Comedy, Editorial, Review, TV

Not Ready for Prime Time Politics: A Review of SNL in Trump’s America

S42E14: Alec Baldwin / Ed Sheeran
Airdate: February 11, 2017
Directed by: Don Roy King
Showrunner: Lorne Michaels

This review requires two important caveats:

1) Melissa McCarthy’s impersonation of Sean Spicer is delightful. Let’s leave her out of this.

2) “SNL hasn’t been funny since ____” is a silly claim. It’s never been funny, and it’s always been funny. I love the show, I’ve watched it since I was a kid, and I’ve always held the position that there’s a solid 10 minutes of good comedy in every 90-minute episode. If that doesn’t sound like high praise… I guess it isn’t. The show has never been great: there are far superior sketch shows out there. But it’s been consistently entertaining for over 40 years (minus the Piscopo era, of which we shall never speak again), and it’s arguably the most culturally significant comedy show on American television. So no, I’m not going to wax nostalgic for a golden age of SNL greatness, because no such time exists. The commercial parodies are funny, Weekend Update usually has a few solid jokes, and there’s usually one or two sketches worth watching every week.

Ok. That’s out of the way. You know where I stand on this show. I’m a fan.

This season has actually been quite strong. With Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, Leslie Jones… it’s as funny a cast as they’ve ever had.

But good lord do their politics suck.

Oh, stab me in the eye with a fork, it’s painful.

(We’re trying to keep most reviews work-friendly here at Latin for Cat, but goddamn, this is a situation where PG-13 language just won’t cut it…) *** Warning: This review gets ‘spicy’. If strong language upsets you, turn the fuck back right now. I’ll keep it clean in my non-political reviews, I promise. ***

SNL has always used elections and political issues/scandals for topical sketches – it’s either that or just 90 minutes of Chris Kattan (Worst. Cast Member. EVER) screaming like an asshole. It’s part of a long tradition in comedy: satire, and punching up, and blah blah blah. We all know how this is supposed to work. We poke fun at those in power, and from time to time they pop by for a delightful guest appearance to show that they don’t take themselves too seriously either.

But there are limits to these practices, and on the other side of such limits we enter the world of the uncanny, the unhinged, the unwatchable, and the un-fucking-believable.

Kate McKinnon’s Hillary impersonation? Funny.

Kate McKinnon as Hillary singing ‘Hallelujah’? Noooope. Nope nope nope. Who gave this one the green light, and why? Was this a Cohen tribute (fail), a rallying cry (fail), or just a eulogy for a terribly run campaign (fail)?

Hillary playing a bartender and serving Kate McKinnon’s Hillary? Sure. Stop by for the cold open, get a few good one-liners in, then throw it back to the comedians for the rest of the show.

Trump hosting an entire episode? That’s called normalizing. You cast him in multiple sketches, you treat him like a big celebrity, and it shows that he’s not all that scary after all.

After Trump hosted, I had to go back and check to see if and when SNL cast members have ever boycotted an episode because of the host. Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay, 1990, one cast member (Nora Dunn) refused to play along.

This may have inspired a similar boycott in the film ‘Bob Roberts’ (which deserves its own extended review here soon…) In the fictional SNL clone ‘Cutting Edge Live’ , cast members are outraged at sharing the stage with a loathsome right-wing politician who comes to host an episode. A producer (and Dunn stand-in) eventually starts tearing out cables from the control room to stop the broadcast – a career-ending move that spares the public from having Bob Roberts smugly take centre stage on live TV.

How wonderful would it have been to see Kenan Thompson stop mid-sketch on a live show, tell Trump to fuck himself, and walk off the set? He’d become a legend, and not just the other guy from Goodburger.

A few weeks ago, two SNL cast members stood facing a photograph of Barack Obama and sang ’To Sir With Love’. I think it was supposed to be touching, but it mostly touched me in my cynicism gland, located somewhere behind that dangly thing in the back of the throat that causes instant vomiting when irritated. This was maudlin, tacky, awful stuff. I think the word schmaltz is appropriate in such a context?

Yes, the new president is a bad guy, and in a simplistic Manichean world I guess that makes us long for the simpler days with the good guy. But take a step back from the rose-tinted crack pipe and process what you just saw.

