In a recent interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today, Donald Trump addressed his ongoing feud with Saturday Night Live and Alec Baldwin’s “mean-spirited” impression of him. “I hosted SNL when it was a good show,” the president-elect said in the phone interview. “But it’s not a good show anymore.”
Strangely enough, Trump hosted Saturday Night Live a year to the day before he would win the United States Presidential Election (November 7, 2015 versus November 8, 2016). At the time, critics were not kind to this episode. Paste’s SNL critic Chris White wrote: “Every sketch Donald Trump appears in, with one exception (“Hotline Bling Parody”), seems not fully realized, ill-formed, or awkwardly played. Clearly the elephant in the room (pun intended) is Trump himself, and the general confusion about what his personal intentions are.”
But if you watch the November 7, 2015 Trump/Sia episode a year later, for as eerie and devastating as it is, this 90 minutes of television is also darkly hilarious.
The opening sketch is probably the most honestly funny moment of the episode, a parody of the MSNBC Democratic Candidates Forum hosted by Rachel Maddow, who’s portrayed by Cecily Strong (“We’ll be cutting to very tight shots of black people in the audience”). But as soon as Larry David as Bernie Sanders utters “Live from New York. . . ehhhh you get it,” that’s where this traditional episode ends and quickly turns into the Donald Trump Power Hour. Even SNL announcer Darrell Hammond’s growly pronunciation of “Donald Trump” in the opening credit sequence seems like a forced joke, like, “Yeah, we really have him on the show.”
And then Trump finally appears on stage in the opening monologue, doing all of the schtick he used to do as the bombastic Apprentice host, but now as a Republican presidential candidate. In some respects, this may be the last time we ever see him as just a reality show jerk. “People think I’m controversial,” he says to the audience, “but the truth is I’m a nice guy. I don’t hold grudges against anybody.” With respect to Halle Berry’s Oscar speech, this moment is truly so much bigger than him, the irony that he’s saying this on the stage of a show he would a year later call to be canceled because of a “not very good” impression of himself. “Part of the reason I’m here is because I know how to take a joke,” he continues, before bringing out not one, but two cast members (Taran Killam and Darrell Hammond) doing impressions of him.
Post-monologue, the first Trump sketch may initially cause the hairs on your neck to build a wall of cringe (that we’re all paying for today). “Well, Mr. President, you did it,” says Bobby Moynihan. “Halfway into your first term and prosperity is at an all-time high. You’ve truly made America great again.” And then Trump proceeds to go around and ask each cast/cabinet member (including Sasheer Zamata as Omarosa) how everything’s going in America, and it’s all sunshine and gumdrops, with some quiet digs (“Everyone loves the new laws you just tweeted”). Secretary of Interior Ivanka Trump makes a walk-on, the President of Mexico (Beck Bennett) brings the check for the wall, and Taran Killam laments that the American people are simply sick of winning. At the time, this sketch appeared to be a Trump dream sequence; a year later, it’s become one for Trump supporters.
Based on his SNL hosting duties, we should have known Trump would want to live in the White House part-time, because that’s basically how he commits to this episode. One sketch features only his live tweets of the show, which include harsh critiques of both the writing (“Not funny”) and the performers (“Taran Killam is a dumb loser”). Live-tweeting during Saturday Night Live is now a typical Saturday evening for the president-elect. Equally macabre: Taran Killam was fired from the show at the end of this particular season.
Watching the 2015 episode while wearing 2016 goggles is not complete without sitting through Drunk Uncle, Trump’s No. 1 fan, during Weekend Update, which ends up revealing so much about what would happen in the 2016 presidential election. “Finally, someone is saying the things I’ve been thinking as well as saying,” says Bobby Moynihan as Drunk Uncle, before launching into a series of jokes about his hatred for political correctness. When Colin Jost asks for thoughts on Hillary Clinton as president, Drunk Uncle squeezes his drink so hard the glass shatters in a million pieces.
The final sketch of the night is the recurring Porn Stars sketch, with Cecily Strong and Vanessa Bayer pledging their slurred support for porn-parody politician Donald Tramp. While Trump comes on and says he does not endorse this message, viewers are treated to one deliberate aside caught on his microphone: “Didn’t you used to be a brunette?”
Saturday Night Live didn’t hire Trump to host its show thinking he would be the next president-elect. Clearly, this was a ratings grab to see who would watch—and it worked, as this episode drew the strongest numbers of the 41st season. At the time, that’s exactly what Trump running for president was treated as by liberal media outlets like CNN and MSNBC: a ratings grab. They reported on him the same way TMZ would cover Kanye West (which is why Trump meeting Kanye at Trump Tower was the perfect fusion of celebrity and political obsession). But what the show didn’t account for was that this episode may have actually helped endear him to mainstream audiences.
The funniest Trump sketch in the Trump/Sia episode is in fact the “Hotline Bling” parody, with Drake (also-fired Jay Pharoah) and old white men (including Trump and Martin Short as Ed Grimley) showing off their dance moves. This feels like the moment where the monster becomes the mortal, making him almost likable in his ability to look like a complete dork. Was SNL actually his gateway to winning over supporters? One of the major critiques of Hillary Clinton has always been her inability to connect with people and, well, appear human, and here Trump not only does it, but he does it on a major network broadcast. Why? Because everyone assumed this ride up Trump Tower would inevitably wind up back down on earth.
So maybe Trump is right. Maybe Saturday Night Live only got less hilarious after this episode aired. Because you can’t get any more twisted than this 90 minutes of television, which holds up stronger a year later than any of critics—or pollsters—could have foreseen.
Megan McLachlan is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh who once traveled to Austin, Texas (alone) for Nickelodeon’s Hey Dude reunion. She covers television and the Emmys for Awards Daily TV and can be heard on the weekly Water Cooler Podcast. She’s on Twitter @heydudemeg.