Gwen Ihnat: This week, Variety reported that Saturday Night Live’s ratings are the highest they’ve been in over 20 years. The show recently placed second only to nerdy sitcom juggernaut The Big Bang Theory among viewers in the coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic. There’s a pretty obvious reason for this ratings surge, which likely started last fall when frequent guest host Alec Baldwin became Donald Trump opposite Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton. At the time, the parody was merely humorous, as Clinton seemed like a shoo-in, and we all looked forward to the day that we no longer had to hear Trump’s bloated oration on a 24-7 basis. To mark the end of their fake feud, McKinnon and Baldwin even took their personas to the streets of New York City in the last episode before the election, putting their differences aside and, in a sweet but inspired moment, celebrating the Big Apple and, in turn, the country that honored such a fierce democracy.
Then November 8th happened. The Saturday after the election, McKinnon appeared as Clinton again to play a version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Cohen had died earlier that week, but we all knew we were mourning much more than just one man.
Since that episode, Saturday Night Live has become a unique source of solace. The show’s social commentary was already getting savvier: Tom Hanks’ October “Black Jeopardy” sketch has been cited as an excellent depiction of the distance between the Rust Belt Trump voter and the rest of the country. (Nothing will ever top David S. Pumpkins, however.) Post-election, Baldwin returned to help the show poke fun at Trump’s suspected ally Vladimir Putin (Beck Bennett), his duplicitous mouthpiece Kellyanne Conway (McKinnon again), and his terrifyingly evil advisor Steve Bannon, depicted as the Grim Reaper himself. Baldwin’s great impression solidifies Trump’s inarticulateness, bullying, and obvious insecurity, but honestly, it just feels so good to laugh at the guy. It’s like the relief that comes from yelling “Fuck Trump” at a protest.
Then last week, SNL kicked it up another notch: An unbilled Melissa McCarthy showed up to personify press secretary lackey Sean Spicer. McCarthy’s portrayal was spot-on even as it was completely unhinged; in the end, a desperate Spicer just starts thrusting his podium at everyone as he makes less and less sense.
The kicker to all of this, of course, is that we know that President Twitter himself is watching. Just as he similarly curses The New York Times (which has also seen an increase in audience numbers), he usually tweets his unsolicited opinion on the previous night’s SNL, often ending with his favorite denouement: “Sad!” Trump didn’t comment on the Spicer sketch, but the leakiest White House in history revealed that the part he was most upset about was that Spicer was portrayed by a woman.
So poking the presidential bear is valuable, but Saturday Night Live’s overall commentary—in Weekend Update, sketches like Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock giving running commentary at an election-night party, and inspired musical moments like McKinnon’s Conway performing a number from Chicago—has made it appointment viewing for the first time in years. The show is filling a need in the American populace, as indicated by the uptick in ratings and increased audience numbers. After just the first few weeks since Trump has been in office (seems like years), something like Aziz Ansari’s passionate pro-America opening monologue the day after his inauguration soothes the country like a balm. Taking on Trump and his horrific administration in such a pointed and fearless manner has brought new life to a show that, to be honest, I frequently forgot was still on the air six months ago. Now its sketches and jokes make headlines within 24 hours of broadcast.
So Saturday Night Live has a new permanent slot in my DVR. What about you, Erik? Do you think the Trump era has helped usher in a new age of SNL?
Erik Adams: If there’s anyone who won’t forget that Saturday Night Live is still on the air, it’s me. This is one of my favorite cultural institutions. It makes me emotional in a way I’ve never been able to figure out—literature doesn’t often move me to tears, but I got sniffly during the portions of Tina Fey’s and Amy Poehler’s memoirs that deal with working on SNL. I think the Tom Schiller shorts “La Dolce Gilda,” “Don’t Look Back In Anger,” and “Love Is A Dream” belong in the Library Of Congress.
