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Courtesy of NBC

April 22, 2019

GUEST ROOM | ‘SNL’ Is Terrible Political Comedy for Our Terrible Politics

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It is often remarked that Saturday Night Live is no less than an American institution, and I’d agree. In its four-and-a-half decades on the air, SNL has eviscerated, pummeled, beclowned, besmirched and besmeared everyone from Jimmy Carter to Jimmy Fallon. Its cast is world-renowned and its sketch-comedy clips are legendary. SNL is the satirical voice of the urban-elite consensus, at once snarky and subversive.

And yet SNL’s political voice is in shambles, rendered toothless by the farcical politics of the Trump era. The show stumbles on week after week with bad impressions, tiresome tropes and bizarre sketches that confuse more often than they amuse.

Take “Weekend Update,” SNL’s weekly news recap bit hosted by Colin Jost and Michael Che. The once-fresh segment has been wrung dry by Seth Meyers’ Late Night with Seth Meyers. Meyers, a former “Weekend Update” host, took the news recap format over to Late Night, where he regurgitates the same dull drivel about Donald Trump’s small hands and crazed ramblings four nights a week. Any minuscule flecks of comedic potential have, by Saturday night, been snatched up by Meyers’ show — or Trevor Noah’s, or Stephen Colbert’s, or Jimmy Kimmel’s — leaving nothing left for Jost and Che.

In one sense, Jost and Che are just on the losing end of a hopeless supply-and-demand problem, trying to keep pace with an enormous array of nightly political-comedy shows with a once-weekly platform. But in a larger sense, Jost and Che are grappling with the same fundamental plight as every other political-comedy show: How does one parody a shameless, gormless, self-parodic Trump?

Various shows have offered different answers. John Oliver mostly ignores Trump, Bill Maher just gets really mad at Republicans, Samantha Bee concocts increasingly elaborate, often meaningless, insults. But “Weekend Update” has no answer. With metronomic regularity, they follow the same basic formula — limp insults, halfhearted rants and lifeless zingers. Tethered to the structure Meyers left them, Jost and Che have failed to innovate and show no signs of one day doing so.

But focusing only on “Weekend Update” would be to miss the forest for the deer droppings. The bulk of SNL’s 90-minute runtime is made up of sketches — some political, others not. These have long been hit or miss. Even still, a steep deterioration in SNL’s political sketches is evident from the get-go, in the show’s traditional cold open segment.

Most cold opens begin with Alec Baldwin’s bad impression of an oafish, juvenile Trump — not inaccurate per se, but lacking in any tact or comedic deftness whatsoever. Baldwin’s schtick is to dial up the absurdity on whatever Trump just did. But this is a president who has repeatedly called for federal investigations into SNL for “collusion.” It is impossible to compete with that level of raw, real-life surreality.

The other political sketches aren’t much better. Last Saturday’s SNL featured a particularly bad one, involving Julian Assange, Lori Loughlin and Michael Avenatti dryly exchanging quips about their crimes — conspiracy to hack government computers, college admissions fraud and financial fraud, respectively. It seemed more a joke-laden headline list than a full-fledged attempt at satire.

There are, of course, occasional bright spots, such as a skit last month ribbing Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) for getting curt with climate-activist children. But by and large, the show’s attempts at satirizing anyone or anything but Trump are either obtuse (e.g., inexplicably describing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as “drunk on my own power”), find their way back to Trump (e.g., the show’s Bush-was-bad-too sketch) or both (e.g., portraying Jeff Bezos’ choice to locate Amazon HQ2 in New York City as somehow trolling Trump).

But the crown jewel of terrible political sketches, the most grating of an already abysmal bunch, is surely the show’s Robert Mueller-themed parody of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” Set aside for a moment the cringe-inducing lyrics and mediocre singing. The sketch’s message — imploring a 74-year-old spook, “you better prove that Trump colluded … ’cause our only other option’s a coup” — embodies the cultural role SNL has embraced.

The show’s objective is no longer to highlight absurdity or to expose hypocrisy, as is the goal of most political comedy. Nor is it to provide light comic relief. Trump’s absurd, hypocritical, comic persona already provides all three in abundance.

SNL is instead offering its neurotic audience sugar rushes of political affirmation. Liberal urbanites hopped up on a few too many insane Trump tweets delight in watching SNL’s cast of culture-setters go after the president, and the cast of SNL delights in the cultural clout they are undeservedly given.

As American institutions are strained by Trump’s norm-shredding presidency, some will stand strong while others will give out. SNL exemplifies the latter. Once a fixture of American political culture, the show now peddles cheap political catharsis for liberals either too aggrieved by Trump to demand effective satire, or too deadened by him to care.

Ethan Wu is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He currently serves as the opinion editor on The Sun’s editorial board. He can be reached at editor-opinion@cornellsun.com.