The Donald Trump–hosted Saturday Night Live wasn't a secret triumph. It wasn't a rolling catastrophe, rocked by protest and anger, as some thought it might become. It was mostly just ... kinda there — bland and boring and toothless.
All the anger surrounding the episode might have fallen away if it were funny, but it simply wasn't. The sketches fell dead. The actors seemed checked out. Trump has clearly not been taking comedy classes in between campaign appearances.
In many ways, this is the worst possible outcome for everybody but NBC — which will likely see huge ratings thanks to curious viewers who dropped in for the episode. All told, SNL endured weeks of protest, culminating in threats of boycotts, for one of its weakest outings in ages (and this is a show that's had plenty of weak outings). If Trump sees some sort of polling boost as a result, it will be truly inexplicable. He didn't seem funny or approachable or even ornery. He mostly seemed stiff.
Funny moments were few and far between
SNL has been hosted by politicians and candidates before, and as with any host who doesn't have acting as a first vocation, the series usually tries to play off an established persona, or to minimize the politician's involvement in individual sketches. It's often a chance for SNL's main players to have some fun.
That wasn't really the case with the Trump-hosted episode. After an amusing opening sketch about the recent Democratic candidate forum, featuring the return of Larry David as Bernie Sanders, the episode quickly settled into a torpor, where sketches seemed at once unwilling to satirize the host or celebrate him.
The best the episode could offer was a kind of "satirization through celebration," as in an early sketch where a Donald Trump–ruled America was so great and had solved so many of its problems that it quickly became ridiculous, before Trump stated that the sketch's vision of the US in 2018 was a pale imitation of what the country would actually be like if he were elected. Sure.
SNL can sometimes get away with satirizing its hosts by leaning into the things they like most about themselves so heavily that the overall effect is to ridicule them. That's certainly possible to do with Trump's more-than-healthy ego. But the lackluster, non-energetic episode only seemed to come alive in the pretaped segments, which tended to only feature Trump in quick bit parts (if at all).
All of this might have worked if Trump were a hosting savant, but he missed the mark too.
Donald Trump only wants to play two things: himself or people in the music industry
Trump said in an interview with Fox News's Bill O'Reilly that he had vetoed a number of sketches because he didn't think they would play well in Iowa. As quoted by Deadline, he said:
We sit down and we look at like 30 — they have all these writers….They have 100 writers. I walk into the room, there are 100 — and they’re all about 17 years old, OK? They’re all young and all up in your face. But they come up with many, many skits and you pick the ones you think you like.
If that's the case, then Trump must harbor secret dreams of joining the music industry. His one genuinely amusing moment came when he danced to Drake's hit song "Hotline Bling" (in a pretaped segment making fun of the rapper's ridiculous dance moves); in other sketches he played a laser-harp musician and a producer for a cheesy "record your own demo" business called StarTraxxx.
Other than that, Trump was largely absent from the night's sketches (likely because his campaign schedule precluded him from having as much rehearsal time as hosts usually have), or he played himself. SNL most often had him come in for one or two lines — occasionally at the very end of a sketch — then quickly shuttled him off. The evening's (fairly amusing) final sketch, for instance, involved two porn stars who kept mispronouncing his name as "Donald Tramp" and ended with Trump hurriedly entering to say he didn't approve of anything in that message.
Sometimes, when SNL needs to minimize a host, it manages to create a solid episode anyway. But that decidedly wasn't the case here.
The regular cast was fun in fits and starts
The show's regulars had a few funny moments, but for the most part, their sketches fell flat. A lengthy segment in which Trump "live-tweeted" his disgust with the various cast members was excruciatingly bad, taking up lots of time and killing all momentum. Indeed, the funniest thing about it might have been the tweet Trump actually sent shortly before it began.
I am at the Saturday Night Live Studio - electricity all over the place. We will be doing a "tweeting" skit, so stay tuned!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 8, 2015
There were some good jokes in "Weekend Update," as there usually are, especially when it came to Bobby Moynihan's Drunk Uncle character, who proved to be a massive fan of Trump.
And there were a handful of other good gags in sketches that didn't involve Trump. David continues to be a delight as Sanders — this week, he said that instead of taking bridges or tunnels, he simply kayaks across rivers, so terrified is he of America's crumbling infrastructure — and Kate McKinnon's Hillary Clinton is never not funny. Meanwhile, the Drake skit had only one joke (Drake dances like awkward white dudes you know! Even Donald Trump!) but executed it skillfully.
But "Weekend Update" underlined just how hamstrung SNL was by this whole situation. Many of its jokes came at the expense of several of Trump's chief political rivals, including Jeb Bush and Ben Carson. In and of themselves, these were the sorts of things SNL would typically mock — but with a man who's frequently led the polls for the Republican nomination standing right there, it only underlined just how much the show inviting him to host felt like tacit support.