I write all of this as qualification for the following, which is a common knock on the show: Saturday Night Live has never been great, but it has been frequently good. And right now, it’s experiencing one of those frequently good periods, when the show draws a little bit of creative juice and conversational buzz from the American election cycle. (I’m shocked, yet not shocked, to learn that last week’s Nielsens returned the show to heights it hadn’t reached since the troubled 1994-95 season.) Some of the uptick in quality has to do with the show’s Trump material, which has sharpened its teeth in spite of the preferred “equal opportunity offense” tactics of executive producer Lorne Michaels. (And let’s not forget the president’s much-decried hosting gig back when he was still merely Candidate Trump.) But I’m wary of giving too much credit to the political climate when the writing staff can get as similarly inspired with a silly premise concept like “Space Pants,” or when the Good Neighbor guys are making such satisfyingly inventive use of the pretaped space opened up by The Lonely Island and SNL Digital Shorts.
Meanwhile, the headline-grabbing sketches are doing something that I think is going to harm the show in the long run. And it’s not an entirely new phenomenon: One presidential administration ago, astute observers of facial features and corrective lenses noted a physical resemblance between Republican vice-presidential hopeful Sarah Palin and SNL alum Tina Fey. Though she had moved on from the show and was helming and starring in her own truly great sitcom (no qualification necessary), Fey acquiesced to requests to return to Studio 8H and play Palin, a boon for the show that, thanks to results at the polls, didn’t turn into a long-term assignment. The concept was resurrected when Larry David stepped into Bernie Sanders’ rumpled suit in the fall of 2015, to the general acclaim and attention of the online world that mushroomed between the 2008 presidential election and the early stages of the 2016 campaign. Following those two examples, booking Baldwin as Donald Trump is just good business sense, even though SNL still has a better, more seasoned Trump impersonator on the payroll, in the form of former cast member and current announcer Darrell Hammond.
Which brings us to McCarthy’s surprise appearance last week. Loved the sketch. Loved McCarthy’s intensity. Loved all the obvious buttons it would push for the current administration. Hated how it suggested that a freshly energized SNL can only take a direct jab at the Trump administration if a movie-star ringer happens to have an opening in her schedule.
Because this isn’t the campaign of Sarah Palin or Bernie Sanders—barring any unforeseen circumstances, this is the next four years of Saturday Night Live. If it’s going to maintain what you’re enjoying about this season, Gwen, it can’t be subject to the whims of performers who aren’t under contract. Admittedly, Baldwin is as much a de facto SNL cast member today as Steve Martin was in the ’70s. He’s hosted the show more times than anyone else, and he has a standing offer to do so whenever he’s free—like he’s doing tomorrow night. But he’s also a New York guy—Melissa McCarthy is a Hollywood gal, who has a number of other projects in the hopper. Donald Trump keeps himself busy, too, and he’s doing stupid, harmful, mockable shit 24-7. If SNL wants to keep collecting creative dividends by depicting the president as a full-time disgrace, it can’t—as Atlantic Senior Associate Editor (and former A.V. Clubber) David Sims recently tweeted—have a part-time Trump.
Gwen Ihnat: True, and I suspect that Baldwin’s thought about Trump was similar to Fey’s about Palin: This person probably won’t win, so this is bound to be a short-term assignment. Unfortunately for us all, that turned out not to be the case. I get that casting McCarthy was a bit risky, as it will definitely be hard for her to fit in any future appearances. But wow, what an absolute thing of beauty it was. First there was a roar of laughter when the crowd realized SNL was taking on Spicer, then a second roar when everyone realized that the unbilled McCarthy was playing him. Earlier this week, Dan Rather’s News And Guts called it “the best sketch in the last five years.”
Yes, Baldwin seems more committed as he’s hosting for the 17th time this weekend. As far as the regular cast goes, the show leans on McKinnon a lot, and I can see why they do so, because she’s brilliant. But couldn’t Vanessa Bayer have just as easily portrayed the postlike Betsy DeVos? (Though it was great to get a mini-Ghostbusters reunion up there with McKinnon and McCarthy.) I feel like Kenan Thompson (his Steve Harvey is perfect), Beck Bennett (Putin, same), and Bobby Moynihan (would love to see his version of Steve Bannon) hit most things out of the park, but I can barely tell Mikey Day and Alex Moffat apart. Erik, if SNL wants to maintain this star-studded momentum, what would be the best way for the show to go about doing that? Would it be too jarring at this point to have Hammond eventually step back in as Trump, as you suggest, or Aidy Bryant as Spicer?
