fascinating in her second Saturday Night Live appearance. In “Alive,” Sia sings with her hands locked on the mic stand, her eyes covered by wig bangs…while an interpretive dancer and gospel choir brings the song to life. For her second song, anthem “Bird Set Free,” the choir is replaced by a grand piano, but the dancer is back…performing a similar narrative we saw in her “Chandelier” music video last year. This is unusual stuff, no doubt off-putting for some, but it serves as a welcome relief from the bafflements of Trump.
Pre-taped “Hotline Bling Parody,” a spoof of Drake’s frumpy-dad-at-a-wedding dance moves, is amusing…and ultimately winning if only for the return of Martin Short’s early ‘80’s SNL character (developed first for SCTV), Ed Grimley. I’ve mentioned the nostalgic appeal of Saturday Night Live in previous articles, suggesting that the show is most successful when it appeals to our sentimental attachments to it. This quality, an appeal to fond emotions rooted in the past, is not unlike what motivates us politically. Few choose their candidate as an act of sublime reasoning and logic. We pick who feels right to us. We vote for the person who validates us.
Many, no doubt, will feel validated watching SNL’s Trump, becoming even more confident in their choice. Others will stand firm in their dogged opposition. But as for our feelings about the show itself…
Seeing my beloved Saturday Night Live fawning over these glib, power-mad politicians, is like seeing your mother on a date with her Cross Fit trainer at your dad’s funeral. Somebody’s gotta say something, man. This just ain’t right.
NEXT WEEK: Elizabeth Banks with Disclosure.