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Donald Trump, Saturday Night Live, and the sad political theater of middlebrow comedy

The president’s feud with the middling sketch comedy show makes it seem more essential than it actually is.

Cecily Strong and Donald Trump
Remember when Donald Trump hosted Saturday Night Live? The show sure hopes you don’t.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

On Saturday night, my wife and I went to see a movie — a pretty normal Saturday night thing to do. But as we were sitting in the darkened theater, I kept having to resist the urge to look at my phone, because Saturday Night Live was unfolding on the East Coast (I live in Los Angeles), and I felt an intense guilt for not watching it live, because it might cause the president to fire his press secretary or start a war or something.

Then, a few hours later, when I checked in with some co-workers to see what had happened, I took half a step back and realized how crazy it is that Saturday Night Live and cable news channels have essentially become another branch of our government.

Or, as my friend and Atlantic critic David Sims put it:

I have never been a huge SNL fan, and in general, I’ve found the show’s satire of the Trump administration scattershot — either too broad to have any real teeth or obsessed with the wrong things. (That said, given how much Trump seems rattled by Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of him as a venal patsy for Vladimir Putin, I may not be giving the show enough credit.)

But what happens when not caring about SNL becomes, at best, an entertainment journalist’s abrogation of duty and, at worst, a subtly political act? In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, cries went out throughout the left not to “normalize” him, to “resist” his worst policies. But Trump has come to so thoroughly dominate American consciousness that just trying to go about your life as it was before is a kind of normalization of who he is and the policies he's pushing. Regardless of what you think about him, you’re stuck having the thought of him somewhere in your head every day.

Maybe this is a chance to learn something. Maybe I’m getting a tiny taste of the kind of dull, subconscious alarm bells those less privileged than me hear all of the time. Maybe that’s good.

But I also can’t escape the feeling that Trump’s messed-up relationship with SNL (and, by extension, everything) is now our messed-up relationship with SNL.

Saturday Night Live is an accidental — and not exactly fitting — leader of the resistance

Saturday Night Live wants to push back against Trump, I guess, but it must also confront the fact that it let Trump host in the middle of his campaign for president. It’s forever caught between its own desire to resist and its ultimate complicity. (The show even brought this up during Weekend Update, when Kate McKinnon’s Elizabeth Warren, pretending to “investigate” host Colin Jost, asked to read “a letter from about when Donald Trump hosted this show.”)

The show occasionally has great ideas — like hiring Melissa McCarthy to play press secretary Sean Spicer — and it boasts the terrific McKinnon, who’s now playing seemingly the entirety of Washington on a regular basis. (Her riff on Warren is already one of her better impressions.) But most of its jokes hit very obvious notes.

Take its seeming inability to figure out how to make fun of Kellyanne Conway, whom McKinnon has alternately portrayed as an increasingly horrified woman trying to rein in the president, or a crazy, fame-obsessed murderer. It’s as if SNL is unable to see the real woman, whose need to bludgeon everything that pops up in front of her with talking points and demonstrable falsities is genuinely, unnervingly hilarious, because to see the real her might require pretending all of this is really happening.

SNL is working through its feelings about the current state of America in real time, which is fine, because we all are. Not even a month into the Trump presidency, the show vacillates wildly between giddy highs that feel fueled by righteous rage and, more frequently, clunky lows that feel like the show knows every eye in the world is watching. No show can withstand that much pressure.

It’s become an accidental leader of the resistance to Trump, both because Trump decided SNL opposed him and because even those of us who are skeptical of SNL’s power to do anything more than make middling comedy at least know he’s paying attention to it.

But think about how fucked up that is. Regardless of what you think of Trump, consider how bizarre it is that so much of the press took time on Saturday night to watch the show and speculate on how the president would feel about it. Think about how weird it is to wait for the president of the United States, the most powerful man on Earth, to tweet his feelings on a sketch comedy show. Think about how horrifying it is that it’s rumored a man might lose his job because the president didn’t like said man being portrayed by a woman on said sketch comedy show.

There have been periods when SNL has vaulted into the political consciousness like this, but I don’t think it’s ever enjoyed such a sustained fervor as the one we’re seeing now. Yes, the show defined Gerald Ford as a bumbler when it debuted in 1975, but in the past several decades, we’ve largely grown wise to its tricks, with a few exceptions.

In the immediate wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, there was some question of how the show would return from the horror, and in the fall of 2008, it spent several weeks helping sink the reputation of then–vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. But outside of those two periods, it’s mostly remained a strained outlet for half-funny spins on the conventional wisdom.

The SNL versus Trump era, in contrast, is already several months old. How can any of this be normal? How can this continue for the rest of Trump’s presidency, especially when SNL is only on 20 weeks out of the year?

Trump seems as if he’s desperate to be liked. Why did he run for president, then?

Radio host Howard Stern, who knows the president as well as anyone (Christ, this reality), has opined that what Trump wants most is to be liked and accepted by the Hollywood establishment. As such, Trump’s grousing about SNL, a program that formerly had him on as a host and made gentle fun of him in the past, is of a piece with everything else he does. But good lord, you don’t run for president to be liked. You don’t even run for president if you want everybody to be forced to pretend to like you.

The further we get into the Trump era, the harder it becomes to shake the feeling that America is a bird, hurling itself at a window, over and over. We couldn’t see the window coming, and we didn’t know it was there, but now that we’ve found it, the only way past it is to go through it. Maybe the window breaks, and we end up a little bloodied but basically okay. But I’m guessing you know what happens to almost all birds that fly into windows.

Or, as Andrew Sullivan puts it:

One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all. The president of a free country may dominate the news cycle many days — but he is not omnipresent — and because we live under the rule of law, we can afford to turn the news off at times. A free society means being free of those who rule over you — to do the things you care about, your passions, your pastimes, your loves — to exult in that blessed space where politics doesn’t intervene. In that sense, it seems to me, we already live in a country with markedly less freedom than we did a month ago. It’s less like living in a democracy than being a child trapped in a house where there is an abusive and unpredictable father, who will brook no reason, respect no counter-argument, admit no error, and always, always up the ante until catastrophe inevitably strikes.

For those skeptical of lefty comedy (myself included), the standard line on liberals’ love of comedy that will hopefully convince non-liberals of their cause — the stuff routinely served up by John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and The Daily Show that offers facts alongside laughs — is that it mostly preaches to the choir and makes left-leaning folks feel good about the righteousness of their beliefs, while ignoring that most politics is a street fight, won through grueling, endless toil.

SNL isn’t that; not quite. Yes, the show is preaching to the choir. But a man who considered himself a member of that choir, someone who was laughing alongside everybody else, is now president, and he doesn’t like suddenly feeling like an outsider. Trump was a friend of SNL, and now he isn’t, and all of us get to spend Saturday nights wondering what happens next.

Donald Trump will still be president tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. Octavia Spencer is hosting SNL’s next new episode, on March 4, and he’ll still be president then.

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