Saturday Night Live was not responsible for Donald Trump being elected president. Nor was it Obama’s fault for mocking him at the White House Correspondent’s dinner, though I’ve heard both those opinions voiced in the last few months. I do understand that in some absolute deterministic sense, either of those things might be but-for causes of Trump’s reign. But his win was so narrow and fluke-y that it clearly caught the man himself just as much by surprise as the rest of us (all subsequent protestations to the contrary notwithstanding). When a contest that big and complicated comes down to such a slim margin, the magic fairy dust of hindsight allows us to single out a thousand little factors that would have been enough to turn the tide. SNL or Seth Meyers or the 42nd president might make for a convenient scapegoat, but when it comes down to it we the people, not our comedians, are responsible for our votes. As a nation of free men and women, we, as ever, have done this to ourselves.
I’ve also always been skeptical in general of Saturday Night Live’s efficacy as a political agent, with its reputation as a satirical juggernaut based more on broad visibility rather than any consistent level of quality or incisiveness. Many cite it as responsible for cementing Gerald Ford’s image as a clumsy doofus, and torpedoing Sarah Palin’s viability as a candidate, but Ford was before my time and Palin had generously loaded a copious number of torpedo bays herself before Tina Fey stepped up to...um, the…firing bell? Trigger buoy? Launch…swain?
|"Mommy, where do torpedoes come fr-"|
"Shut up, Jimmy."
The point is, political satire functions as much more of a blunt instrument for opposing a particular movement than a finely-tuned mechanism for social engineering. I mean, maybe SNL quashed Palin’s rise, but if the show being in the tank was enough to actually win an election, Hillary Clinton would be in the White House, no question. And there’s always the issue that ideology generally makes for infertile comedic soil, at least when it is that of the jester themselves (heckling other people’s stupid beliefs is unfailingly hilarious and what separates humans from the humorless idiocy of the orangutan). When the political cart gets ahead of the comedic horse, political comedy quickly ceases to function on either level.
|Seriously, just look at this insipid motherfucker right here|
None of this is to say that SNL doesn’t have an obligation to lead the charge when it comes to the cultural backlash against Donald Trump. We can debate the efficacy of comedic/celebrity activism in general, but Donald Trump is if nothing else a very strange man, and his personal character and peccadilloes have left SNL in a very strange position. Having him host while he was actively campaigning was an unprecedented decision that will remain a stain on the show’s reputation no matter how hard they swing at him now. But even if that weren’t a motivating factor, Trump has proven himself to be highly and uniquely sensitive to tweaking by this late night television program in particular. And this has not been lost on the writers, performers, or hosts.
Trump is not the first president to watch SNL or, I’m sure, to take umbrage with their portrayal of him and his administration. But every other president has been, for lack of a better word, an adult. Whereas Trump has the temperament of a particularly shallow and needy twelve year-old. He is so desperately vain, so nakedly obsessed with image and popularity, that even after being named leader of the free world, he couldn’t help but splurt his hurt feelings at every sketch about him into his
diary Twitter feed. His handlers wrestled his phone away after a
couple weeks of this, but the damage was done*.
SNL knew it had a guaranteed audience of one, and that in defiance of anything
the most miniscule shred of common sense or self-respect would dictate, that
audience urgently cared what the show said about him. This rendered any arguments about how no one has ever changed their vote over a comedy sketch, or that John Oliver and Sam Bee are just pissing in the wind to the choir, essentially moot. They had the goat of the most powerful man in the country, and once you realize that, you're pretty much obligated to push him as far as you can, in both a comedic and patriotic sense. If the president can be broken by sketch comedy, best we suss that out right away instead of waiting for an actual crisis to trigger such a collapse. And
given that I loathe every bloated, jaundiced inch of the man the way he hates
the Bill Of Rights and fat chicks, I was happy to cheer the show on as it set out to test his resolve.
|"You forgot about ugly chicks. And Mexicans. And Muslims. And reporters. And Ted Cruz's father. |
And judges. And Australians. And Ted Cruz's wife. And the National Parks Service..."
And that was fun enough at first, but once it was announced that SNL’s Trump-impersonating ringer Alec Baldwin would be hosting an entire show this coming Saturday, everyone (including, presumably, the White House) figured that would be the main event of SNL v Trump 2017. But then last week’s episode, featuring Kristen Stewart of all people, used that cover to deliver a surprise combination of punches aimed at the president’s personal insecurities with surgical precision. It was shocking, it was funny, it was brutal, and it indicated that the show had settled on an underlying strategy for how to piss off and undermine the president. Let’s look at it blow-by-blow:
The cold open didn’t start off with anything particularly special. It’s a place where the most topical political bits frequently score lukewarm titters of recognition simply by recreating the silliest thing to happen that week, rather than delivering any truly pointed laughs. The decision to stick with portraying Trump’s top adviser (and white supremacist nutjob) Steve Bannon as the literal grim reaper is certainly to the point, but it’s not something that is going to draw blood from this particular target. They probably take it as a roundabout compliment, as Trump clearly fancies himself a tough guy who totally strikes fear into the hearts of his enemies, guys, for reals. A man with so many imaginary black belts to his name doesn’t care about looking evil, only weak. So the bits about Trump spouting nonsense at world leaders while Bannon cackled evilly didn’t land particularly hard. But that was just warm up for the harder punches at the end, as Kenan Thompson’s ruler of Zimbabwe berated him as a faux-strongman, calling him out for being afraid to walk down stairs and a “little white bitch”. Then it became the rare sketch to actually ends on its strongest note, as Trump meekly vacates the president’s chair for Bannon and takes his seat at an adjacent child’s desk where he is distracted with toys. Calling out Bannon as a nazi won’t alienate him from the administration (because nazi applause rubs his ego in the exact same way as actual human clapping), but the more Trump hears people say that he is the one calling the shots, the more likely he is to toss him aside in a fit of wounded Twitter-pique. Does that mean it’s going to happen? Probably not. But stuff like this isn’t going to make that relationship any smoother.
