In last week’s hilariously baffling post-show interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews (more on this week’s version later), the ever-bombastic host asked if Weekend Update anchors Michael Che and Colin Jost thought they’d be more welcome at this week’s Philadelphia-hosted Democratic National Convention than they were in RNC-hosting Cleveland. Che, suggesting that they would be, explained, in effect, “They think we’re on their side.” Well, in this week’s Weekend Update wrapup of the first two nights of the DNC, Jost and Che both are, and aren’t.
Saturday Night Live is more left than right by its nature, being born in the post-Watergate America from young people (producer Lorne Michaels was all of 31) deeply cynical about politics. Over the years, the show has drifted left and right—but never very far to the right. Longtime former writer Jim Downey was the conservative in the house (he retired in 2013), but described himself in the SNL oral history as a Conservative Democrat, his biggest complaint being how the show paints right-wingers in harsher terms than liberals. (There was a certain frat boy conservatism in the Chris Farley-Adam Sandler era as well.) But SNL’s mantra that they satirize whatever party is in power only goes so far. Downey rightly pointed out that Democrats are traditionally cited for being too brainy and too ideological to govern effectively. (Unless, like with Bill Clinton’s womanizing, they have a huge personal failing to latch onto.) On the other hand, Republicans are variously depicted as being bad people, their values painted as cruel, unfair, and coldhearted. It’s a fair criticism for people looking for an SNL political bias—there’s a big difference for being mocked for being an egghead versus being a bigot.
So the Weekend Update analysis of this DNC did follow the script, with Che goofing on Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s strategically deployed Spanish (“Okay, dude, we get it. But when would we ever need your 8th grade Spanish skills?”), and Jost’s jab at Bill Clinton’s stirringly emotional speech about his marriage to Hillary. (“It’s like The Notebook, but if Ryan Gosling had ripped out all those pages about how he had an affair with an intern.”) But, for the most part, this Weekend Update did what Weekend Update does, and sought out the biggest targets, most of which were scooped up from the past week’s droppings from the party of Donald Trump.
When Trump was invited to host SNL last season, I was vocal about how antithetical that was to the show’s pretensions to political relevance, considering Trump’s then much-smaller pool of awful statements to choose from. Nowadays, it’s rare there isn’t more than one such objectionable thing to choose from on any given day, and Che and Jost plucked out this week’s story about Trump—and, no this is The A.V. Club and not The Onion—suggesting a foreign power (Russia in this case) hack into the emails of his political opponent in order to influence an American election. (“To me, that sounds like Donald Trump is trying to hire foreign labor,” joked Jost.) It’s a decent burn on a completely ludicrous act by the Republican nominee for President of the United States (I’ll just keep repeating that for emphasis), and Jost’s riff afterward about the hardworking American hackers (like “Johnny Fappleseed”) put out of work by Trump’s baldly insane, on-the-record comments expanded on the premise nicely. (Che’s comment that Jost had been trying to work that name into Update for two years before slipping it in on another network was another example of how the two have developed their winning chemistry.) And Che delivered an even more pointed joke in response to Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly rebutting the reference in the First Lady’s stirring DNC speech about her daughters playing on the lawn of a White House built by slaves. (Again, not The Onion, but O’Reilly excused the whole slavery thing, saying that at least the slaves “hired” to build the White House were fed well.) Che’s “You don’t hire slaves, Bill. That goes against the very definition of slave. You slave a slave.” was effective mainly because it channeled the inevitable “what the fuck?” response engendered by the nature of Trump and his supporters at this point.
The problem with these specials—which are a modestly refreshing tonic to those of us waiting to see how SNL proper tackles the remainder of this election season—is that they’re too short to go very deep. In what’s easily the most comedy-friendly election in memory, there’s an embarrassment of mockable nonsense out there, and these regular-sized Updates zip by too quickly. With no audience to play off of except the seeming dozen or so offscreen chucklers present in the tiny studio, the jokes would have to all be stellar to keep the momentum going, and they haven’t been. They’ve been decent, but, in a satirical landscape where other shows are taking on the same issues and personalities in more depth, they’re not good enough.
It will be interesting to see how SNL takes on the rise of Trump (again—the Republican nominee for President of the United States) once the show starts up again. I’ve said it more than once, but once the writers and performers feel secure enough to comment on the weeks leading up to that Trump episode, the resulting chapter in the next SNL book will be a must-read. (Che’s been most vocal about his displeasure, telling Matthews last week that he asked Trump, “What year, specifically?” concerning the candidate’s “make America great again” slogan.) Saturday Night Live’s track record on politics is spotty, but election cycles have seen the show raise its game. Considering what they’ve got to work with this time around, the upcoming season will be a referendum on what political punching power it’s got left. Judging by the scanty evidence of these two Weekend Update specials, there’s a lot of room to grow the takes before September.
- I’ve seen Jost’s sentiment that Clinton-Kaine sounds like a cop who doesn’t play by the rules floating around since Kaine’s nomination. Still pretty funny.
- No SNL guest spot this week (sorry RBG fans), and, as was last week’s, the remote segment wasn’t anything special, as Jost and Che tried to hand out Trump-branded bottled water to heat-exhausted DNC protestors. It was more amusing—the montage of spit takes was solid—than pointed, though.
- I imagine Bernie Sanders supporters aren’t too pleased by the anchors’ takes on the crying Bernie supporters at the convention, but Che’s joke at their expense (“You’re still white!”) makes its point. I voted for Ralph Nader on ideological grounds—and watched as people less privileged than I was bore a disproportionate burden once George W. Bush became President. Agree or not, Che took a position.
- While it was no match for the Michael Scott-esque cringe comedy of last week’s, Chris Matthews post-show sit-down with Jost and Che proved, once again, that the man is, let’s call him a singular presence. While Matthews didn’t blurt out, apropos of nothing, “Who’s the funniest black comedian?” to Michael Che this time out, he was all over the place, and Che and Jost—perhaps primed for the experience by this point—sat back and let the gabbling questions come at them. (Che, especially, wore an effortful mask of bemused restraint throughout.) Seriously, as comfy a sinecure as Darrell Hammond’s got as the SNL announcer, here’s hoping he revives his Matthews impression along with the occasional Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. C’mon Darrell—now more than ever.