In the past (as in 2004 hosting gig), Donald Trump’s self-aggrandizing, blowhard, alpha-Capitalist shtick went down easier, especially as he floundered around on the show in the time-honored non-performer’s manner. That Trump has always been a figure of fun, with everyone from Gary Trudeau, to Gremlins 2, to SNL itself finding his boorish, boundless self-regard a source of easy punchlines. That Trump 2.0 is not only a viable presidential candidate (for the moment), but has built his popularity at least partly on the strength of skillfully pandering to the most extreme fringes of the Republican party by saying things that are—to people not of that ilk—reprehensible, makes the fact that SNL has invited him back to host in the middle of an election season a referendum on Saturday Night Live’s viability as a satirical enterprise.
If having Donald Trump host was a no-win situation for SNL, hosting SNL was a no-lose situation for Donald Trump. Even if the show managed to challenge him in any meaningful way—which it turns out, it did not—he’d have the national attention he wanted. If the show was a dreadful, toothless, dead-eyed slog—which it turned out very much to be—he’d be able to throw up his hands and talk about how he co-opted the show, and that those “17 year old writers” are just bad at their jobs. As I’ve said elsewhere, the chapter of the next edition of Live From New York that deals with this last month is going to be fascinating.
In the end, the episode was as inoffensive as the writers and Trump’s advisors could make it—without being funny. Whatever their political views, viewers looking for a good episode of SNL didn’t get one. Trump supporters can fob off their disappointment in the quality of the show on cast and writers, but only the most blinkered could deny that the candidate came off as stilted, bland, and unprepared in the very little screen time he was given. (Someone has calculated his total on-screen appearance at 12 minutes, which actually sounds a little high.) I’m trying to think of another host in SNL history who was so shielded during the course of their episode, and, given his leaden timing and lack of commitment in the live sketches he did appear in, even Trump fanatics must have been relieved at how little he was given to do. The “tweeting sketch” epitomized SNL’s strategy—after introducing the sketch, Trump was represented only by the insulting tweets that popped up on the screen at the expense of the cast. (And if the argument is, “Well, he’s running for president,” then it begs the question, “Why do it in the first place if you’re not going to put forth the effort not to look bad?”)
For those offended by Donald Trump’s loose-lipped political rhetoric, where “plain-dealing” is calculated to take the edge of blatant bigotry, sexism, and bullying mean-spiritedness at the expense of “losers,” “clowns,” “slobs,” women he doesn’t find sexually attractive, immigrants, Muslims, and the like, the episode offered nothing but evidence that Lorne Michaels and the writers (Trump-mandated or not) were going to shrug off those concerns as perfunctorily as possible. In Trump’s monologue, where, as expected, Taran Killam and cast-member-turned announcer Darrell Hammond flanked the host with their Trump impressions, there was a moment of genuine unease (from the audience and me) when someone shouted out, “Donald Trump’s a racist!” But, like a later Weekend Update reference to the anti-Trump protests outside 30 Rock, acknowledgement substituted for an actual joke, the very fact of mentioning that there are people offended by the show’s host checked off the list as “mission accomplished.” The fact that Trump non-fan Larry David was the one yelling (and making a joke of the proposed $5000 bounty from an activist group for any audience members who’d shout the phrase), if intended to defuse the tension, only succeeded in making the show (and David) look like they were belittling those incensed by Trump’s controversial racial rhetoric (as, indeed, Trump himself has done). And, since we were speaking of Update.
After the first third of the show revealed just how irrelevantly sycophantic the episode was going to be to the Republican front-runner (who was disavowed by NBC as recently as June), I recall thinking that, if the show were going to engage in any meaningful satire, or, indeed, do anything but allow Donald Trump to preen and brag for 90 minutes (minus commercials and two soporifically similar Sia songs), then the stand would be made there. Look, it’s obvious that the guy reviewing this episode is not a fan of this particular host, but if Saturday Night Live is going to remain a player in televised political satire, then it has to take advantage of the opportunities it’s presented. And having a front-running Republican candidate in their own house was the biggest opportunity the show would have to show it still meant... anything. Instead, apart from Michael Che—who looked like he would rather be anywhere else, to his credit—jabbing Trump’s history as a “birther,” and a line about conservatives longing for “the good old days” which predated any and all civil rights reforms, Weekend Update was essentially a checklist of Trump targets. Ben Carson slams—four. Jeb Bush slams—two. President Obama slam, China slam, Iran slam—one each (plus a stereotypical “Asians are good at math” extra credit joke for good measure). Tina Fey has talked about her disdain for perhaps-even-worse SNL host Paris Hilton’s desire to use the show to make fun of her “enemies,” and it’s like Trump (and his people) presented the writers with a similar checklist of targets to pick from. (Notably absent from that list—Donald Trump.)
Drunk Uncle’s appearance could be construed as an indictment of the “typical” Trump supporter, as Bobby Moynihan’s ever-sloshed, always right-wing correspondent expressed his admiration (and weeping affection) for the candidate. Except that, with the way the show was going, Drunk Uncle’s signature satire of that asshole relative who persists in “just saying what everyone else is thinking” precisely mirrored the Trump oratorial style that the Drunk Uncles of the land are so attracted to. In the midst of a show where even the well-behaved, heavily-policed audience politely applauded at the appropriate times, Drunk Uncle looking into the camera and bellowing, “Her name is Bruce!” elicited gasps and uncomfortable titters at best. When Trump’s in the house, Drunk Uncle doesn’t seem so easy to laugh at.
