Celebrity cameos now dominate Saturday Night Live’s political sketches, and maybe that’s a good thing

Celebrity cameos now dominate Saturday Night Live’s political sketches, and maybe that’s a good thing
Alec Baldwin belts out his Trump impression on Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night Live made headlines recently when the show announced a variety of plans for its upcoming 46th season. Usually a pre-season SNL news dump includes confirmations of cast changes; this year’s edition was unusually positive, in that all 17 members of the show’s repertory company will be returning, with three new featured players bringing the cast to a total of 20—the biggest ever.

Yet even with a 20-person ensemble mixing new faces, long-running veterans, and plenty in-between, the show is apparently unable to find any current cast members able to play either member of the Democrats’ presidential ballot. Lorne Michaels announced that Jim Carrey will be retained to play Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden (played by Jason Sudeikis during the Obama years), while alumnus Maya Rudolph will return to play Kamala Harris (as she did a few times last season). They join Alec Baldwin, still plugging away at Donald Trump (hopefully not for much longer). At the moment, it looks like Beck Bennett, who plays Vice President Mike Pence, will be the only current cast member with a starring role in SNL’s attention-grabbing election-year debate sketches.

Many fans of the show will find this news disappointing, and not just because it implies a disturbing degree of satisfaction with Baldwin’s ability to wheeze through a Trump impression. Baldwin’s presence makes more sense as an exception than a rule. He was a de facto cast member long before he actually started doing Trump—and Trump, while in possession of countless ridiculous mannerisms and hang-ups, is a deceptively tricky figure to impersonate. He’s both cartoonish beyond parody and, in his venal, ignorant, and genuinely threatening way, not especially funny. Baldwin has outstayed his welcome, but it was fair enough that something out of the ordinary needed to be done when Trump was elected. Darrell Hammond’s long-standing version was more of an apolitical goof than cutting satire, and newer cast members might not feel confident about their ability to wash that stink away.

But as so many have pointed out, SNL’s guest star addiction goes way beyond Baldwin’s Trump. Carrey’s Biden will jump into a revolving door that’s included Robert De Niro as Robert Mueller, Ben Stiller as Michael Cohen, Steve Martin as Roger Stone, Bill Murray as Steve Bannon, and, perhaps least explicably, Woody Harrelson, also as Biden. (He played Biden in the premiere he hosted last season, and subsequently made a surprise return to the role.) It will be exciting to watch Carrey do live comedy; he’ll likely be a live-wire presence, even while playing an even-keeled septuagenarian. At the same time, the imperative that Carrey must be Biden is just as mysterious as the apparent decree that De Niro must glare at cue cards to assay Mueller. Unlike Alec Baldwin, Carrey isn’t even all that frequent a host, and while Maya Rudolph has an undeniably grabby take on Harris, a caricature of the VP candidate doesn’t seem like a job that only she could do. It’s arguable that Trump’s orbit has such a large and rotating cast of characters that gimmick guest stars make a certain kind of thematic sense, but Biden and Harris will presumably be front and center for the first half-dozen shows of the season. Does Lorne Michaels have so little confidence in his actual cast members, and so much faith in his extensive rolodex?

Yet as frustrating as SNL’s all-star novelty (and often novice) approach to political comedy has been, it has natural roots in the shifting realities of the show’s cast. For one thing, while this 20-person cast is a new peak, it’s not an anomaly. The show’s average cast size has stayed high over the past decade, in large part because people stay on the show much longer than they used to. Twenty years ago, Tim Meadows set a record for longest-running cast member with 10 seasons. Since then, while Kenan Thompson currently holds the record for longest-running cast member with 18 seasons, sticking around for nearly a decade has become commonplace: This coming season will be the 10th for Kate McKinnon, the ninth for Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant, and the eighth for Kyle Mooney and Beck Bennett, with Colin Jost, Michael Che, and Pete Davidson not far behind. Add the usual churn of fresh (and, slowly but surely, more inclusive) comic talent and there simply isn’t much room to maintain the lean 12-person ensembles of the past.

