This past week was the worst one in a while for passionate Saturday Night Live defenders like me. In the run-up to this week’s episode, hosted by Donald Trump featuring musical guest Sia, a fervent crowd of SNL dissidents sprung up, as if from hiding, to diminish the cultural importance and creative vitality of a show they either haven’t watched in years or continue to watch while actively rooting against it. (Here are just two of many examples, from critics I otherwise respect: Buzzfeed’s Kate Aurthur and Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson.)
The argument that SNL has never been funny, I contend, is a product of unreasonable expectations. The show doesn’t proclaim to be consistent or even reliable. The live format inherently generates up and down weeks, high and low moments, strong and weak sketches. What makes SNL impressive is the frequency with which it succeeds at being funny despite the difficult production restrictions baked into it — tight schedule, collaborative workflow, competing motivations, high-pressure environment, no do-overs.
But every once in a while, I have to doff my cap to people who have written SNL off, and admit that for all of its highs, SNL is also capable of great lows. Last night’s episode represents the show’s nadir in the last five years, if not longer. And it’s on me, and anyone who watched, for expecting anything different.
The show was doomed the moment news broke that Trump would be hosting. He’s been a fascination of the American news media since he announced his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination in June. Since then, he’s generated countless headlines for his apparent lack of interest in the decorum that ought to come with being a public figure vying for the nation’s highest-profile job. Every TV host and comedian in the country has worked his antics into their nightly and weekly material, including SNL.
But giving Trump a hosting slot was a critically inept move on the part of SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels, who allegedly asked Trump to take the gig after talking to him about the possibility of a one-off appearance like the one Hillary Clinton carried off rather successfully on the season premiere. The three weeks leading up to Trump’s night were filled with trepidation from fans of the show and drew ire from advocacy groups, several of whom organized protests outside the NBC building in New York City.
Trump’s hosting gig was so obviously a shameless ratings grab on the part of NBC, who excised Trump from its airwaves just three months ago, that the possibilities for the show’s success as an episode of SNL were almost nil. But the show flopped even harder than I could have predicted. Trump, energetic to a disturbing degree in the early part of his campaign, seemed half-asleep even during his longest speeches, which he intoned directly from the cue cards without the slightest hint of fluidity.
The rest of the cast tried their best to compensate for Trump’s flagging screen presence — except when they didn’t. Perhaps it’s dangerous to read too much into the cast members’ faces, given that they’re professional actors, but the mood in the room seemed far more dire than usual, as if the actors couldn’t wait to be rid of this nightmare situation they’d found themselves in.
That nightmare situation wasn’t only Trump’s fault, though. Perhaps the task of meeting a controversial lightning rod like Trump with successful material was too lofty for anyone to accomplish, but the effort on display last night was pitiful. The fix was in from the first post-monologue sketch, a laugh-free four minutes depicting a miraculously and uniformly successful Trump presidency without a punchline or comedic perspective in sight. Brief bright spots like the parody of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video — several weeks late to the gif party, due to the show’s production schedule — couldn’t save a show that seemed to have no idea how to even work around its lifeless host, let alone give him something interesting to do.
As if the comedy itself weren’t enough, several moments designed as feeble attempts to insulate the show from criticism fell flat. In a moment that was CLEARLY SCRIPTED despite many Sunday headlines to the contrary, Larry David “interrupted” Trump’s monologue to yell “Trump’s a racist!” which earned him — no joke — $5000 from a political action committee who had vowed before the show to pay that sum of money to any audience member who uttered those words on the broadcast. During the abysmal “live-tweet” sketch, in which images of fake Trump tweets bashing the SNL cast members appeared onscreen to the cast members’ increasing fake chagrin, there were several references to Trump’s troubled history with Kenya.
But acknowledging that Trump is a racist, or at least plays one on TV, and acting upon that information are two very different things. SNL did a fair amount of the former but none of the latter. And moments like Trump dismissing Kenan Thompson as the lead singer from Toots & the Maytals with the line “You know I carry a gun, right?” canceled out any goodwill the show thought it might garner from stepping out in front of the backlash.
In one of last night’s few moments free of the bad taste left from all aspects of Trump’s hosting, Larry David as Bernie Sanders kicked the show off with an unusual departure from tradition. Instead of bellowing “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” David went with a Bernie-ish, “Live from New York…eh, you know.” That moment, small and significant as it was, set the tone. This wasn’t an episode of the SNL I love or care about. This was an episode of SNL designed purely as a ploy for the attention of the masses, without the slightest consideration for whether it would be enjoyable to watch or fun to perform. Next week, Elizabeth Banks fills the hosting slot, with performances from Disclosure, Sam Smith and Lorde. That’s a promising lineup that will almost surely showcase the talents of the SNL cast and crew far better than what happened last night. I can only hope that going forward, given the generally unfavorable reaction to last night’s stunt, that the model for this Trump episode gets buried deep below the halls of 30 Rock.
I know it won’t, and it’s silly for me to think anything different. Network television is a business. Creativity can blossom there, but almost exclusively when it intersects with someone’s business interest. Last night’s Saturday Night Live was a welcome reminder that on primetime television, money talks.