In its 41st season, the show would rather play along with the wealthy and powerful than satirize them
Donald Trump hosted “Saturday Night Live” and nobody at the show except for Larry David called him a racist. So there’s that.
Leading up to Saturday evening, the principal question hanging over the broadcast was whether the protests that had taken place outside NBC’s Rockefeller Center headquarters since the middle of this week would seep into studio 8H.
Executive producer Lorne Michaels and the writing staff acknowledged as much with a gag at the tail end of Trump’s monologue, during which David — of “Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and now Bernie Sanders impression fame — shouted “Trump’s a racist.” The joke, funny and clever, was a reference to an actual Hispanic advocacy group’s offer to pay $5,000 to anyone who interrupted Trump during the show with that line.
Hispanic advocates were infuriated by NBC’s announcement in October that Trump would host the show. As a Republican presidential candidate, Trump has repeatedly said things that are blatantly racist, many of them aimed at Mexican immigrants.
He has also shoehorned ideas into the national conversation (border wall) that would have just a few months ago been dismissed a quackery.
All of this controversy, of course, played into Michaels’ hands. Latino critics claimed that they couldn’t understand why NBC, which fired Trump as host of “The Celebrity Apprentice” and dropped his Miss USA pageant from the air after some of his earliest racist remarks, would welcome him back to host one of its marquee franchise.
To ask the question is to misunderstand the relationship between NBC and Michaels. After running “SNL” for most of the last 41 years, the show’s creator doesn’t ask NBC brass for permission. He runs the broadcast with near complete autonomy, and he only gave NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt and unscripted chief Paul Telegdy advance notice on negotiations with Trump to host because of concerns regarding affiliates and FCC equal time rules. It was Michaels who invited Trump to Rockefeller Center, not NBC.
What Michaels got for his trouble was an episode that will probably end up being the most talked-about of this season, but for all the wrong reasons. Nobody who watched Trump host the show in 2004, or who knows good comedy, or who has two working eyes and basic motor skills, tuned into this episode because he or she expected it to be good. And it was not.
A sketch following the monologue that imagined a future Trump White House was dismal, unable to be salvaged by Cecily Strong‘s fantastic and over-the-top impression of Trump’s wife, Melania.
A sketch featuring Trump as a member of a funk band was bad in the way that only the worst “SNL” sketches can be, the kind that send viewers to the refrigerator or to bed.
Another in which Trump had a mock conversation with Keenan Thompson as Toots Hibbert, musical guest the last time the candidate hosted, was simultaneously weird and dull and ended with a joke in which a guy who wants to be president of the United States threatened to shoot an unarmed black man.
That those three sketches were the worst of the night is directly related to the fact that they were all three built around Trump. In the rest of the show he served merely as a prop, such as during the parody Drake video in which he briefly danced, or the meta sketch in which “live tweets” from Trump appeared on screen, disrupting the performers.
In those, as well as in Weekend Update, the writers and cast attempted to gain mileage by taking the piss out of Trump. But they did so gently. Nothing was said or done that could have offended him. It was all in good fun.
The idea that Michaels would be morally or politically above aiding and abetting Trump is naïve. For decades, “SNL” has been an open platform for anyone whose public standing is enough to goose ratings. George W. Bush has appeared on “SNL.” So has Sarah Palin. So, for that matter, have Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and basically every serious presidential contender from the last few elections.
Every time Michaels does this — every time he invites someone onto “SNL” whom the show would be better off skewering, every time he tones things down to accommodate a guest of significant power and significantly offensive worldview — he takes the show farther and farther away from its radical roots.
“SNL” is celebrated largely because, when it premiered in 1975, it challenged the establishment and scared the bejesus out of the powerful. Now, 41 seasons later, it is an institution, a toothless and benign one.
Just look at January’s “SNL 40” special, a self-congratulatory nostalgia trip most notable for the show’s most famous alumnus (Eddie Murphy) declining the opportunity to mock Hollywood’s most famous alleged serial rapist (Bill Cosby) for fear that someone might get offended.
Saturday’s broadcast was an extension of “SNL 40” and of the franchise’s laziest, worst impulses. It’s telling that the most clever line of the night came not from anyone on the show, but from Stop Racism PAC, the group that offered the bounty to anyone who would interrupt the broadcast and had, before the East Coast feed had ended, promised to pay it to David for his scripted “Trump’s a racist” line.
“Joke or not, it’s true,” the group said in a statement.