Prior to this year, barely anyone had anything nice to say about Saturday Night Live. Common sentiments I heard was how the show “had run its course” and “used to be funny.” Often, when you asked such a critic when the last time they sat down on a Saturday night to watch the show, or even view a week’s episode on-demand, they couldn’t find an answer.
Emblematic of the internet hivemind at its tedious, annoying worst, the opinion stuck regardless, despite the show delivering funny (and viral) sketches like “(Do It On My) Twin Bed” or the Ryan Gosling-annihilating “Close Encounter” (showcasing Kate McKinnon at her delirious best) or the beloved (and accurate) “The Beygency” pre-recorded bit. Weekend Update returned to form as Colin Jost and Michael Che settled into roles, while Pete Davidson and Leslie Jones became must-watch recurring guests—also, Jay Pharaoh’s Black Comedians Convention legitimized his entire run on the show.
While not at its peak, Saturday Night Live was never bad or boring. However, the show had a problem and it was foundational. SNL intentionally functions as a weekly referendum and refraction of popular culture: political satire, music, news, cultural trends, a winking parody to whatever movie or TV show everyone’s watching. But popular culture doesn’t operate in that same vacuum anymore. Everything exists in niche, segmented formatting. No one watches the same shows; no one listens to the same music; no one agrees upon what’s funny.
Not anymore, anyways. If that ever truly was the case or more a result of technological limitations—when we grew up, we only had four channels and bought CDs and were all programmed with the same preambles to chastise millennials—is a discussion for a different day.
So it’s been strange to watch SNL resume its mantle as a popular culture juggernaut. The answer doesn’t require much thought: Trump, Trump, Trump. Whatever your opinion on the man they call President, he uniquely has achieved a status no actor, writer, rock star, or creative could claim over the past few years. Donald Trump is the absolute center of popular culture. He garners a strong gut reaction from virtually every American and not a week passes where you don’t hear or watch his latest single. You can be a social media-addled millennial, a baby boomer Fox News junkie, or anything in between, but you know whatever Trump just did within 24 hours of it happening. He is unavoidable unless you live underneath a rock—and even then, just barely.
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As a recent Hollywood Reporter cover story illuminated, the show and its cast hasn’t been this popular in decades (23 years, to be exact). The feature served as a mini-oral history of SNL’s biggest moments over the past couple years, all of which you already know. You can read more here, but this quote from Colin Jost tapped into what I consider the flawed logic SNL has following the rise of Trump.
[P]olitics right now is probably the closest we’ve come to a full-blown national phenomenon as anything in a long time, and anytime people are paying more attention to politics, it’s good for our show. But you almost feel like a war profiteer at times because we’ve benefited from a situation that’s so tough.
“People paying more attention to politics” sounds antithetical to effective comedy, especially a show like Saturday Night Live. (Also No. 1 rule of war profiteering: If you suspect you’re war profiteering, you’re war profiteering.) The Trump bits stopped being funny somewhere around the “p***y-grabbing” incident. Baldwin and Trump are indistinguishable now, as is Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer, which first surprised as a funny, punching gag, but derivative all the rest. These faithful impressions have always been more gimmick than comedy. Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin and Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford and Will Ferrell’s Dubya made us laugh because they struck deep into these characters’ personas, mining some outlandish or self-serious trait of theirs, and showcasing it in absurd situations you knew were too out there to be reality.
I know this isn’t an original take, but it’s worth repeating: Trump’s administration has manifested a stranger-than-fiction environment in which we all currently exist. Anything I hear Trump said—either from the New York Times or Twitter or a Tinder message—I automatically assume is fact. Trump couldn’t say anything that would surprise me at this point. And if you’re still shocked by the stuff that comes from his mouth, that’s your fault.
This is why so much of SNL’s political satire falls face-flat. It’s just not that funny. South Park—the No. 1 irreverent, biting comedy we have—struggled with this very problem. On a recent episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast, creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker admitted they were defeated following the Trump-centric 20th season. They didn’t like what the show become.
If you have like a little monkey and it’s running himself into the wall over and over and you’re like, ‘That’s funny, but how am I gonna make fun of the monkey running himself into the wall?’ I can discuss the monkey running himself into the wall, I can copy the monkey running into the wall, but nothing’s funnier than the monkey just running himself into the wall.
This is SNL’s problem. Its political satire has devolved into them copying the monkey running into the wall, and asking, “Isn’t it funny?” No, it’s not. It’s really, really tragic. The popularity, I suppose, instead stems from the catharsis so many feel they need; they want something to make them laugh instead of their numbed emotions—because who has more tears left?—at the latest news briefing or full-blown crisis alert.
SNL isn’t a political comedy show. Saturday Night Live is the Coneheads, Eddie Murphy’s Mister Robinson Neighborhood, Digital Shorts’ Dick In A Box, Kristen Wiig’s Target Lady, Chris Farley “living in a van down by the river!”, Belushi’s Samurai, Celebrity Jeopardy, and Baldwin’s Schweddy Balls. At its very best, SNL is expressions of the weirdest, goofiest people this world has to offer, and all of us laughing along to the absurdity of being alive.
The show’s DNA still allows it to thrive by exposing that sentiment in these Trump-centric days. Instead of focusing on headlines and the outlandish characters themselves, the most effective comedy taps into everyday folks reacting and surviving to all that. The Tom Hanks-starring “Black Jeopardy” is both incisive and hilarious (written by Michael Che) while “Thank You, Scott” with Louis C.K. is Saturday Night Live’s only truly challenging political satire in the past six months or so (it’s also really funny!). Like most American institutions, SNL has placated to celebrities, knowing it will draw enthusiasm, even if it’s to the very show’s ultimate detriment.
The revolutionary (and funnier) move isn’t spotlighting the monkey running into the wall, but poking fun at all these people watching a monkey run into the wall over and over again. If SNL really wanted to resume its subversive roots—this Trump stuff is one thing only: pandering—it would pretend the monkey doesn’t exist. It would never acknowledge this monkey. Why would a monkey keep running into walls if no one was watching? But we are, we all are. Maybe that’s why the monkey is so obsessed with building a bigger wall.
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