The idea of just who the episode was playing to permeated the show, rendering jokes that might have seemed merely “edgy” or button-pushing under normal circumstances with an uncomfortable frisson of what caused Dave Chappelle to leave his sketch show, and Chris Rock to stop doing that one bit that Michael Scott was so fond of. When Leslie Jones does her usual schtick of comically lusting after Colin Jost (a “tall glass of egg whites” tonight), and relating her romantic troubles, it succeeds as a brash, personal expression of Jones’ “I don’t care what you think of me” comic persona. Playing in tonight’s environment, it’s hard to divorce it from the things Trump has said and the racially charged atmosphere his words have created. Similarly, when Michael Che, in one of those Ben Carson jokes, says of Carson’s shifting tales of youthful violence, “He’s the first black man in history to ever turn down an alibi,” it just sounded—different. If Trump is attracting support by playing on white America’s fears and prejudices (which he unequivocally is), and SNL leaves that fact unaddressed and echoing hollowly through the sketches surrounding him, then the tone of the show is going to turn sour—and ugly.
Apart from the choice of host, by purely comedic standards, this episode was an unalloyed disaster as well. The Democratic forum cold open brought back Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton and Larry David’s “eccentric uncle,” Bernie Sanders (with a perfunctory drop-by from afterthought candidate Martin O’Malley), but the tension in the studio did the sketch no favors, even though the two performers (and Cecily Strong’s on-point Rachel Maddow) were as reliably funny as ever. There’s no real bite to the show’s take on these candidates, either (Hillary is a socially awkward political opportunist, Bernie is cranky and unelectable, and very Larry David-ish)—in fact the biggest surprise all night was that David agreed to be on the show (something he looked decidedly conflicted about during the goodnights). But that over-long cold open was the only remotely passable sketch of the night. The three(!) filmed pieces, too, were part of the “hide Trump strategy,” giving the host a brief walk-on in two of them, and, while hardly the show’s best, they at least could be counted on to take viewers away from the studio, where the uncertainty about both Trump’s performances and the very real possibility of someone disrupting the show sucked the life out the already-lifeless material.
Trump’s showpiece sketch—a fantasy of his first term, where every Trump talking point has come to pass with gleeful ease—was excruciating to watch, as the cast waited uncomfortably for Trump (and visiting daughter Ivanka, as bad as her dad) to pick up the pace and hit his cues, and the parade of conservative wish-fulfillment (including Trump’s dream wall with Mexico, paid for by Beck Bennett’s groveling Mexican president) grew more and more distastefully like something Trump’s speechwriters came up with. The payoff, with Trump revealing straight to camera that it was all a fantasy, was intended to soften the pandering. It didn’t. The other major Trump sketch—where his “laser harp” player became incensed by his bar band’s self-indulgent solos, was the worst sketch of the young season, with Trump’s be-caped musician blowing more cues and simply taking up space before the thing blessedly dribbled to a close. Trump’s not an actor, sure, but he certainly didn’t try to be. His other bit—being annoyed by, and threatening to shoot, Kenan Thompson’s lead singer of Toots and the Maytalls (musical guest during Trump’s 2004 hosting gig)—was an inexplicable embarrassment, but at least it was shorter. And Trump got to assure his supporters that he carries a handgun in order to shoot black men who won’t leave him alone.
Look, no one was going to be happy here. The political discourse surrounding this election is so entrenched and without nuance that the response to this episode will undoubtedly be strident and abusive, no matter where it comes from. (Let me show you the folder of messages I’ve gotten in response to the article I wrote about the upcoming show sometime.) The chances of this doomed pairing of host and show was, well, doomed, from the moment it was announced. But neither Trump nor the people at SNL rose to the challenge of presenting something thoughtful, or entertaining, or even just plain funny. Given an opportunity to express themselves in what, I maintain, is still one of the most unique, excitingly risky live TV shows of all time, neither camp raised the level of public debate, made a single memorable joke, or did anything but confirm my worst fears about what this show would be. Tonight’s episode was bad satire, bad comedy, bad TV. SNL isn’t great political comedy—it swings and misses more often than not, mainly because it doesn’t commit to the swing. But when it connects, it still has some power. An episode like this isn’t just failing to suit up. It’s throwing the game.
SNL Vintage report: Good ol’ Buck Henry’s 1976 appearance was a solid episode, especially memorable for being the time when John Belushi nicked Buck Henry’s head with his samurai sword. Henry, speaking of the running gag where the cast started appearing throughout the rest of the show with bandages on their bodies in solidarity, pointed to that as one of his favorite reminders both that the show truly is live, as that, being so, it had the opportunity to do such things on the fly. But the choice of this particular episode is most interesting in juxtaposition to the Trump episode that followed because it contains one of the show’s most straightforward political statements ever, as Chevy Chase (on his last episode as cast member), purporting to introduce Jimmy Carter’s latest campaign ad, tossed instead to Gerald Ford’s speech in which he pardoned Richard Nixon for his crimes. On the eve of a presidential election, it was SNL going for blood.