After years of declining ratings and lackluster reviews, Saturday Night Live has suddenly become appointment television at a time when fewer and fewer people watch live TV at all. The show is clearly reveling in this opportunity to lampoon our offender-in-chief, and that sense of impish delight was on full display on this weekend’s episode, hosted by “President Trump” himself, Alec Baldwin.
On Saturday’s episode — which earned SNL’s highest overnight ratings since 2011 — Baldwin’s first and only appearance as Trump didn’t come until about 45 minutes in, a refreshing contrast to the show’s recent habit of putting Baldwin-as-Trump right in the cold open. But the episode only confirmed my feeling that SNL should lay off the Trump impressions.
Among many others, Vox’s Ezra Klein recently pointed out that the real threat to democracy in America isn’t Trump, but the congressional Republicans who have all but sworn to defend or at least ignore the president’s daily transgressions so long as he puts his signature on their legislation. As the people enabling the swift disintegration of our democratic institutions, they should be the target of our ire — and of an American comedy institution like SNL.
And let’s just get this out of the way: Baldwin is a pretty weak Trump. The voice isn’t nearly obnoxious enough, the hand gestures aren’t quite right, and what in god’s name is going on with his mouth?! New York-based comedian Anthony Atamanuik had been touring a much sharper and funnier Trump throughout the campaign, often appearing alongside James Adomian as Bernie Sanders.
While SNL sporadically invites guest stars to play specific characters — like Melissa McCarthy, who returned this week to play White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer — I’m not holding my breath for Lorne Michaels to invite Atamanuik on the show. He isn’t a movie star like McCarthy and Baldwin, and it’s unthinkable that Michaels would jettison Baldwin, who holds the record for the most times hosting the show — 17 since 1990, including Saturday’s episode — in favor of a lesser-known comic.
But to my mind, that’s exactly why it would be so satisfying to see him on SNL as Trump — and why we should be seeing less of Baldwin right now. Making Baldwin’s Trump the incessant focus of SNL risks turning the show into a high-visibility spat between old rich white dudes volleying insults at each other through various media platforms — as if the issue here is which old rich white dude gets to hold the nation’s attention, and not, you know, the fate of the nation itself.
Yes, SNL has been in fine form in recent weeks, but as many have pointed out, its takedowns of Trump would be easier to applaud had the show not invited him to host in November 2015. A better way to atone for that sin would be to largely ignore the man who craves unending attention, and focus instead on the people enabling him. When Kate McKinnon does her sorority-girl-inflected version of Kellyanne Conway — or even better, when the noted lesbian dons a white wig to play Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as she did on Saturday — the show really hits its stride. (McKinnon also whipped out her pitch-perfect Elizabeth Warren this weekend; she really is SNL‘s MVP.) Let’s have someone step up and play Jason Chaffetz, or Mitch McConnell, or Paul Ryan. If it weren’t for those politicians’ suicide pact with Trump, the president would’ve been impeached by now.
In our zeal to watch Trump get trolled by a sketch show week after week, we seem to have forgotten that Baldwin isn’t exactly an avatar of liberty and justice for all. In December, Jezebel published a list of “Men Who Got Away With It in 2016,” which, of course, included Trump. But Baldwin is a prime example of a man who’s “gotten away with it,” time and time again. Remember when he was caught on tape calling his 11-year-old daughter a “rude, thoughtless pig” — and subsequently wrote and toured a book about fatherhood? Remember when his MSNBC show was suspended (not cancelled) after he called a paparazzo a “cocksucking fag”? (Incidentally, remember when he bid farewell to “public life” on the cover of New York magazine — three years ago? That was pretty funny.)
There was a joke in Baldwin’s monologue on Saturday that underscored the ickiness of the situation. Boasting about his hosting record, he quipped, “That’s an achievement that only comes if you’re a comedy icon like Steve Martin, or an enduring character actor like John Goodman, or if you were lucky enough to be in the car in 1987 when Lorne Michaels ran over a man selling oranges on the side of the road.” The implication is that a man who had such dirt on the powerful Michaels would get to host the show as many times as he wanted, regardless of merit. Is that not a particularly ill-timed joke, particularly coming from someone like Baldwin — that it’s hilarious when men get away with criminal activity because they’ve pledged to protect each other no matter who gets hurt? (By the way, you know who’s hosted SNL fewer than 17 times? Any black woman.)
Parading Baldwin around as if he’s some kind of liberal hero is not a good look for a show that’s positioned itself as a gimlet-eyed antagonist to Trump’s racist, misogynist, xenophobic administration. It’s not “brave” to put a man with very little at personal risk in the blond wig and orange makeup of our 45th president; Baldwin looked pretty pleased with himself in his official SNL photo, wearing a red hat that declared, “Make America Laugh Again.” The image felt like an acknowledgment that we were watching a spat between two wealthy, powerful men. The choice to have Baldwin play Trump in the first place seems like less of a creative decision than a business one, meant to leverage the actor’s profile — which has been boosted, no doubt, by those very controversies that make Baldwin an unlikely champion for the progressive left.
The sharpest political sketch SNL has aired throughout the course of the election and its aftermath was one that didn’t feature any politicians or celebrities at all. In the recurring sketch “Black Jeopardy,” on the October 22, 2016 episode, Tom Hanks plays Doug, a stereotypical white Southern “redneck” in a MAGA hat who, turns out, has a lot in common with the two black women he’s competing against: They all play the lottery; they’re all suspicious of the government; they all love Tyler Perry movies. (“If I can laugh and pray in 90 minutes,” Doug says, “that is money well spent.”) It’s all good until they arrive at the Final Jeopardy category: “Lives That Matter.” “Well,” the host, played by Kenan Thompson, says. “It was good while it lasted, Doug.”
When McCarthy made her first appearance as Spicer on February 4, Politico reported that Trump was less upset by the suggestion that his press secretary is incompetent than by the fact that he was played by a woman. A flood of subversive casting suggestions burst forth on social media: Rosie O’Donnell as Steve Bannon! Ellen DeGeneres as Mike Pence! It’s all in good fun, but the clamor surrounding SNL’s coverage of the Trump administration threatens to obscure the point of the parody. Saturday’s episode included a bit in which Leslie Jones suits up and begs Michaels for the chance to play the president; maybe the show just wanted an excuse to display Jones as Trump, but the sketch felt self-indulgent, a waste of airtime that could’ve been given over to smarter satire about the administration or even — gasp — the American people themselves.