This, too, can be irritating to fans of the show who might now have to wait several years for a promising performer to emerge from their predecessors’ shadows. Certainly there’s less chance of a 20-member ensemble gelling as a cohesive unit than a smaller group. At the same time, these oversized SNL rosters have given the show a surprising eclecticism in recent years. While there are certain glue-like cast members who can plug easily into various types—Beck Bennett playing dads, bros, and assorted, as he’s described it, “big dumb idiots”; Cecily Strong working equally well as normie moms or teenage daughters; Kenan Thompson killing everything from game show hosts to one-line cameos—many of them have a very particular set of skills. This doesn’t mean they’re all limited performers, just that it’s become easier to pinpoint their personal strengths and sensibilities. Aidy Bryant loves old-timey bravado and adolescent haplessness. Pete Davidson does stand-up that’s equally cutting and self-deprecating. Kyle Mooney traffics in faux-nostalgic cringe humor. Of course, plenty of past SNLers have shown off their individual styles with sometimes frightening clarity. What’s shifted over the years has been the ratio of individual oddballs to all-purpose, impression-friendly utility players.

SNL’s three “at home” episodes from last spring brought that shift to the foreground. An ensemble isolated from each other by the pandemic led to a mix of virtual juxtapositions and, especially, a range of solo performances: Chloe Fineman, a featured player who had yet to fully pop on the live show, established herself with several bravura one-woman DIY sketches; Bryant revealed the roots of her nervous adolescent characters by reading from her old journals; Ego Nwodim did a charmingly silly spoof of makeup tutorials. The at-home episodes, like much of the past few seasons at large, leaned less heavily on hacky recurring characters than, say, the years where the Spartan Cheerleaders seemed to appear every other week. Certain bits still get repeated, some to the point of madness, but performers like Bryant, Beckett, Mooney, and Davidson don’t have universally known signature characters so much as signature styles and formats.

It follows, then, that a group of Saturday Night Live performers less focused on characters and catchphrases would also feel less inspired to associate themselves with that most fleeting of comic payoffs. Though sometimes political sketches hit upon genuinely influential satire, they often follow the recurring-character playbook of repetition, catchphrases, and little comedic personality outside of caricature for the sake of itself, with the added burden of attempting to summarize actual news through weak punchlines. It’s not a coincidence that Kate McKinnon is the current cast member with both the most recurring characters and the most frequent political impressions; they draw from a similar skill set. For a long time, this was a cornerstone of success on the show. A figure like Dana Carvey was instrumental in the ’80s and ’90s, and did a lot of wonderful work, including his impressions of George Bush and Ross Perot, two of the best-known in the show’s history. Yet there was also something slippery and eager to please about Carvey; he had a brilliant knack for zeroing in on little gestures and phrases that could define a caricature, along with a mercenary delight in hitting those buttons over and over.

And as popular as Carvey became turning “not gonna do it” into “nahh gon’ daaah” over the course of the (first) Bush presidency, it’s not especially natural for a political impression to vault a sketch performer to lasting stardom. Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush and McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton were augmented by those performers’ litany of other characters and standalone sketches that built a comic legacy. Even Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin—probably something of a patient zero for Lorne’s contacts list doing half the work during election season—was more of a victory lap for a writer-performer who had already made her mark on the show by the time the 2008 election rolled around.

Fey’s Palin impression also made national news, codifying one of the show’s worst institutional instincts, namely that it is Saturday Night Live’s holy obligation to weigh in on the political scene via show-opening impression sketches nearly every week, regardless of how little anyone involved has to say about these events. Since 2008, and even moreso since 2012, the cast members’ attention seems to have drifted, productively, to other styles of comedy, and while the writing credits are less transparent, that seems to be true for the show’s most distinct behind-the-scenes voices as well. Again, this is only natural as the show lumbers toward a more eclectic and diverse makeup; a political landscape still largely dominated by older white men shouldn’t shape the recruitment for a comedy-variety series.

In other words, Saturday Night Live hiring famous freelancers to do the political stuff might not speak well to the self-impressed, celebrity-saturated tastes of Lorne Michaels, but it does speak well of the current cast. Intentionally or not, many of them have opted out of the show’s clunkiest style of political comedy, and the new hires, whether they become successful or not, presumably weren’t hired to perpetuate it. So when the show inevitably opens its season with a splashy political sketch with frequent applause breaks to greet a majority-guest cast, don’t weep for the regulars’ lost opportunities to play Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and Donald Trump. Be envious that they, at least, can take a break and focus on weirder, funnier stuff.

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