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Laughing Matter: The Growing Importance of Satire Under Trump

Saturday Night Live may be hitting a very important chord.

By Entertainment

Illustration by Sophie Lucido Johnson.

According to his Twitter account, America’s 45th President (and professional narcissist) Donald Trump is not happy with Saturday Night Live (SNL).

While the show has pedaled in political satire since its premiere in 1975, its sketches featuring Alec Baldwin as President Trump and Melissa McCarthy as Sean “Spicy” Spicer have pushed SNL’s ratings to their highest in 22 years.  

In October of last year, Alec Baldwin began portraying the then-presidential candidate on SNL. The initial sketch featured Trump’s Baldwin facing off against Kate McKinnon’s impersonation of Hillary Clinton in the First Presidential Debate. Since it aired, the sketch has racked up more than 23 million views and it’s created the most popular recurring character that SNL has had in years. When Baldwin hosted the show for the 17th time on February 11, it was SNL’s highest overnight rating since 2011.

Though Baldwin’s Trump seems to be the most infuriating to the President, McCarthy’s impersonation of Spicer is at least as popular, if not more so. Since the impersonations began, SNL has averaged 10 million viewers per episode.  

The decision to cast a female comedian as a male member of Trump’s staff surely exacerbates to the President’s anger. The choice to have a female comedian take on a male official in an infamously anti-woman administration is genius. Nothing seems to infuriate Trump more than criticism from women, a prime example being the “no puppet” incident from the final Presidential Debate. In fact, the choice to allow McCarthy to play Spicer is so inspiring it’s moved Leslie Jones to beg to play Trump. Simultaneously, SNL’s critical angle and comedic use of hyperbole seem to foil Trump’s dictatorial ridicule of the media.

President Obama’s cabinet had eight female members while President Trump’s only has three. Though Donald likes to pretend that having daughters and working with Kellyanne Conway makes him “great for women”, everything else about him screams the opposite.  From his feud with Rosie O’Donnell to the “grab em by the pussy” tapes, Trump has shown absolutely no ability to respect women. Playing off of this issue is what makes McCarthy’s Spicer work and what would make an all female portrayal of Trump’s cabinet excellent.

While it’s clear that President Trump is unable to make fun of himself, it’s troubling that he has such an inability to go with the flow of a show legendary for poking fun at politicians. But perhaps the more troubling relationship between Trump and SNL can be found in the controversy around his episode. In November of 2015, deep in the heart of the Presidential election, Donald Trump hosted a very controversial episode of SNL. The choice to allow Donald to host was highly scrutinized because of the publicity it would give him. After the episode aired, some claimed the episode had a lasting impact on SNL’s young audience and may have influenced voters. While Trump has been and continues to be criticized for conflicts of interest, SNL was able to capitalize on him from two conflicting angles with seemingly no problem. Furthermore, Trump’s episode aired just two months after NBC claimed to have completely cut ties with him over insensitive comments Trump made about immigrants. Considering the political power that SNL holds, it’s generally left leaning politics, and their post election stance on Trump, looking back on Trump’s 2015 episode makes the show look rather hypocritical.

Despite allowing Trump to host, SNL seems to be using its power for good. Since the election their episodes have become increasingly critical of the president. The show has done an impressive job of appealing to the more than 65 million Americans who chose not to cast their vote for a racist mango. Many young viewers find it refreshing to be able to laugh at what is normally a very bleak administration.

Maeve O’Brient, a freshman studying painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), feels that SNL is “a solid way of informing people without access to primary sources that this presidency is a literal joke.”

SAIC sophomore Katie Wittenberg said, “There’s a right to freedom of speech and SNL has done this for years. The only difference now is that Trump reacts in such an immature way.”

While there seems to be little opposition to McCarthy’s Spicer, not everyone is comfortable with comedic portrayals of the president. The threat which Trump poses to millions of Americans isn’t easy for some young viewers to laugh at. SAIC students have voiced this concern.

Sophomore Patrick Stephenson said, “It’s too funny ‘haha’ when it should be a little bit more serious. Plus, Alec Baldwin isn’t exactly the greatest guy.”

SNL has obtained an immense amount of political power over the years and the Trump era is proving it. As political satire, the audience knows their work is dependent on hyperbole. So while the cast members’ portrayals contain aspects of reality — they are often frighteningly close to it — they’re able to avoid any true denouncement from Trump beyond calling the show unfunny. This is where SNL gets its power. While the fair and free media is under attack, SNL is able to infuriate the president and gain power from it. Though some viewers may find it hard to laugh at Trump, SNL’s continued comedic criticism of him is essential to maintaining the freedom of media.

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