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Saturday Night Live will not save you

The show’s empty Donald Trump caricature misses what makes the real one so dangerous.

Alec Baldwin as President Donald Trump in Saturday Night Live’s November 23, 2019, cold open.
Alec Baldwin has played Donald Trump for way too long now.
Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images
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.

In the wake of the maddening, utterly incoherent first presidential debate of the 2020 general election — a debate that mostly consisted of President Donald Trump trying to yell louder than everybody around him — the most predictable of all takes emerged from the ether.

“I cannot wait,” said the take-havers, on Twitter and off, “to see what Saturday Night Live does with this!”

Here, for instance, is NBC News mainstay Andrea Mitchell:

This kind of response to a big news event is hardly new. The notion that Saturday Night Live will provide a kind of consensus view of what happened in the world of politics in the past week has been around almost as long as the program itself.

Chevy Chase’s bumbling Gerald Ford made America see the accomplished athlete as awkward and impotent. Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush made the 41st president seem like a prissy buffoon. Darrell Hammond’s skewering of Al Gore saying “lockbox” and sighing in the 2000 presidential debates was seen as a fatal blow to his campaign. And, Tina Fey’s turn as 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin made the former Alaska governor seem completely unqualified for public office.

Except ... do Saturday Night Live’s portrayals of these political figures make them seem a little more like TV characters who don’t really exist? Do those portrayals normalize their immense power or reduce them to walking personality tics in such a way that it becomes harder to see them for who they really are?

These questions have been heightened by the Trump era, when the firehose that is the president’s stream-of-consciousness expression of his innermost thoughts has made satire at once incredibly easy and incredibly difficult. If you want to make fun of the president, it’s not that hard. Just have a famous actor — Alec Baldwin, let’s say — pop up on TV and repeat some of the things the president has said in a big, brash New York accent, then have him pout a little bit as the audience roars its approval.

But this approach is also incredibly lazy, and it turns Trump into something vaguely approachable, a video game boss who can be defeated if we can just string together the magic combination of words that will cause him to explode in fury.

The “let’s make Trump angry!” mode of comedy isn’t exclusive to SNL. It is present, to some degree, in the late-night monologues of Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, and Seth Meyers — and it’s all over social media, perhaps most famously in a wildly popular series of Trump lip sync videos by comedian Sarah Cooper.

Reimagining Trump as a goon to be stomped on and defeated has its value. He is, after all, just a man. He won’t be the president forever, and will perhaps leave office as soon as January if enough people vote for former Vice President Joe Biden in November’s election. But that “perhaps” underlines just how complicated making fun of Trump really is — because if you don’t find a way to satirize not just Trump but Trumpism, you run the risk of normalizing what the man stands for while trying desperately to trigger him.

And that risk is exactly the one SNL has flirted with again and again throughout the Trump years.

Television normalizes everything, even presidents

One of the guiding philosophies of my approach to TV criticism is the idea that TV, by its very nature, can’t help but normalize whatever it depicts, because we become inured to what it shows us. (See also: the police drama.)

That’s why long-running TV shows tend to dramatically increase their stakes over time, the better to re-engage an audience that might have grown too used to the status quo. Otherwise, they simply settle into conflict-free bores where everybody is nice to each other.

Consider, as an example, the acclaimed drama Breaking Bad. Chemistry teacher Walter White begins cooking meth to ensure that his family will be provided for after his eventual death from terminal cancer — which he’s diagnosed with in the series pilot. Drawn into the criminal underworld, Walter first faces off with low-level drug dealers, then slowly begins to work his way up the food chain of Albuquerque lawbreakers. By the final season, he’s fighting Nazis and capitalism.

Breaking Bad is probably better than any show in TV history at pulling off a gradual heightening of dramatic stakes. You don’t really question the ways it goes from Walter trying to figure out what to do about one drug dealer he has tied up in his basement to Walter using a car key fob to trigger a trunk-mounted machine gun that will destroy his enemies. It feels like a natural progression, even though it’s patently ridiculous from the standpoint of what might “really” happen.

If Walter had spent the whole series facing off with low-level drug dealers, his crimes would have eventually come to feel downright normal. As he faced off with these low-level villains, viewers would have eventually felt bored or, worse, like he was an unquestionably good guy with unimpeachable motives. As Walter’s enemies grew in stature, the evils he committed to take them down grew in stature, too.

But if TV doesn’t take great pains to slowly change the story it’s telling, it runs the risk of just making everything it depicts start to seem ordinary, through the sheer power of repetition. And reality doesn’t come with a built-in, steady escalation of dramatic stakes.

To some degree, all presidents benefit from TV’s power to normalize — the more that Trump is on TV as president, the more we get “used” to him being our TV president, even those of us who despise him and his policies. You can’t avoid the president on the news or on your social media feeds, not entirely. And, this being reality, the president is not subject to the same kinds of dramatic stakes that slowly intensify, as we’d see on a scripted TV show.