I’ll save my extended views on the Obama years for another article. For now, I’ll just say this: hero-worship and the cult of personality are dangerous enough as is. When they erase a real history of neoliberal mediocrity, including viciously illegal and immoral drone programs, they are the enemies of rational thought and social justice. Singing to a giant photograph of the glorious leader is just objectively crazy, whether it’s Kim Jong-Il or your favourite US president. (Picture Toby Keith in tears, singing ‘I Will Always Love You’ to a picture of George W. Bush and tell me if it’s touching.) Remember how this works in the Star Wars universe: we reserve our musical numbers for the violent deaths of despised dictators… YUB NUB!

The same week that Melissa McCarthy brought back her Spicer impersonation, SNL ran a short video on Snapchat, making fun of the Uber boycott launched on Twitter after the predatory ‘disruptors’ took advantage of a NYC taxi strike (in solidarity with refugees and immigrants caught up in Trump’s Muslim ban).

(For those unfamiliar with the Uber boycott, do yourself a favour and follow Dan O’Sullivan on Twitter: @Bro_Pair. He helped launch and publicize the boycott, and has written some fantastic pieces on Trump for Jacobin magazine.)

Boycotts are hard, the SNL video reminded us, and ultimately pointless since EVERY big company is up to something shady. So let’s make fun of the goofy press secretary, and ignore actual issues of labour power, protest, resistance, and solidarity.

Was there a joke to make about the story? Sure. Did the SNL writers even come close to finding it? Nope.

I guess my issue with the politics of SNL is a very simple one: you can’t really have ‘biting’ satire on a national broadcaster owned by G.E. How effective can your attacks on established power be when your boss’s boss’s boss makes billions on weapons deals around the world? The political economy of sketch TV isn’t a terribly sexy topic (I’m fun at parties!) but it certainly matters when we’re talking about ‘resistance’ to fascist regimes. Who will lead us, who will inspire us, who will make the art to rally the masses? Probably not the comedians and writers at NBC is what I’m saying…

Beyond issues of ownership and influence though is the issue of tone. SNL, Jon Stewart, John Oliver… they’re all very funny. Each makes me laugh, consistently.

But the tone of comedy at play here doesn’t sit right with me. There is an important distinction to be made between Satire and Snark. I deal mainly in Snark, because I’m not a comedian, and I’m lazy. Snark is a nice thing to sprinkle on top of a 3-hour seminar on neoliberalism and global media, but as the bread and butter for a nightly comedy show it gets old pretty fast.

Watching SNL in the age of the Donald reminds me of this article from a year ago. (Vox has committed some pretty unforgivable crimes against both journalism and writing lately, but they certainly still have some moments of brilliance.)

Much of our cultural criticism (and our political comedy in particular) had tended towards Smugness. I’m right, and you’re stupid. Here’s a video of you doing something dumb. Our art department made this funny piñata that looks like you!

Call it Coastal Elitism, call it the religion of the Latte Intelligentsia, call it Pretentious Know-It-All-ism… it’s easy to point your finger at those you oppose and mock their (many, many, MANY) shortcomings. But Snark without some teeth is just Smugness. Satire needs an edge, it needs to cut deep down to the bone.

Humour doesn’t need to contain this viciousness, but it can, and when faced with such pressing threats as Trump, Pence, Bannon, Spicer, Conway, etc. it really must.

John Oliver makes me laugh, but most of his election coverage last year was pure Snark. Samantha Bee, on the other hand, showed up each week with a straight razor in her boot: she was looking to draw blood.

And Saturday Night Live… let Trump host an entire goddamn episode, then went unbearably maudlin when he won, then decided they needed to hire Baldwin and McCarthy to playfully tease truly dangerous men. Funny, yes. But I wouldn’t exactly call this strong Satire. (Hell, Baldwin’s isn’t even the best Trump impersonation this year: find Anthony Atamanuik’s debates with James Adomian’s Bernie Sanders to see how it’s done. Here’s one sample below.)

If you’re going to do ‘political humour’ in the age of Trump, don’t poke fun. Bludgeon fun, Punch-a-Nazi fun, Break-in-Half fun.

You want your Cohen tribute? Don’t sing ‘Hallelujah’ and vow to keep fighting the ‘good fight’: attack until you find the crack in the thing. That’s how the light gets in.

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