Like many players in the comedy arena, Saturday Night Live benefited a lot from the first two years of the Trump presidency. From the first moment SNL introduced Melissa McCarthy playing a deranged, but uncannily accurate Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, the show was must-see TV. It took on the challenge of depicting the unglued quality of the Trump administration with gusto and was often on-target.
Now, not so much. After recently being away, I returned to find a batch of recent SNLs in my PVR and duly watched them. Taken together, the recent episodes amount to much less than what was just a while ago: sizzling, inspired satire. It is misfires galore now.
Part of the problem is Trump-fatigue. As U.S. President Donald Trump himself and his team engage in a frenzy of bonkers behaviour against perceived enemies, the centre of SNL’s satiric take cannot hold. The best of times for such comedy becomes the worst of times.
Last Saturday’s cold opening, which featured the return of Alec Baldwin as Trump, went completely awry. Baldwin does Trump as a pouting, befuddled but malicious president, and in this sketch, the point seemed to be the mockery of Trump supporters at a rally. Character after character appeared beside the President to offer ever more demented reasons for adoring him. The Trump character was the sane one for some reason.
As the impeachment effort heightens tension and emboldens the President into even more vituperative antics, the sketch bore no connection to anything real or imagined in the current reality. Baldwin has said he’s tired of the impersonation and it shows. The only highlight was Fred Armisen appearing briefly as an especially sinister Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But it’s not just the political humour that’s gone stale. Sketches meant to tease out absurd humour and mock stereotypes often land with a dull thud. One recent week, Fleabag star and creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who had just won a passel of Emmys, was the host. After a charming, self-deprecating monologue, she was mostly misused and miscast in the episode’s sketches.
A What’s Wrong with This Picture game show sketch featured Waller-Bridge as a particularly dumb contestant, and then a ham-fisted sketch satirizing the British version of Love Island also depicted her as a stupid person.
This is a recurring theme on SNL, now in its 45th year – derision for everybody who isn’t in on the SNL style of humour. There’s a raging condescension in much of what it does. Possibly this angrily supercilious tone is linked to the Trump-fatigue that now hangs over the show. There’s some kind of rage or frustration that there are dummies out there who still support the President.
Even when the sketches aim for a surreal, mind-bending originality, rather than a standard-issue send-up of a TV show or celebrity, they often turn out pointlessly long and unfunnily obscure. Last Saturday had Chance the Rapper as host and he was used in a lot in sketches.
He was excellent as a basketball reporter forced to report on, with great resentment, an e-sports beat tournament. He wasn’t as sharp in a sketch mimicking a courtroom TV show, called First Impressions Court. He couldn’t keep a straight face and the entire piece was stolen by surprise guest Jason Momoa, who simply took off his shirt to have an impact.
Later, Chance and Cecily Strong played a couple meeting and falling in love at a restaurant. They literally sweep each other off their feet. It was all very stoner-humour and the crazily used wire effect, lifting up the two characters, was meant to say something about being high. But maybe you had to be stoned to see the point.
Weekend Update, often the highlight of a so-so episode, also seems to be falling flat too often. Colin Jost and Michael Che carry an air of exhaustion. And it’s only a few episodes into this season. Che mocked Rudy Giuliani with the line, “Somehow, Giuliani went from the Mayor of 9/11 to the 9/11 of mayors.” Alex Moffat and Mikey Day played Eric and Donald Trump Jr., a routine that is genuinely exhausted now.
Kate McKinnon, who has achieved god-like status for her portrayals of Hillary Clinton, Kellyanne Conway and Jeff Sessions, is currently doing a terrible Rudy Giuliani and a good Elizabeth Warren. But Warren hasn’t really emerged yet as a distinctive figure, so the imitations seem like a lot of effort for little payback. It’s another misfire.
Saturday Night Live has a formidable status in American popular culture. Right now, it isn’t deserving of it. It’s adrift, uncertain in tone and self-indulgent. Maybe it is as frustrating to create and perform these days as it is to watch. But, there’s always next week.
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