Stewart’s monologue then took things in a different direction, and while I had always been rather indifferent to her, she won me over in a big way. Delving into some no doubt painful and not particularly flattering personal history, she read out several of the way-too-many tweets our current commander-in-chief had made about her break-up with former beau Robert Pattinson. Of all the bizarre, unsettling details that have emerged about Trump, “mancrush on Edward from Twilight” is far from the most egregious, but it continues the motif of undermining him by way of emasculation. This makes sense, given how central the mantle of masculinity is to his self-image and how manifestly fragile his sense of it is (this is a man who felt compelled to reassure the electorate about the size of his penis during a presidential debate, remember). That Stewart followed it up with an accidental F-bomb and a mortified but quick and funny reaction was just gilding the lily. You had me at “I think the president is in love with my boyfriend,” Bella.
This was quickly followed by a filmed piece about the Muslim ban, which was actually the most pointed in terms of policy critique. But that also makes it, and Weekend Update's jabs at specific statements and gaffes, the least germane to this particular discussion. Trump doesn’t actually care about policy, so you don’t get under his skin by criticizing it, no matter how absurd, cruel or counterproductive that policy may be**. No, you get under his skin by having a cute, famous girl call him a fag on national television (like, politely, but still). That’s just what we’re dealing with here.
But of course the final, most vicious haymaker came in Melissa McCarthy’s surprise appearance as White House press secretary Sean Spicer. An immediate classic and candidate for the best political sketch the show has ever done, it was just brilliantly constructed and taken to another level by McCarthy’s absolute tour-de-force performance. It’s a long sketch, which is usually a bad thing for political material in particular, but right to the end it keeps finding new, bizarrely aggressive twists on Spicer’s frantic abuse of the press corps. McCarthy never flags, never breaks, and never loses the thread even when stumbling over a single line or navigating through the audience’s delayed realization as to what they are seeing. She clearly articulates every set-up over and around the audience laughter and nails every punchline, without ever pausing to vamp or drop the level of Spicer’s nonstop scream. It should win her an Emmy, it will define Spicer in the public consciousness forevermore, and we can expect to see her charging Vanessa Bayer with the podium in clipshows, promos and interstitials for years to come. SNL is always an uneven show, which is inevitable given the nature of sketch comedy, live TV, and the unforgiving clip at which the show airs. But sometimes the writers really nail down a particular bit, a performer knocks it out of the park, and it creates something electric and hilarious. And very occasionally, it may also double as a piece of trenchant political satire that even your grandma will see.
Or at least the president will, because the sketch has apparently already sent ripples through the West Wing. There have been reports that the president was highly displeased that his representative was mocked so thoroughly by a woman (and an overweight woman – it’s really hard to underestimate just how deep Trump’s intertwined women/body issues actually go) and that Kellyanne Conway ended a meeting early after being asked about the sketch. I don’t want talk in grandiose terms like “game-changer” about a comedy sketch, but given Trump’s image obsession and Spicer's already rocky start, there is a real chance that this was the nail in the coffin of his tenure as the voice of the administration. Granted, we were probably destined to go through several of those no matter what, given that Trump came into office declaring open war on the media and he loves firing people the way actual persons love their pets.
|"No Jimmy, Sean is just subverting the free press at a farm upstate now."|
But for all the attention the McCarthy sketch has garnered, it's also entirely possible it may not actually “accomplish” anything tangible. But it is both impossible and wrongheaded to try judge the effects of such satire in concrete terms. It’s not as though Trump is going to just vacate office voluntarily and mention SNL by name in his resignation tweet. Even if both Spicer and Bannon were promptly fired, it would really only be that the show exacerbated existing discontent and hastened processes that probably would’ve happened anyway. But it’s wrong to approach political comedy with specific yardsticks, which is something I think people miss when decrying celebrity activism or whatever comedic news show du jour as useless. We hold politicians to account for actual policy; satirists only “job” is to gum up the works for the bosses. And SNL has never been working harder at that than they are now. They have to be; we always work our hardest when we know the boss is watching.
*[EDIT] Since posting this, I've seen reports that SNL's ratings have surged as much as 20% since the election, so it could be that Donald just can't figure out a back-up insult to his knee-jerk of labeling the show "failing" or irrelevant. On the other hand, he has never let bald factual inaccuracy stop him from claiming his inauguration was bigly attended, that there were thousands of Muslims celebrating 9/11 on the streets of New Jersey, or that the murder rate is at a 50 year high, so I don't know why it would stop him here.
[RE-EDIT] Wait, yes I do. It's because he takes feuding with a sketch comedy show much more seriously than the murder of American citizens, even as the fucking president of the United States.
*I’m no expert in either military or religious matters, but telling Muslims who actually want to be on our side to go fuck themselves because they share a 2 billion strong religion with the Bad Guys seems like a really good way to find out what being at war with 2 billion people actually looks like.