Saturday Night Live isn't just trying to figure out how to be funny in the wake of Donald Trump becoming this country's President-Elect, but also trying to figure out what kind of world it's actually satirizing. To say the show had blinders on about the election is both an overstatement and a wildly unfair accusation. After all, few could foresee last month’s election breaking the way it did, and so there's been a lot of introspection happening at SNL.
But that introspection has also incorporated some outward gazing as well, and some results are starting to emerge. It's fine for the show to identify and amend its own blind spots. But it's equally important for a program with a still-vital voice to use it whenever possible to augment the signal for those that might feel unheard. Doing so risks preaching rather than augmenting. But when done correctly, it demonstrates that comedy can exude compassion as much as cynicism.
Here are three sketches that either people will discuss or about which Donald Trump will probably tweet his displeasure this week.
High School Theatre Show With Emma Stone
Of all the sketches that epitomize this era of the show, this is it. It’s what "The Californians" was to the Kristen Wiig/Bill Hader/Fred Armisen age of the show in terms of locating a certain time in the show's history. It's as consistent a laugh producer that SNL has right now, which means its constant reappearance doesn't just make the cast happy. The secret to the sketch's longevity isn't actually the in-sketch performers (who are great), but Kenan Thompson and Vanessa Bayer's perpetually put-upon parents. There's a continuity that can be followed through each version of the sketch that enriches the well-meaning idiocy onstage.
In particular, this sketch saw the parents earnestly try to give the kids the benefit of the doubt, rather than consistently mock them after each section of the show. It was a small tweak, but one that really made the sketch seem somewhat fresh. That variation made the subsequent disappointment ring that much truer. It's easy to imagine these two parents trapped in a Sartre-esque nightmare in which they have to see this type of show every week, and are trying to escape the torture of that existence. There are many "Mad Libs"-esque sketches in the SNL arsenal, those that simply follow the exact same formula beat-for-beat. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's always great to see the show try to add a slight twist to a successful formula.
Weekend Update: Leslie Jones On Women's Sexual Satisfaction
By their very nature, SNL live audiences are inclined to laugh at every joke on the show. Those crowds consist of fans of the show excited to be part of the action, and mass psychology often leads to more laugher in-house than what you might experience at home. But only two currently performers truly transcend that base level of Pavlovian response: Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. McKinnon owns the show’s sketch world right now, while Jones towers over all things "Weekend Update."
Lots of people on SNL are funny. But few have the innate charisma and confidence that Jones exudes. There’s nothing artificial about her presence, and audiences both identify and respond to that authenticity. And when she gets on a roll, like she did tonight considering men's "thumb drives," then there's little the crowd can do but surrender to the comedic tidal wave that washes over them. The tepid laugher that greets a subpar sketch gave way to roars of laughter than even managed to throw Jones slightly off her game. (She almost never cracks, and she did on a few occasions tonight.) But it was a lovefest both ways all the same, and that type of warmth absolutely translates to those outside of Studio 8H.
Wells For Boys
Sure, the two Jennifer Aniston-centric segments of the week will undoubtedly get more press, but this sketch, much like "Diego Calls His Mom" from October's Lin-Manuel Miranda episode, works on a much more subtle but much more powerful level. Were I to have a redo on my recap of that episode, I would include it in the three sketches discussed. Since I can't turn back time, I'm trying to ensure I don't make the same mistake twice.
One of SNL's primary tasks this season is to identify its voice in the Trump Era. While the President-Elect is literally livetweeting his displeasure with Alec Baldwin’s onscreen portrayal of him, Saturday Night Live is figuring out ways to be political without actually having Trump himself portrayed onscreen. One way to do that is to provide voices for those that may feel ostracized at this point in history. Providing a glimpse into the heartland of America through the eyes of an immigrant is one way to do so. Insisting that there are non-binary ways for children to express themselves is another.
This sketch wasn't overtly political, and yet by its very nature was intimately political. Identity itself is political at this point in history, and sketches that opt for open acceptance over closed ridicule are vitally important. They are possibly even more important than anything about Trump's inability to listen to a security briefing. Sketches like that are about one man. Sketches like this are about us all.