And that's led to lots of controversy for the program.
SNL inviting Trump to host caused immediate controversy — and a fair amount of confusion
When SNL first announced that Trump would host, it had been four months since he had declared his candidacy for president. During his official announcement, Trump said:
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they’re telling us what we’re getting.
These statements caused major fallout — including with Trump's former employers at NBC, which airs SNL. In their wake, NBC performed damage control. It released a statement pledging to end "its business relationship with Mr. Trump," as a direct result of his "recent derogatory statements ... regarding immigrants."
It dropped the broadcast of the 2015 Miss Universe pageant and released Trump from his Apprentice contract. For his part, Trump insists that NBC couldn't have cut ties with him, because he cut ties with it. Either way, though, Trump's relationship with the network seemed broken beyond repair — and then SNL announced that he would not only be appearing on the show, but hosting it.
Reactions were swift and fierce. The National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts asked SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels to reconsider, saying that "allowing Trump to host SNL [would] legitimize and validate his anti-Latino comments."
Petitions calling for SNL to #DumpTrump circulated far and wide, accruing hundreds of thousands of signatures. Eva Longoria called for a boycott. The PAC Deport Racism said it would give $5,000 to whomever interrupted the live broadcast by calling Trump a racist. (The show got out in front of that by having Larry David do so during Trump's opening monologue, which you can watch above.)
John Leguizamo said that he will never watch SNL again, and he wasn't the only one.
Protests also took place outside of Rockefeller Center throughout Saturday.
Trump had hosted SNL once before, but that was in 2004, when his reality show The Apprentice was one of the biggest shows on television. At that time, Trump was hosting as a larger-than-life-reality show host, a marble-mouthed braggart who dismissed foes with a quick jab of the hand and a curt, "You're fired." As he said to open his monologue in that show:
It's great to be here at Saturday Night Live. But I'll be completely honest: it's even better for Saturday Night Live that I'm here.
That kind of braggadocio is expected from a reality show star. But the stakes and expectations for a political candidate appearing on a comedy show are far different from those for a reality show character.
Plus, by having Trump host, SNL may have also fallen afoul of an FCC regulation called the "equal-time rule."
Broadcast stations are supposed to offer political candidates completely equal time on their air
The equal-time rule is an FCC guideline that says broadcast stations are supposed to give equal time to all candidates in an election. If your local ABC affiliate allows one mayoral candidate to present an on-air op-ed, it should allow any other candidates to do so as well.
By and large, the equal-time rule doesn't usually apply to short appearances on talk shows or entertainment programs, which is why Jimmy Fallon or Stephen Colbert can have the presidential frontrunners on their talk shows without being forced to have every single one of the candidates join them. Hillary Clinton, for instance, could appear in a sketch in an earlier episode of SNL this season without Bernie Sanders or Martin O'Malley batting an eye.
Politicians don't generally complain about this sort of thing. They conceivably could, but filing a complaint to cover all stations that aired the Clinton episode of SNL would be a hassle and might make her opponents seem like poor sports.
But a candidate appearing in one single sketch is a far cry from a candidate hosting a whole episode. Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, told Variety that she wondered if Trump's hosting gig crossed a "Maginot line" in terms of taking up too much time. She said:
The amount of time he will be on screen will be substantively different than a cameo. And given the dynamics of the race, where they are trying to humanize him and show that he is not just a bloviator, it is incredibly politically valuable to him.
Although in the end, maybe it wasn't.
Ultimately, this was a forgettable episode of television
For Trump's political opponents, a boring episode of SNL might be the best possible outcome, all things considered. If the episode had exploded in controversy, with heckling and booing, that would have dominated headlines. If Trump had been unexpectedly great at sketch comedy, it could have humanized him even more. Instead, the episode was a dud, and it's unlikely we'll be talking about it when Monday morning rolls around.
But Trump's hosting has still prompted interesting and important conversations about late night's role in holding candidates' feet to the fire. As more and more broadcast journalism either slides into irrelevancy or gives in to horse-race campaign coverage that doesn't offer up substantive policy discussion, late-night comedy has slowly but surely become the way lots of Americans hope to see political candidates kept honest, even if that's a weird burden to place on a bunch of people who are, after all, only comedians.
In the eyes of lots of viewers, SNL's responsibility when featuring Trump was either to utterly roast him or to build him up as the right man for the job of president. In a way, turning out such a boring episode acts as a political statement in and of itself. Stop asking us to rip these people to shreds or make them seem human, SNL seems to say. We're making comedy over here.