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.
Of course SNL always feels most relevant when political stakes are high, but the buzz around the show has reached a new pitch in recent months because of how directly it affects our thin-skinned new president. He spent some of the first weeks of his time as president-elect tweeting about Alec Baldwin’s “unwatchable” impression of him and referring to the whole cast as “terrible” and “not funny.” Though it is probably always the case that politicians will tune into SNL to see how they’re being ridiculed, Trump is the first to complain about it week after week, letting us know that he can’t stop watching and that it really, truly bothers him. (The VoteVets PAC even purchased ad time this week in hopes that it would help them get the president’s attention.)
Yet the writers of Saturday Night Live don’t seem to have it in them to confront the horrors of Trump’s first few weeks in office with any sort of weight or edge. Melissa McCarthy’s blustery, hyper-masculine Sean Spicer impression is funny only because she’s one of the best physical comedians alive, not because anyone wrote her any great material for it. 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. Michael Che takes a full minute out of Weekend Update to announce that he feels sort of bad for Trump, who clearly doesn’t want to be president and made a mistake choosing to spend “the last two years” of his life this way. “Just quit,” he suggests, which is of course what most of the GOP and his heinous vice president (who has somehow avoided all mention on the nation’s most popular comedy show) would love.
The Weekend Update writers, it seems, barely read the news, and can’t muster anything better than “that’s like asking your Uber driver to get out and push” in response to Kellyanne Conway receiving ethics counseling after promoting Ivanka Trump’s clothing line on TV. “Counseling? Her job title is literally counselor to the president.” On Trump’s all-caps “SEE YOU IN COURT” to the Ninth District federal judges who denied his appeal to reinstate an unconstitutional ban on travel and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, Weekend Update has this to say: “That’s like losing a fight in an alley and then yelling ‘let’s take this outside!’” Yeah, and what exactly... is up with airline food?
Kate McKinnon did a few minutes as a breathless Elizabeth Warren, who was in the news this week after she was cut off in the middle of reading a letter from Coretta Scott King at Jeff Sessions’ Attorney General confirmation hearing. The central joke in that bit was that Warren is an embarrassing try-hard, who does too much and has no one helping her except Bernie Sanders and “Schumer... Amy Schumer, that is.” It’s not only not funny, but patently incorrect to suggest that Warren and Sanders are the Democrats leading the resistance against Trump. When McKinnon’s cleaning up her impression of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, then we’ll know that someone on Saturday Night Live’s writing team actually opened a newspaper.
McKinnon also reprised her Kellyanne Conway impression, playing her as Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction, begging to be let back on CNN with Jake Tapper. Because it’s McKinnon it’s fun to watch, but this conceit would barely even land as a joke tweet, much less a five-minute sketch. In fact there’s much better comedy about Conway on Twitter any day of the week. Is it that funny to say “she’s crazy” and “she’s obsessed with fame” over and over? The takeaway from this sketch is the same as it was when McKinnon played Conway as Chicago’s Roxie Hart three weeks ago, and it’s extraordinarily easy to rebut as sexist.
When the President’s an idiot, there’s an argument that it might not really matter. Any joke about Donald Trump or any person on his staff bothers him, and in the most predictable of ways. After Melissa McCarthy debuted her Sean Spicer impression last week, sources within the White House reportedly told Politico that the president was particularly upset by the fact that his press secretary was being lampooned by a woman.
Though Rosie O’Donnell lobbied for an opportunity to follow that humiliation up with another — volunteering to be the first to play Steve Bannon on Saturday Night Live — the show left that chance to troll the president on the floor. But they half-heartedly picked at some others this week: McKinnon, who is at this point pretty much a one-woman show, donned troll makeup and a weasely grin to play Jeff Sessions for less than two minutes, barely getting the joke “we all know there are two kinds of crime, regular and black,” in before McCarthy called an end to the cold open. In a digital short illogically reserved for the tail-end of the episode, Leslie Jones dressed up as Trump to audition for the part in front of Lorne Michaels.
It’s a hilarious bit, but for whatever reason the writers decided to deliberately undercut the principal insult of it — that a black woman can ridicule Trump on a national stage and he has no means to embarrass her back. While Jones preps her impression, her castmates ask “is this a Hamilton thing?” and “is this about his fragile masculinity?” She says “no,” it’s just about her getting to play the President. The sketch is still funny and not everything has to be a deliberate swing directly at Trump, but it’s weird to see the writers intentionally and awkwardly side-stepping the inherent politics of the joke.
Maybe the problem then is that Saturday Night Live is only writing to piss Trump off, and Trump’s just not that hard to piss off. He’s reactionary and unsubtle, constantly fazed by the slightest of insults and addicted to all forms of attention. The people tuning into Saturday Night Live in hopes of seeing some of the week’s horrific events sifted into coherent satire aren’t getting that because it’s not necessary for what Saturday Night Live is trying to do: make the easiest joke that riles up Trump and doesn’t risk alienating any of their newly massive audience.