SNL Can’t Just Mock Donald Trump—It Has to Humiliate Him

Comedy Features Saturday Night Live
SNL Can’t Just Mock Donald Trump—It Has to Humiliate Him

The most commonly-used word to describe Saturday Night Live’s post-election portrayal of President-elect Donald Trump is “buffoon.” So far, that’s been accurate, but I desperately wish it weren’t. In the first cold open since Kate McKinnon-qua-Hillary Clinton’s performance of “Hallelujah,” Alec Baldwin’s Trump didn’t know how to accomplish any of the things he promised to do during the campaign and promptly had a panic attack in his office.

“Big beautiful boobs and buildings, big beautiful boobs and buildings” was the soothing mantra he used to calm himself down.

In the next cold open, Trump retweeted his no-name followers while government officials tried in vain to give him a briefing on national security. “Oops! I did it again!” Baldwin sang while merrily tapping away at his phone.

The audience roared with laughter both times. But I started to worry. After all, we’ve been down this road before.

SNL can’t just mock Donald Trump—it has to humiliate and expose him. But the variety program is probably not going to change course. On top of the fact that Trump was given the honor of hosting the show while running a campaign built on bigotry, SNL is the same program that helped turn George W. Bush—a man who, under false pretenses, embroiled the United States in a war that has claimed thousands of lives—into a cuddly doofus. The show even played into that popular perception of Bush as recently as last December when Will Ferrell reprised his role for a cold open in which Dubya announced that he was running for president again.

“The field of Republicans out there is so messed up, I figured, it makes you miss me, doesn’t it?” he said, mugging for the camera, while trotting out all of the Ferrell-as-Bush staples: mispronunciations of geographical locations, lots of asides about Texas life, and plenty of references to the debatable theory that the 43rd President of the United States was not very bright. SNL immortalized Bush as the “strategery” president, not as the president who sent a generation of young soldiers to fight an unwinnable war.

Ferrell’s impression was funny, of course. It transformed the then-president into a universally recognizable figure: a dim uncle from Dallas, albeit one who just happened to be the most powerful man in the world. But in hindsight, the familiarity of Ferrell’s imitation may have helped soften the president’s image in the long term. As novelist Jacob Rubin wrote for Slate, “The best impressions … almost always fail as satire. The intended skewering is set off by the very humanizing attention that makes the impression great.”

Baldwin’s Trump already has the same problem: relatability. Who among us hasn’t felt overwhelmed by a complicated task? Who hasn’t closed the door to their office or locked themselves in a bathroom stall to have a quiet freak-out at work? Who hasn’t Googled a major life decision in the hopes that an answer will suddenly appear? Before Trump won the election, SNL showed him kissing an FBI agent, Vladimir Putin, and a KKK klansman on the lips. That sketch, at least, had some satirical teeth. The Trump-is-overwhelmed-and-narcissistic schtick doesn’t. At worst, it makes him kind of appealing. But what else can we expect from a comedy show that had Trump dance to “Hotline Bling” just a month before he would go on to call for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslim immigration?

I’m willing to concede that depicting Trump as a simpleton has its merits. For one, it seems to get under the President-elect’s skin, judging from his post-SNL tweetstorms two weeks in a row. “Time to retire the boring and unfunny show,” he tweeted the day after the first Baldwin-Trump cold open, his feelings clearly hurt. “Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks.” Trump didn’t even wait until Sunday morning after the next cold open, tweeting shortly after midnight that the show was “unwatchable” and that Baldwin’s impersonation “just can’t get any worse.” Even the choice of Baldwin as an impressionist sends an implicit message to Trump: This is an actor who famously played Jack Donaghy, a quintessentially American businessman with a rags-to-riches story—the kind of character that Trump, with his “small loan of a million dollars” so desperately wanted to but never will be.

But mockery on the basis of perceived intelligence will always have limitations because, frankly, too many people like seeing simpletons in office. That’s the reason why candidates feel more pressure to pass the “beer test” than, say, the “foreign policy exam.” Then, after Americans plant their golf course buddy in the Oval Office, they find out who he really is. And as it turns out, presidents who project a down-to-earth, authentic image have often been—and, with Trump in office, will continue to be—extremely dangerous. Andrew Jackson was a charismatic populist; he presided over the Trail of Tears. Reagan was handsome; he ignored the AIDS crisis. Trump “tells it like it is”; his cabinet picks, among other things, are virulently anti-LGBT, climate change-denying nightmares. These presidents’ images haven’t suffered much for their missteps: Jackson is on the twenty-dollar bill, Reagan is revered by half the country, and some people still believe Trump is a successful businessman. Dubya is having his own upswing.

So for all of our sakes, SNL shouldn’t pull another Ferrell-Bush this time around. The show has a unique opportunity to degrade a man who ran for president by degrading women, immigrants, and Muslims—a man who the writers know is watching every episode, Twitter account at the ready. I’m not a comedy writer so I don’t know exactly what it looks like to truly do damage to Donald Trump but I can offer some half-formed, probably bad ideas I jotted down on a napkin the other day: a cold open set in a flooded Manhattan—thanks global warming—where Trump is scrambling to find a piece of furniture in his all-gold apartment that he can use as a flotation device, all while rambling about how this must be a Chinese hoax; a version of Beck Bennett’s man with the motor skills of a baby with Trump as a literal man-baby, the sketch ending Dr. Strangelove-style with him accidentally launching nukes; a cold open that cuts Trump off at the pass by depicting him tweeting angrily at SNL so that, if he does just that after the show, he’s playing right into the writer’s hands. Someone funnier than I am should figure out an approach just a hair more sophisticated than “make Trump into an egotistical fool.” We already know that’s who he is, which is precisely why we need to pay more attention to what he’s doing. SNL is a comedy program so it doesn’t have to become The Rachel Maddow Show but it should at least try to portray Trump as a unique and unstable threat to the planet—not just in Weekend Update, but at the top of the show where it matters most.

When I tune in next Saturday night, however, I won’t be holding my breath. Making a president into a “buffoon” is an easy option—one that I fully expect SNL to take after giving Trump such a powerful platform as host last year. But the problem with Trump isn’t that he’s dumb; it’s that he’s dangerous. I hope the SNL writers realize that before they help him become our country’s next lovable idiot.

Samantha Allen is the Internet’s premier alpaca enthusiast. Follow her on Twitter.

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