How SNL Has Failed Us in the Trump Era

Politics Features Saturday Night Live
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How <i>SNL</i> Has Failed Us in the Trump Era

SNL’s Weekend Update is the template upon which this era of liberal white men making fun of stupid/dishonest politicians from behind a late night desk was built upon, and remains occasionally solid. Beyond that, the show’s political humor makes me want to drill into my skull and yank out whatever part of my brain is responsible for housing memories of their Trump skits.

I am one of those stereotypes who believes that SNL used to have great political humor—as I still laugh at Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush impression to this day. Hell, as a kid born in the 1980s, Dana Carvey’s Bush senior was really the first president I ever knew. Saturday Night Live is a cultural institution because of the systemic hegemony of the major networks on broadcast TV, and because it really has earned its prominent status in American culture. It is something of a time machine, and the fact that most people’s opinion on the show is that it was only good during their youth is emblematic of SNL’s role in American society.

But this era objectively sucks—entirely because of SNL’s insufferable political “humor.”

How can I say with confidence that it is objectively bad?

Your honor, I’d like to present my first piece of evidence to the court, from all the way back in the before times, on November 7, 2015.

And here is my other central piece of evidence, from the dawn of the now times, on November 11, 2016.

These seven-ish combined minutes completely and utterly disqualify the show from opining on any and all post-2016 politics with any credibility. SNL helped make President Trump happen, and then a year later they had the gall to do a bizarre, somber cold open acting like “Donald Trump, SNL Host” wasn’t one of his launchpads to the presidency. Everyone who had a hand in making these two sketches should be ashamed of themselves—or, conversely, if the goal was to get out in front of our coming dystopia and create a new kind of anti-comedy, then they should take immense pride in the fact that they have truly created a new category.

Plus, Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression sucks. He is the worst SNL president of my lifetime. The facial ticks were funny the first couple of times, but that’s all the bit really is. The character isn’t really Donald Trump—it’s Alec Baldwin doing an impression of Trump doing an impression of Baldwin. The fact that they’re both boorish, rich Manhattan jackasses who think the world is owed to them only helps to reinforce that dynamic.

However, my biggest issue with SNL’s political “comedy” isn’t Baldwin or the fact that Kate McKinnon plays literally everyone in this administration—but the writing—or the lack thereof. Every single cold open is basically just a recap of whatever weekly political scandal that bit is about. It’s my job to follow the news. Trust me on this. The basic plot of every single SNL political cold open is no different from the generic writeup you would find on it from NBC News. There is absolutely no original thinking that ever goes into the basic construct of SNL’s political cold opens.

In the before times, this concept worked, so long as it was used sparingly. Sarah Palin’s surreal interview with Katie Couric where she couldn’t name a single newspaper she read, was so self-evidently absurd that SNL just followed the transcript, and let Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s brilliance imbue reality with even deeper humor. This objectively hilarious concept from 2008 has completely lost its luster in 2019, but current SNL head writers Colin Jost and Michael Che apparently never got the memo.

Everything in the age of Trump is absurd. Highlighting absurdities was a comedic revelation in the days of Jon Stewart and George W. Bush (mostly because it demonstrated what a tremendous vacuum there was in the media for shows that simply called out provable hypocrisy, but I digress…), but that novelty has completely disappeared under President Trump. His victory proved that hypocrisy and absurdity are not self-evident in America, and simply pointing out stated inconsistencies is not enough to make a serious (or funny) political commentary. Trump is just a symptom of our larger systemic issues. The ground under our feet has shifted dramatically, and even though irony is dead, that doesn’t mean comedy has to be too.

See how long you can last with this past weekend’s cold open over the Mueller Report. I made it two minutes before jumping out the window and plummeting to my death. SNL destroyed my will to live and the rest of this column is now coming to you from the afterlife—where I am told that hell is filled with not with fire and brimstone, but an endless array of TVs blasting nothing but SNL Trump skits for all of eternity.

Here’s one more just in case you’re not completely beaten down yet. This is may be the worst thing ever put on network television, and I’ve seen an episode of NCIS.

As a writer, this kind of stuff genuinely offends me. It’s not that difficult to come up with a concept for the Trump era that doesn’t simply repeat what happened along with a couple chintzy jokes that sound like they took ten seconds to devise. Watching all these cold opens that explode across mainstream journalist Twitter every Saturday night makes me truly believe that we at Paste politics have spent more time than SNL has trying to think of new insults for Trump.

The essence of being a good writer is diversity of word and thought. One of the easiest things you can do to make yourself a better wordsmith is to simply adhere to the standard of trying not to repeat nouns, adjectives, adverbs and verbs in any paragraph, and the head writers at SNL can’t even stop themselves from using the same exact format in their signature sketch every single week. I get that it’s really hard to create a funny sketch show in seven days, but their political writing is lazy, no matter how many caveats you throw against the wall.

SNL has serious talent there. The notion that most of us hold—that SNL was better back in my day—has merit because SNL is (almost) always populated with genuinely funny people. That’s not the problem. The problem is that SNL’s political writers seemed to have given up, and are letting reality write their humor for them. This seems to be an acknowledgement that political reality is funnier than anything Jost and Che’s political department can come up with, and if that’s the case, can you even call what they’re doing comedy?

Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.

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