Donald Trump has desecrated pretty much every American institution he’s been able to get his greasy toddler paws on. (We will never be investigated by the FBI the same way again). But Saturday Night Live, an institution that had suffered from a few shaky years in recent times, came out of its first Season of the Beast looking better than ever. Since coming back on the air last October, the sketch show had its highest ratings in over 20 years and more sweet sweet, sweet cultural relevance than it’s had since – that’s right – [Thunder Clap! God Voice!] the Nineteen Seventies-evenities-eventies-eventies ….
Of course, Lorne Michaels would’ve had to burn Studio 8H to ash if they’d fucked up a golden goose like Trump, and it wasn’t as if the show had to go through some big left-wing transformation to make it happen. It still lives on the 50 yard line of political satire. Now, though, that line has vanished (we’re assuming Steve Bannon snorted it); the centrism cannot hold and the ceremony of above-it-all innocence is drowned. It’s been fascinating to watch the show adapt to this weird fresh hell. And they pretty much nailed the panic that’s engulfed us, turning the broadest stage in pop culture into a site of real resistance.
The process through which SNL got its act together was not entirely seamless. Throughout 2016, the show was still lolling around in the same false equivalency backwash we were getting from the New York Times on down. What’s the harm in lobbing a few cheap email jokes, when Hillary’s obviously gonna win anyway? There are some lines from last fall’s run of (sometimes hilarious) debate sketches that we’re sure everyone at the writers table would love to have back; “Who do you trust the be your president, the Republican, or Donald Trump?” intoned Kate McKinnon-as-HRC, taking a shot at the most liberal Democratic nominee since George McGovern with a line that definitely made Jill Stein smile.
Campaign season had its daring moments, however, like the shocking appearance of a Klan robe and Nazi armband in their “Racists For Trump” fake ad last spring, and the smart insights of the Hanks episode’s “Black Jeopardy,” building a class-based bridge between the races out of car tape and Caitlyn Jenner-induced eye-rolls. All the ambiguity and inconsistency culminated in one of the strangest moments in the history of the show: McKinnon’s cold open on the Saturday after the election as Hillary, sitting alone at the piano playing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – then turning to the camera to tell us, “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.” The line immediately had its own T-shirt. But it was hard to tell who she meant: The obviously progressive comedian herself? The losing candidate she’d parodied as a Republican just weeks before? The incoherence was actually part of what made the moment so moving. Nobody was thinking straight at the time. We’re amazed these people could even scrape themselves together every mid-afternoon and get to work.
It became clear over time that she meant Saturday Night Live itself. In the following weeks, they were still aiming for formal comedic “balance,” poking fun of smug liberals with sketches like “The Bubble,” an ad for a Brooklyn biosphere cut off from “Real America” that aimed for Portlandia but could’ve been written by Brian Williams. McKinnon even briefly floated a reluctant Kellyanne Conway with a soul. Soon, though, the bet-hedging and both-sides-now stuff was gone, and the show started hitting the new administration where it lived: McKinnon-as-Conway’s terrifying Fatal Attraction desperation as she corners Jake Tapper to get back on the air was genuinely creepy, played with a full-bodied commitment worthy of Gilda Radner herself. The gauntlet truly came down, though, when Melissa McCarthy turned press secretary Sean Spicer into a psychotic prop comic, an amped-up gumhead battling the “Glens” of the press corps, armed with nothing but dollies and lies and a weaponized podium. This unhinged performance – and by a woman! – precipitated a full-on Oval Office man-baby meltdown.
One would assume that it’s basically a rule of national public service that elected officials are supposed to be good natured about even the most relentless caricatures – SNL mocked Hillary to her face (twice) and she had to take it. It’s an understatement to say that Trump has shredded this norm. He’s like a bad Eighties hair-metal frontman who thinks he deserves to be treated like Springsteen. Thanks to his itchy Twitter finger, we all knew he was watching. It often felt like the show was talking to him directly.
Sketches started to routinely reflect the surreal sleepless jitters of the way we live now, the sense of having your internal circuitry shorted out every time you look at your phone. But it’s the right comedic rhythm for an era that now makes sitting in front of a TV summer-breezin’ through the slow roll of the Watergate hearings seem like an idyll. The permanent-midnight morality of the current GOP has forced SNL to dig deeper into the darkness than ever before – the portrayal of Steve Bannon as Grim Reaper bakes in the chilling assumption that he likely finds the characterization flattering. Even a poison pen like glory-days writer Michael O’Donoghue might have shied away from a sketch where the president jokes about forcing the Speaker of the House to eat dogfood. Today, it’s right in step with the mood on 65% of the general public.
SNL‘s best political parodies have always humanized without normalizing – the classic example comes from Season One with Dan Aykroyd as Drunk Nixon alone in the White House, going beyond mockery to earnestly probe the cavernous self-pity of pure isolation. (“You kind of feel sorry for him,” the Not-Ready-for-Primetime Player recalled decades later.) The excellent “Melania Moments” mines this same territory, rolling out a whole series of “Deep Thoughts” pegged to that “please beam me outta here” look that the first lady flashed when Trump turned his back to her at the inauguration. She imagines trading places with the maid so she can escape Trump Tower and experience life: “She’d stay here and lay under Donald. Not a fair trade but oh how I long to touch sand.” So do we all.
Alec Baldwin did something similar with Trump himself. The 45th president is pretty much 30 Rock‘s Jack Donaghy if he was still running a company two or three strokes later. Baldwin found a way to make the impression deeper, weirder, dumber, sadder with each time he did it, adding a Chauncey Gardiner-as-Manchurian Candidate haplessness that the man himself couldn’t possibly grasp. And when it focuses on Trump’s lumbering through the cosmic joke he’s playing on the America that made him possible, the show could hit bone: “After we get done, you’ll never have to drive to see a doctor again,” Baldwin/Trump tells a Coal Country supporter as he takes his away his health care.
Brutal jokes that take on the real human consequences of Trump’s policies – that’s how (and how well) SNL has adapted to the post-Colbert/John Oliver world, where happy warrior liberal outrage and earnest commitment to the truth dominate the comedy marketplace. When McKinnon appeared on “Weekend Update” as Jeff Sessions being interviewed by Al Franken (“You’re a tricky raccoon, Senatah”), she wasn’t going to let the elfish adorableness of the “simple country liaaaaarrrr” she’d created overshadow the fierce urgency that essentially said: Seriously, though, fuck this psycho. “I may talk cute, but I am very scary,” she drawled with a giddy wicked smile.
Watch that Sessions bit though, and despite the enormously satisfying laugh-inducement, the menacing realities it confronts might make you long for a carefree Eden when “Bill Clinton really likes fast food a lot” was a perfectly viable premise for a pretty entertaining sketch. But the way they ended this season, with Trump at the piano doing his own “Hallelujah,” surrounded by his crony chorus of the damned, we’re reminded that as much as we’d like some closure, this nightmare isn’t going to be tied up any time soon. Have a good summer, SNL. You’ve earned it.