Erik Adams: Far be it from me to question the judgment of noted sketch-comedy expert Dan Rather, but I know a legendary newsman who needs to acquaint himself with “Farewell Mr. Bunting,” Kevin Roberts, and the ongoing saga of Vanessa Bayer, her hungry guys, and the Big Game. Oh, and “Wishin’ Boot,” “Crucible Cast Party,” and any of the new holiday classics from the “(Do It On My) Twin Bed” crew. Look, I’ll just make you a YouTube playlist, Dan.
Gwen, your fantasy-casting suggestions get at the heart of the other point I wanted to make in this discussion: The emphasis on star power in these political sketches is anti-SNL. The show has different movie, TV, music, and sports stars popping in and out of every episode, but the heart of the show is the cast that’s there week in and week out. And this is a sharp cast, a squad of utility players and chameleons that has one obvious standout—McKinnon—and a number of specialists. (Kyle Mooney’s the weirdo. Kenan Thompson plays hosts like nobody else. Leslie Jones and Pete Davidson channel stand-up experience into personality-driven Update spots.) That contributes to the Mikey Day-Alex Moffat singularity you cite above (here’s an easy way to tell them apart: Just think of the latter as “Alex Mustache”), but it would also mean a replacement Spicer would be less weird than the way previous casts played hot potato with George W. Bush or Barack Obama.
But my main objection to the stunt-casted guests is this: It’s a diminishment of the type of work that’s actually going to live on once the inspirations for the topical material fade from memory. In a crowded media environment, I sympathize with Saturday Night Live’s attention-getting efforts. But it has to be discouraging for the cast. By all accounts, jostling for airtime with a dozen or so equally hungry performers is a difficult task. Now imagine that eight to 10 minutes of every episode is being reserved for somebody who’s already made their big splash—someone whose presence is benefitting the show, yes, but someone who’s also making it more difficult to get your sketch on the air. SNL is no longer the only comedy launching pad in the game, but it’s still an important launching pad—but where’s the incentive to get on the show when there’s always the chance that your sketch is going to get bumped in favor of a sure-to-go-viral number from an episode’s auxiliary special guest?
Gwen Ihnat: Hey, man, no dissing of Dan Rather. He’s doing the lord’s work right now.
Erik, as a longtime SNL fan, you’ve probably read the great and immense oral history Live From New York by James A. Miller and Tom Shales. Besides all the “Chevy Chase is a dick” stories, we learn that the kind of comedy competition you mention has been a part of the show from its beginning. Brilliant comedians like Janeane Garofalo, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer never really landed on the show, and likely left for reasons like the ones you mention above. When your only piece goes on in the dreaded “12:50” time slot, your SNL days are probably numbered. But that goes on with or without guest hosts. And the guest star ploy can be problematic: For every Steve Martin or Alec Baldwin guest host, there’s a Paris Hilton, or Milton Berle, or Louise Lasser who refuses to come out of their dressing room.
I would argue that sharing the stage with Baldwin or McCarthy, hopefully, would inspire the upstarts to power up their game that much more. And I suspect that most up-and-coming comics would still jump at an SNL gig given the chance, especially now that it’s more politically relevant than ever. Where else would they go?
And that goes for the rest of us: Saturday Night Live is offering us satire of the current administration we just can’t get anywhere else. We get some valuable insight from watching late-night comics like Samantha Bee and John Oliver, and Stephen Colbert is now surging in the ratings past Jimmy Fallon for the first time. But for out-and-out depictions of Trump and his nightmare staff, we have SNL. And I’m so glad we do. Maybe they shouldn’t be relying so much on celeb guest stars right now, but these are uncharted times. Putting Tom Hanks in “Black Jeopardy” helps that sketch translate what the average Trump voter might be thinking. Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock laughing when Cecily Strong stammers as if she’s just realized that “America is racist” underlines their different perceptions of the country. I agree that SNL should be raising up its ranks right now, and I believe it will continue to do so. But this Saturday night, I will be glued to the set to watch Alec Baldwin host, like millions of other Americans desperate for some political humor and comedy backlash right now. This is something I can’t even imagine saying a year ago: I am straight-up grateful for Saturday Night Live.