Donald Trump Was a Short-Term Ratings Win But a Long-Term Loss for ‘SNL’ and America

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Donald Trump’s appearance on Saturday Night Live this weekend was a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying ratings — which is to say, satisfying network greed. In a way, this was the only appropriate outcome of a hosting gig for the self-styled politician whose popularity arises mostly from his (mostly inherited) wealth, his casual demagoguery, and his fourth-grade-level ability to leverage the term “loser” with alacrity whenever challenged.

The episode — marked by an anemic “Hotline Bling” parody, some insipid Twitter gags, and a chance for the presidential hopeful to joke about banging porn stars yet also condemn porn — was so weak that many idle observers on Twitter started speculating as to whether the writing staff had tanked it on purpose. Perhaps theirs was a form of passive protest, a complement to the real demonstration that raged outside 30 Rock?

That reaction wasn’t just progressives’ wishful thinking; even the New York Post felt prompted to ask, “Did Saturday Night Live purposely sabotage Trump?” in a review that called the episode “light on Trump — and also light on laughs.” Other reviews were equally, if not more, savage. The New York TimesJames Poniewozik noted that “any new viewers tuned in to see a joyless, unfunny show,” while Slate’s Willa Paskin felt the show’s very light pummeling of Trump’s racism made it seem more innocuous, writing “this is perfect for Trump, who gets to affably take his punches for being racist, which only makes his racism appear less virulent, a boon to him and his voters.” Not even Larry David could blunt this effect.

Ratings, on the other hand, were predictably high, besting those for any other host since Charles Barkley, back in 2012. How large a proportion of this record-setting audience was actively hate-watching (like everyone on my Twitter feed, minus those who were boycotting the episode) doesn’t matter when it comes to the network’s profits. Ultimately, the reason for the episode’s weak humor doesn’t really matter either: Whether the writers purposefully slacked off or The Donald was too aggressive about vetoing edgy or risqué material, the overall effect of the lack of wit and sharpness was enervating, not exciting.

Whereas Trump was a narcissistic entertainer being mocked for his narcissism the last time he hosted (and wasn’t funny), he’s now a politician on the national stage with a frightening following — and that’s a key distinction. In 2004, his followers weren’t punching people of color or expelling them from their rallies, or allegedly brutally beating others and citing Trump as their inspiration.

Scrolling through Twitter Saturday night revealed a fascinating divide. It certainly appeared as though regular SNL viewers were smacking their heads in amazement at the basic failure of sketches like the Italian dinner that Trump was supposedly live-tweeting, thereby hurting the performers’ feelings so badly they couldn’t continue. Yet a quick search revealed that actual Trump fans, the ones who keep his poll numbers aloft, appeared to be quite tickled in their funny-bones. The cultural schism in America is so deep, apparently, that we can’t even agree about what’s funny.

So, come Sunday morning, SNL‘s date with Trump felt like a bust for everything but ratings and revenue: cultural coherence, respect for American Latinos and other immigrant groups, the integrity of NBC and SNL, the integrity of the show’s cast and writers, Trump’s potential for crossover appeal as a character who is interesting and funny to watch, humanity as a whole…

Despite the quick infusion of Trump-loving viewers, I can’t help but think that Saturday Night Live’s fragile brand has taken a crucial hit. The educated audience that watches SNL regularly, Trump or no Trump, is disgusted. Those loyal viewers may never feel the same way about a show whose relevance and popularity were on the decline anyway, and the new viewers won’t stick around to see anyone besides their hero. Still, there’s a bit of poetry to all this. Debasement paired with greed seems like an appropriate theme for our current political moment — and for Trump himself, who stands for nothing if not the empty yet alluring promise of cash.