But a show like Saturday Night Live inevitably turns the president into a character, which makes it uniquely ill-suited to the sorts of satire that might actually expose the politically powerful for who they really are. The more we see Alec Baldwin as Trump, the less power the caricature has (if it ever had any to begin with — I would say it was always empty posturing).

What’s more, SNL is bound by the reality we live in. Its Trump can’t precisely become captain of a starship, pursuing a great whale across the galaxy. Alec Baldwin’s fake president will be forever linked to the real one. And that means the show will forever struggle to say anything consequential about him at all.

The best political satire finds something beneath the surface. SNL too rarely figures out how to do that.

Think, really think, and try to remember an SNL political sketch from the last five years that you really adored. There’s only one I can think of for myself — Melissa McCarthy’s debut as former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer, which was buoyed by McCarthy’s talent as a sketch comedian and some really solid jokes and comedic bits.

But the fact that I described it to you as “Melissa McCarthy’s debut” shows just how empty the Trump era of SNL satire has been. The show’s approach to Trump has been one long parade of famous guest stars impersonating the various “cast members” of his administration and other Washington power players. Rather than allowing SNL’s talented cast to play, say, Dr. Anthony Fauci or Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Brad Pitt or Matt Damon gets the call. And so on and so on, right down to Jim Carrey signing on to play Joe Biden this fall and Maya Rudolph returning as Sen. Kamala Harris.

(In Carrey’s casting, at least, SNL might have something comedically potent. Carrey rose to fame on Fox’s sketch comedy series In Living Color and certainly knows how to be wildly funny within that format. Rudolph, of course, was an SNL cast member for many years and is an extremely funny performer, especially within the sketch comedy format.)

But the constant presence of celebrities further cements the weird idea of SNL as constantly firing its cannons at the Trump administration in an effective way. If everybody in Hollywood is on SNL, then SNL becomes Hollywood’s de facto response to Trump, and Trump’s broadsides right back (especially early on in his presidency) only serve to further entrench his popularity with his base.

“Trump is the first president or really politician even to kind of counter back at Saturday Night Live, to respond on Twitter. Everybody else embraces being made fun of. Even Sarah Palin, who they made fun of brutally, went on the show to engage with Tina Fey,” said Amy Becker, an associate professor of communication at Loyola University Maryland, whom I interviewed for my podcast Primetime in 2019. “I’ve looked at what that interaction means, and I have found actually that at least right after the election it certainly helped Trump because it made him seem more authentic to viewers because that’s his style.”

This improvement in the public’s opinion of a president whom SNL pillories is well-established. George W. Bush was similarly buoyed by Will Ferrell’s portrayal of him, which made him seem dumb but basically well-meaning.

“Will Ferrell’s impersonation of Bush 43 was so singular and became so popular, but it cut both ways because even though he used the word ‘strategery’ and some people thought he was making fun of the president, a lot of Democrats thought that Will had made W. the kind of guy that you want to just hang out with and have a beer,” James Miller, the co-author of Live from New York, the definitive SNL history, told me in 2019.

SNL, especially in the Trump era, has consistently mistaken flashy but over-obvious satire — satire that will win it plaudits among the pundit class for its bravery in taking on Trump by making fun of the most buffoonish things about him — for anything meaningful.

It’s possible I’m being unfair to a show that, by its very nature, is uneven, thanks to having exactly one week to pull each episode together. But the show is capable of incisive political satire. As overhyped as it was in terms of tanking Sarah Palin’s image with voters, Tina Fey’s portrayal of Palin was devastating at digging into just how oblivious she was.

And there have been a handful of genuinely thoughtful political sketches throughout the show’s history, including my favorite, in which Ronald Reagan’s folksy grandpa act is just cover for a ruthless mastermind, secretly controlling everything in the world, a comedic exploration of the Reagan administration’s portrayal of the 40th president as simultaneously all-knowing and completely checked out during the scandals that buffeted his second term.

Good political satire that responds to the tumult of the times is possible. Stephen Colbert’s Comedy Central show, The Colbert Report, somehow turned the George W. Bush administration into a serialized tale of an administration and a country nosediving straight into the ground, and Key & Peele could be merciless in dissecting Barack Obama’s lack of public anger, even when public anger was well-warranted.

But the Trump administration is so obviously cartoonish, while also working to achieve such obviously horrific ends, that it becomes all but impossible to make fun of via SNL’s usual techniques of ridiculousness and over-the-top impersonations.

Nonetheless, those techniques don’t match the times they are being used in. How do you write a comedic sketch about a blathering bully who’s also mostly avoided dealing with a pandemic that has killed 200,000 Americans, and hundreds of thousands more people around the world? If you’re Saturday Night Live, you mostly make fun of the way he looks and acts and talks and ignore everything else. Will this change in the show’s new season? Maybe. But I’m not holding my breath.

The hope that SNL might finally crystallize how everyone should feel about the Trump administration — and maybe make us laugh about it, to boot — isn’t really a fault of the show but, rather, the expectations some might hold for it. But after four years of weak, empty attempts, why do those expectations still exist?