When Saturday Night Live kicks off its 42nd season this Saturday night, fans will be tuning in to see how the episode's host – Suicide Squad star Margot Robbie – fares in her first not-ready-for-primetime appearance. They'll be curious to see what the three new cast members (Mikey Day, Alex Moffat and Melissa Villaseñor) will bring to the table, and what sort of gap the dismissal of Taran Killam and Jay Pharoah may have left on the show as a whole.
But mostly, viewers will be watching to see how the show plans on handling the upcoming 2016 Presidential election. And considering how non-traditional this particular political stand-off has been, SNL will have to do more than capture lightning in a bottle with a funny, fractured impression à la Will Ferrell's George W. Bush or Tina Fey's Sarah Palin. It will need to capture the fractured mood of a country four weeks before the nation decides on two very different paths for its future. While the show's existence isn't at stake over the next few weeks, its relevancy as a tool of political satire may be – all thanks to the large, orange albatross still hanging around its neck.
Trying to satirize this unprecedented, increasingly contentious Presidential campaign would be hard enough; doing so after SNL had Donald Trump host an episode last fall, after his campaign was underway and he'd already begun to spew some highly questionable rhetoric, simply makes things doubly complicated. To be sure, presidential candidates have appeared many times during the show's history. But while actively running for office, they usually appeared in cameo roles. Both Barack Obama and John McCain showed up briefly in sketches – the Republican nominee, in fact, graced the 30 Rockefeller stage a mere three days before the 2008 election. And Clinton herself appeared in a sketch during the Fall 2015 premiere. But until Trump, presidential candidates only hosted after losing either a primary or the election itself. For failed candidates like George McGovern, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, and Steve Forbes, hosting SNL served as a consolation prize rather than a viable political platform.
So the fact that Trump hosted SNL last Fall while still a viable candidate was unprecedented. The fact that he was so controversial a candidate – that NBC had fired Trump as host of Celebrity Apprentice just a few months earlier – made this distinction doubly dubious. The get certainly represented a short-term gain, with the November 7th episode earning the largest audience for the program in four years and increasing the in-season audience by 61%. But the outrage over his appearance in that capacity had little to do with Nielsen ratings. As both the Republican primaries and the season progressed, the decision to book Trump looked increasingly problematic, especially given that he leveraged the attention accrued from his appearance as further momentum in his stampede towards the Republican nomination.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with booking a host with more name recognition than comedy chops to boost ratings. To the best of our knowledge, however, neither Paris Hilton nor Deion Sanders appeared after advocating that Mexico pay for a giant border wall designed to keep out "criminal, rapist" immigrants. The Trump episode – in which he only spent approximately 12 minutes onscreen – essentially put an asterisk on every single piece of political satire that SNL did for the rest of the year. Yes, there was the subsequent "Racists for Trump" sketch later in the season, and "Weekend Update" eventually realized that simply repeating Trump's proclamations verbatim drew more laughs than any jokes they could write about them.
But lingering on the edges of every such segment was the fact that SNL (or at least NBC) tried to have its cake and eat it too. When "Update" host Michael Che appeared on Late Night With Seth Meyers in July, he claimed, "People got mad at us for having Trump on the show, but it's like, he's supposed to be on a comedy show. That's where he's supposed to be. I'm mad at you for voting for him!" Except putting Trump on the show didn't demonstrate that he was a joke. It demonstrated that the show deemed the political "outlier" to be part of a continuum – that he was in the same league as the vast number of other politicians that have graced Studio 8H since 1975.
Just as the media has had a difficult time treating Donald Trump as a unique candidate, so too has SNL in treating him as a singular Presidential parody object. The usual protocol of finding equal-yet-different-flaws for both major-party candidates simply falls apart when one of the two is a man who suggests that racial profiling should be a de facto anti-terrorism policy and insinuates that Second-Amendment advocates could send Hilary a message regarding gun control. (One assumes he did not mean through Western Union.) To make matters worse, NBC itself has been heavily criticized in recent weeks for other Trump-related coverage, from Matt Lauer's deferential treatment during the Commander-In-Chief Forum to Jimmy Fallon's desire to play with Trump's hair on The Tonight Show. You could argue that such "gloves on” incidents could have happened without Trump ever hosting Saturday Night Live. But it's tough to suggest that his hosting had absolutely no correlation.
Tackling Trump in a political cold open and a short segment on "Update" certainly fits into the overall architecture of a traditional episode. But is that the best way for the show to proceed? If this election isn't normal, can/should the show's approach be normal? There are three options for the show in the weeks leading up to the election.
1. Minimize all political humor across the board
Look, SNL has been leaning this way throughout Barack Obama's second term, culminating during last season in which Jay Pharaoh's Obama only made a wordless appearance in the finale. Rather than attempt to remove the aforementioned asterisk incurred last November, the show would steer as far away as possible. If the show wants to cede that voice to nightly late-night television, it should do so. The chances of this happening are almost astronomically low, but can't be completely ruled out.
2. Up the ante and attempt to split the middle in terms of its targeting
This is more in SNL's historical wheelhouse, with supporters of both major parties equally feeling as if the series has it out to them. As noted before, the show tends to put its topical material into the cold open and "Weekend Update," leaving the majority of the other slots to sketches that hopefully play just as well in 15 months – or even 15 years – after the fact. If a typical episode features 10 total segments, having at least half (if not more) dedicated to the current election cycle would be ideal. It's not as if there's a shortage of topics to cover, from the candidates themselves and their cable news surrogates all the way down to those supporting/Snapchatting during the rallies.
The danger here comes from the potential downside of perceived equivalency. Having three sketches about Trump and three sketches about Clinton for the sake of seeming impartial may backfire. Fresh off Ghostbusters and her recent Emmy win, Kate McKinnon is the show's star at this point; putting her Hillary Clinton front and center would be a logical move. But equal time doesn't mean equal treatment, and such "equivalency" could only strengthen the notion that SNL doesn't think it harmed itself by having Trump dancing to "Hotline Bling" just one year ago. Which, to be blunt: It did.
3. Go into full attack mode on Trump
This mode doesn't mean that mocking Clinton is out of bounds. But this approach involves SNL owning up to the criticism and declaring comedic war on Trump, NBC, and anyone else that benefited from his appearance last year. With only a few episodes before the election, subtlety won't make an impact. So from your cold open until the ten-to-one sketch, center everything on the Republican candidate. If there are primetime "Weekend Update" specials as there were in 2012, turn those into 30-minute exposés on Trump's past and present as well. Everything is geared towards the show implicitly or explicitly saying, "We are sorry we were part of the process that led to this. We treated him like a comedian, but the joke was on us. Maybe this won't change anything, but doing nothing isn't an option."
As the still-reigning source for helping us laughing at things that often make us want to cry, the show is necessary in ways few other programs have ever been – at its best, it's been a leader in using sketch comedy as a medium for meaningful social commentary. There are more choices for content than ever, but few of those can match the electricity that comes when the Not Ready For Primetime Players articulate the national sentiment in a way no one else could in front of a live studio audience. Would this approach be too little, too late in terms of rectifying its past mistakes? Perhaps. But it will definitely be too late after the election.