Saturday Night Live knows it needs to satirize President Donald Trump, but Trump preempts it by satirizing himself. Behavior, statements, and meetings (e.g.: Kanye commandeering the Oval Office) previously only possible in Studio 8H are standard for the Trump Administration. In this way he’s satire-proof. We want to see him made fun of, but satire doesn’t do the trick. Contempt is all that does.
SNL is not in the business of contempt. It’s in the business of comedy and, appropriately, prioritizes comedy over all else. In addition to Trump-related matters, SNL is reticent to submit to all the demands of modern political correctness. In a culture whose artifacts’ value has as much to do with moral rigor as artistic quality, SNL’s relevance suffers.
Case in point: during this season premiere’s edition of Weekend Update Pete Davidson delivered another memorably unstable life update. Volatility has become Davidson’s stock-in-trade; not unlike Artie Lange’s cocaine-addled, out-of-control radio personality of old, Davidson wittingly or not takes comedic advantage of his own hectic existence. Panic attacks and tabloid fiascos are fodder for his close-to-the-bone style. Newly engaged to (and now possibly disengaged from) pop star Ariana Grande, Davidson joked about replacing her birth control with Tic-Tacs.
For many the joke hit too raw a nerve to be comedically permissible. In a world where credible rape claims against a Supreme Court Justice nominee are levied and silenced in seemingly the same breath, tongue-in-cheek abuse is just as bad as the real thing.
Compounding the joke’s sour taste was another installment in the Kanye West crazy parade: as musical guest post-broadcast he donned a Make America Great Again hat (which he referred to as his “Superman cape”), and pontificated about how persecuted he feels as a Trump supporter. Cast members relishing a rare chance to share the stage with a cultural icon grew visibly conflicted, some driven to exit.
SNL neither sanctioned nor censored this. It wasn’t a part of the regular broadcast but it became as headline-grabbing as anything in that week’s episode. The interpretation is not that Lorne Michaels is pushing Trump’s agenda. But from progressives’ standpoint, knowing West was likely to do so should have warranted dis-invitation.
SNL has been on the air forty-three-plus years. It has undergone some horrific, bumbling years, been pronounced dead, teetered on the brink of cancellation, but never actually died. Which if you think about it is strange. Do we really like sketch comedy this much? Lorne Michaels is an industry demigod and SNL is a bona fide star nursery. What keeps it going?
Inertia, largely. Like a national monument it’s hard to picture a world without it. Millions of the show’s viewers — me, for example — were born when the show was already twenty years old. For us, it’s as much a fixture as our parents. There’s no sense taking away a cultural parent.
Additionally, political upheaval rejuvenates SNL. The year Donald Trump was elected SNL’s ratings rose as much as they had since the ’94-’95 season (think Chris Farley, Mike Meyers, Tim Meadows, Adam Sandler, David Spade…). This is not specific to SNL; news ratings in general spike when catastrophe seems imminent and many people felt impending catastrophe in the wake of Trump/Pence.
The greater this feeling the greater the show’s role. Comedy is truth to power, and when power goes rogue, the need for comedy increases. Former President George W. Bush who couldn’t seem to open his mouth without sticking his foot in it, needed parody. Trump, who is as frankly characterless a man as has ever blighted the airwaves (and the White House, for God’s sake), presents a gargantuan need for comedy.
It goes for both sides, of course. SNL didn’t take eight years off during Obama’s or Clinton’s terms. Rightly so, no modern political entity can extricate itself from the farce that is modern politics. Clinton sowed ample controversy for himself and Obama, if nothing else, had as imitable a vocal cadence as any president ever. Still, no one in their right mind could dispute SNL’s liberal leanings.
The last two years have presented as deep a moral reckoning as this country has ever faced. Trump, a code-word for all that is hateful and fraudulent in us, now sits in the Oval Office. In what now seems like a direct response to this, people — mostly men — who used power to force sexual submission have been rightfully removed from their posts.
So on one hand our elected leader is the emblem of moral turpitude, whereas our social court has never been swifter in delivering moral justice. That’s paradox #1.
Then there is the half of the country that thinks I’ve got this backwards. That Trump is the savior and that society is wielding unwarranted power. A paradox to overlay the paradox: half the country could not be more sure that the other half is a scourge.
What is SNL’s role in this? Depends on who you ask. One Facebook friend compared the season premiere’s Matt Damon-enriched, Kavanaugh-busting cold open to “applying a cooling salve to an open wound.” Alec Baldwin’s recurring Trump impression has received similar response, even garnering Baldwin an Emmy in 2017. People who feel helpless in the face of institutional immorality use SNL like an ointment.
The most concentrated moments of ointment-application come during the cold opens and Weekend Update. Cold opens make all Republican (and some Democrat) leaders look like aloof clowns. Weekend Update digs a little deeper, taking more targeted shots at the leaders in question. But Colin Jost and Michael Che’s task is complex. As Pete Davidson learned, joking about trigger-issues nearly always lands you in the cultural penalty box. So, Jost and Che typically play it on the safe side. You can’t blame them for wanting to hang onto their careers, but it can make for unambitious comedy.
As an ointment SNL is successful. But ointments don’t treat all ailments. If you’ve got a broken leg you need intensive treatment, and much of SNL’s viewership feels positively paralyzed. SNL won’t go away and doesn’t need to but its relevance will diminish as long as moral outrage rules the cultural conversation.