It isn’t until Melissa McCarthy, hidden in plain sight as a believably-coiffed Sean Spicer, launches into one of the press secretary’s signature defensive diatribes that the audience recognizes her. Cue the rolling laughter—“Ah! It’s her!”—and one of SNL’s best sketches this season is off to the races. It wraps up nicely with a meta-gag, but the meat of the sketch, the good stuff that’s got everybody chirping, is McCarthy’s excellent character work and physical comedy. It’s a breakout role, the kind SNL is known for. A star-making turn for, well, a movie star.
Saturday Night Live has always embraced the cameo, especially for those on Lorne Michaels’ Friends and Family plan. It’s safe to say Alec Baldwin would be stopping by even if he didn’t get to purse his lips and pout, but with the addition of Melissa McCarthy last week, the celebrity circle seems likely to expand with each week. Even Rosie O’Donnell has tweeted her avails to play Steve Bannon, and the masses are rallying behind her at a fever pitch. Enter the memes.
Earlier this week, Alison Herman pointed out in The Ringer that these days the SNL walk-on is particularly coveted for one simple reason: access to Donald Trump. Judging by his tweeting habits, SNL is a key ingredient in the TV cocktail Trump ritualistically mainlines every morn and every night. To be on SNL is to be in front of Trump himself, a brief opportunity for actors and comedians to impact him in some way (i.e., make him upset). It’s a pretty sweet deal for comedy all-stars, particularly while the general comedy community sputters to define its role under a Trump presidency.
And what does SNL get in return? Ratings! Crazy, crazy ratings. According to Yahoo, season 42 of SNL is averaging 10.6 millions viewers this year, up 22% from last year. Its Nielsen rating in the 18-49 demo is higher than it’s ever been since the 1994-1995 season. SNL is even considering a Weekend Update spinoff. This, in an era of declining TV viewership.
Of course, there’s a lot of noise in the data—audiences aren’t just tuning in to see if Melissa McCarthy or Alec Baldwin will stop by. SNL is bound to get a ratings bump in an election year, and there’s reason to think Trump’s election has spurred the nation to follow political news and commentary more closely. For instance, in the three months since Donald Trump was elected, the New York Times added a net total of 276,000 digital-only subscriptions, more than it did in all of 2015. Surely SNL got a similar bump. And like the Times, SNL also gets a good amount of free press from the President himself.
But the ratings boost SNL receives from celebrity drop-ins may not be worth what it gives up. However highly you think of the show’s satire, it’s very easy to imagine the internet’s casting choices (O’Donnell et al. 2017), if they come to fruition, will only dilute it. If A-list actors are down to clown, SNL might be hard-pressed to say no; the ensuing parade of stunt casting would render Studio 8H a revolving door for the rich and famous. Political commentary would be reduced to feeble meta-humor, where the joke becomes about how much it must enrage Donald Trump to witness, say, mortal foe Meryl Streep as Melania on Weekend Update. Pretty soon, viewers will just tune in to see who’s playing Political Plinko and how they fare against last week’s contestants. Ladies and gentlemen, we could be staring down the barrel of the thinking man’s “Carpool Karaoke.”
Wild speculation aside, a more tangible problem with SNL’s current approach to political satire is its over-reliance on guest stars. These are load-bearing appearances: Alec Baldwin’s Trump, Larry David’s Bernie and now Melissa McCarthy’s Spicer are all functionally irreplaceable characters in the current SNL political universe. It would be a shock to the system if any were swapped out, even in a new season. To wit: I’m sure Kyle Mooney could be a great yenta in a bald cap, and yet you’d still be pretty bummed if that meant no more Larry David.
And there’s the rub. The outsourcing of major roles comes at the expense of the the show’s regular cast members, who are being denied the scene-stealing roles that will define this era of SNL, an era which grows more political by the episode. Just eyeballing it over here, but I’m almost positive Alec Baldwin’s gotten more airtime this year than a few players at the end of the bench. While Michaels might have planned (like most of us) for a Trump-less 2017, Alec Baldwin is now a de facto featured player, and it’s hard to imagine we’ve seen the last of Melissa McCarthy.
With the exception of Kate McKinnon, who works overtime as Hillary Clinton, Kellyanne Conway and now Betsy DeVos, the cast is relegated to minor secondary roles and impressions. (It might be lean times ahead for McKinnon as well: With all three of her characters on the wane in the news cycle, it’s unclear whom she can hopscotch to next. Elizabeth Warren?) Beck Bennett is Putin, Cecily Strong does Melania and so on. Granted, debating who deserves more fame isn’t a fruitful discussion, but since SNL is known as a comedy incubator, perhaps it ought to keep its hatchlings in mind.
Or maybe this is all just a bizarre referendum on this season’s cast, though I find that hard to believe. Nobody’s perfect, but I think they’re mostly doing a good job—y’all seen David Pumpkins? This is easily the most delightfully off-kilter cast assembled in recent years. Even freshmen Mikey Day, Alex Moffat and Melissa Villaseñor have been prominently featured so far, a rarity for newcomers. So what gives? One could argue the main players are partial to oddball material and therefore, somehow, unsuited for biting political pieces, but Beck Bennett does just fine as a weirdo Putin. Besides, that’s an issue of roster management anyhow. If the cast isn’t up to snuff when it comes to political material, then perhaps Michaels should look downward to young comedians rather than upward to Hollywood stars. The best teams build through the draft, after all.
There’s an ecclesiastical vanity that looms over this whole discussion. I’m reminded of Malcolm Gladwell (please keep reading), who released an excellent (please keep reading) podcast episode on satire last August. In short, for the non-Glad Hatters: Satire sucks. It mollifies its audience to inaction and encourages smugness. Worse, the targets of satire often embrace it, whether by ignorance or reclamation. Think The Colbert Report, which conservatives tended to see as making fun of liberals; or, more recently, the ego-stroking misstep that was Bannon as the Grim Reaper (the man already compared himself to Satan!). Throw in some political polarization, and blammo: all you’ve done is rally existing coalitions around existing conceptions.
Even so, there’s good reason to think Trump and SNL shift this calculus quite a bit. Ignore the internet clamor for a parade of big stars in big roles to get under Trump’s skin. Melissa McCarthy may have been outstanding, but the road to Fallontown is paved with eager A-listers. Less capable guests will indulge the show’s troubling tendency to let its satire skew cartoonishly dumb or evil. Bannon isn’t Death, he’s a Breitbart blowhard. Trump isn’t a bad joke, he’s a bad politician—and he isn’t Hitler, he’s Berlusconi. Both represent the worst in American society as a whole, including the very celebrity worship that makes SNL tick. It’s already disingenuous to paint them as cartoon villains rather than the natural endpoint of our basest impulses. The celebrity cameo, itself a strategic play for ratings, only heightens this.
Let’s think beyond celebrities and hollow internet daydreams of Trump’s feelings. Our president manipulates the news cycle with the stroke of a tweet; now SNL has a unique opportunity to manipulate him. If the show can genuinely wrest media narratives away from the White House, then maybe satire can (possibly) make a (small) difference. Michaels’ original sin still looms large, but if SNL wants to finally take on the giant, that’s ultimately a good thing. I just wish we could fight Trump without endorsing the same values—ratings, popularity, winning—that put him in the Oval Office.