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Saturday Night Live takes on Trump, Franken, and sexual harassment in an awkward episode

SNL mostly dodged its longtime writer Al Franken, and seemed tired of its own sexual harassment jokes.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Saturday Night Live continued its recent focus on the #MeToo movement Saturday night, taking a multifaceted look at the fight to root out habitual sexual harassers in Hollywood and beyond throughout an uneven episode.

The show kicked off with a sketch featuring Kenan Thompson as a mall Santa confronted by a very woke group of kids:

"Can you tell me what Al Franken did?" asked one kid to kick off the night. It was an evening of recurring references to the downfall of Sen. Franken — a former SNL star and writer — that mainly acknowledged the elephant in the room was, indeed, there, before quickly changing the subject.

Thompson’s Santa found himself battling a number of piercing questions from observant children. When one child brought up the naughty list, he quipped, "It's not really a list; it's more of a registry."

"Is President Trump on the naughty list?" countered one girl.

"Nineteen accusers; Google it," responded an elf played by Kate McKinnon.

Other questions posed by the children included references to kneeling NFL teams, the opioid epidemic, and Trump’s recent attempt to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. “I want ... an embassy that's still at Tel Aviv,” one kid opined.

Still, the focus was squarely on sexual harassment. “What toy would you like for Christmas?” Thompson’s Santa asked at one point.

"You mean a toy like the one Matt Lauer gave to his co-worker?" responded the kid, drawing the biggest laugh of the evening.

"We seem to have lost all perspective on what's naughty or nice," McKinnon’s elf said to sum up the skit. But SNL’s approach to the topic of sexual harassment in the episode was to throw multiple perspectives into the mix to see what stuck. It didn’t always work.

One skit featured host James Franco as a corporate harasser and Thompson as “Charlie,” a friendly old man whose perpetual lecherous qualities had long been brushed off and overlooked by his workplace as “just Charlie being Charlie.” The point that cultural contexts influence how we react and respond to harassment was made, but the sketch just wasn’t very funny.

The show had better luck with “Weekend Update,” which had more to say about Franken and the wave of sexual harassment scandals hitting Washington.

"For now, a government shutdown is just when a woman tells a senator to pull his pants back up," joked Colin Jost.

Michael Che and Jost contrasted the Democrats’ ousting of Al Franken after eight women accused him of sexual harassment to the Republican Party’s support of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore after his denial of multiple allegations of sexual assault.

“Trump also endorsed Roy Moore this week, saying, ‘Go get ’em, Roy,’” Jost noted. “Come on, man! When you are endorsing an accused child molester, you can't say, ‘Go get 'em.’ This isn't Pedophile Pokémon.

“By the way,” he added, “‘Go get 'em, Roy’ is also what Roy Moore whispers to himself right before he walks into a Hot Topic.”

Cecily Strong showed up as her recurring character Cathy Anne to blast the idea that Democrats’ rejection of Franken would make a lasting impact — or serve as an example to Alabama voters who currently support Moore. “The voters in Alabama don't give a flying foot about Al Franco,” she said, misnaming Franken.

Still, SNL’s longstanding association with Franken meant that its jokes at the Democrats’ expense felt a bit more pointed than typical. The section was notable for its subtly abrasive tone in the middle of a lackluster evening where many jokes didn’t quite land, and where most of the sexual harassment jokes were more tired than on point.

Case in point: “The fires are the worst things spreading in LA since Harvey Weinstein's bathrobe," Che quipped to cap off the news roundup. The audience groaned audibly.

As 2017 winds down, SNL increasingly seems to be mired down by just how many controversies there are to cover. In between the political jokes, Franco as host had little to do, and skits that should have been crowd pleasers — like Franco’s attempt to wrap holiday gifts devolving into a blood-spurting horror movie scene, and Che’s stint undercover as “white Gretchen” — mostly missed the mark in that indefinable way that bespeaks a live show exhausted by a very long year.

Cheer up, SNL fans: The new year is just around the corner — hopefully bringing fresher jokes with it. (Hell, we’ll even settle for a Papyrus redux.)