Larry O’Connor already did an admirable job in pointing out the disturbing and hypocritical nature of Saturday Night Live’s first post-election show, but the more I’ve dwelled on the awkward and somber presentation they offered, the more questions there seem to be. Since we’re still treating the show as some sort of iconic bellwether for public sentiment (which is reflected neither in its ratings or target demographic) I have to wonder just what they were attempting to get across to the audience and how they plan to handle the American political landscape in the future.
As Larry already pointed out, the cast, writers and producers of the show were unmistakably trying to treat the election of Donald Trump as something on par with both 9/11 and the Paris attacks. But they left one huge elephant standing in the room. Why? Daniel D’Addario has an opinion piece at Time where he explores this part of the question along a number of other prescient observations and questions.
After all, the tone throughout the episode—horror and disbelief that Trump won—went indulgently free from nourishment about what, exactly, about Trump’s win is worth mourning. And it was a garish mismatch with the tone the show set last November, when Donald Trump was just the leading contender for the Republican nomination and was invited to host, taking part in cute sketches that made him seem very well within the bounds of acceptability. It would perhaps be unfair to hold this against the show forever (after all, the cast and writers are not responsible for booking decisions) were the tone of the post-election show not doing quite so much in the way of elaborately telegraphed shock. It’s more than a little galling to watch comedians who helped Trump seem as fun, funny, and charming as he could this time last year express grave remorse at his win without even saying why it’s sad; after all, for a year, they’ve treated him as a figure of fun whom it’s a bit more trouble than it’s worth to treat as something other than Clinton’s equal and opposite. (It’s hard not to believe this is at least in part about access—after all, they might want to make an ask to Trump or some other Republican in future, and going too hard might not be seen fondly!)
A couple of points here. There is certainly a whiff of hypocrisy evident in the show’s decision to allow Trump to host and perform in skits last year when he was rising in the polls and a sure-fire ratings winner. (And they did get massive ratings from it. Or I should probably say yuge.) And while they no doubt were aware of the “risk” inherent in “normalizing” Donald Trump, business is business after all. But that doesn’t really take them out of their demographic sweet spot, either. Remember that they had Sarah Palin on the show more than once and while she held her own remarkably well and in my opinion came out the better for it, the show never let up on portraying her as the Wicked Witch of the Far Northwest.
But the real question (realizing this has been brought up before) is where was Trump? Even if Alec Baldwin had retired to his mansion to mourn and refused to take part, surely they could have found someone to put an orange wig on. Yes, they dumped Taran Killam last year before bringing in Baldwin for what they obviously felt would be a temporary assignment, but there are plenty of other comics on the staff and they don’t need to actually look like Trump to play the part. (How much resemblance was there between Chevy Chase and Gerald Ford?) If you’re going to craft your comedy around how awful the election winner is, shouldn’t you have him up there if for no other reason than to mock him?
This is the real symbolism behind not only the cold open with Fake Hillary playing a grand piano, but all of the skits. Everything was cooked up with a baked in assumption that the entire audience they were “sharing the experience with” was going to be in mourning. Now that’s not an unrealistic approach from inside their bubble. The base audience they carry these days most likely was in mourning. Yet even if they collectively had zero interest in reaching out to or at least entertaining the other half of the country, couldn’t the humor at least provide some context as to why the Trump victory was such an apocalyptic moment of national disaster?
Apparently not. No explanation was offered and, for much of their key audience, none was likely expected. It’s simply assumed that we all must agree that this was awful and the future of the country is mostly likely a picture of a nuclear wasteland. If Saturday Night Live is interested in actually expanding their audience and returning to relevance they might begin considering the fact that a full half of the nation thinks they are dead wrong and not being particularly clever about it.