Saturday Night Live had a lot to prove in the run up to the 2016 presidential election, and possibly even more so now that the election is over. This is show that gave Donald Trump a huge platform when most of those involved with the show wanted absolutely nothing to do with him. And while having Alec Baldwin on to portray Trump as a short-term gig seemed inspired, there’s absolutely nothing short-term about Trump anymore. The show has to deal with it or cease all relevance.
In its initial outing in this new political/cultural landscape, SNL chose introspection over outrage, which started last week with its palpable panic over a possible Trump presidency. Much like the characters in one of this week’s highlight sketches, the show simply didn’t consider the possibility that Trump could be President until far too late in the game. In that way, SNL resembled both the media and a majority of the country’s population. How it responds to the shock of what transpired on Tuesday will go a long way in defining the show’s importance over the next few years.
With Dave Chappelle as host, SNL had a very solid episode that featured a mix of topical and timeless. An all-out topical episode just isn’t the show’s style, and there will be literally years of material for the show to mine. It’s going to take some time for the show to locate its new voice. But tonight’s episode gave signs that the show won’t be silent, which is honestly the best we could have hoped for. Here are three examples of that voice coming through loud and clear this week.
Election Week Cold Open
How would the show kick off the post-election episode? That was the question on the mind of millions of SNL fans. Instead of trying to start the show off with comedy or anger, it went with Kate McKinnon behind a piano singing the late Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
In terms of mood, the easiest and most accurate comparison is when Paul Simon opened the 27th season by performing “The Boxer.” That’s not to compare this week’s election to the September 11 attacks, but it’s absolutely impossible not to connect the emotional dots here. McKinnon was dressed as Clinton here, but it was absolutely McKinnon singing this song, honoring both the candidate she had portrayed as well as conveying her own horror and dismay over Tuesday’s outcome. The simple staging, raw emotion, and resolved finale statement made this the perfect way for the show to respond to the past week.
Or, to put it another way: It will go down as one of the signature moments in the show’s history.
Dave Chappelle Stand-Up Monologue
Having Dave Chappelle perform stand-up anywhere is a big deal. Having him perform it this week, on this stage, is a REALLY big deal. The sheer fact of it would ensure its inclusion in this breakdown. The fact that it was also REALLY good is an added bonus.
The monologue took three primary forms. In the first, the mutual appreciation between performer and audience made up for the good-if-not-great material. Soon after, Chappelle’s material about the post-election world gained ever more momentum, almost as if he was finding his sea legs on the Studio 8H stage. During this lengthy phase, he pushed the buttons of both the censors as well as Lorne Michaels, to whom Chappelle at one point overtly apologized. It’s incorrect to call any of his material “dangerous,” but it certainly was direct, and directness is appreciated at this point in time.
The final portion of the monologue concerned a recent BET-sponsored event at the White House, which gave Chappelle both hope for the future and a tentative reason to initially support Trump as President. He closed the monologue by saying, “I’m wishing Donald Trump luck. I’m gonna give him a chance, and, we the historically disenfranchised demand that he give us one too.” It’s an incredibly generous statement in a time short on generosity, and I imagine it will be the one quote from this show that will be discussed and debated more than any other in the week to come.
The argument for diversity in front of the camera and in the writer’s room isn’t simply because it’s the “right” thing to do in terms of optics. It’s because it broadens the scope of what SNL can discuss and portray. The one-two punch of Tom Hanks’ iteration of “Black Jeopardy” and this sketch demonstrate how the show’s recent movements towards inclusion have positioned it to speak more powerfully about the current cultural climate.
While the pacing for this sketch was slightly choppy due to the “every half hour” time-lapse conceit, the descent into liberal panic coupled with the increased bemusement of both Chappelle and surprise guest Chris Rock worked like gangbusters. The sketch worked both as a puncturing of liberal groupthink but also a fairly bald plea for greater intersectionality in terms of both race and gender. Those in-sketch suddenly come to grips with racism mirrored much of the online reaction this past week, with both being equally naïve. If the show can have a dialogue amongst itself, and dramatize that in weekly sketch form throughout the course of this season and beyond, then it will have a powerful new tool in its comedic arsenal.