You’ve probably seen the SNL parody of Trump’s first press conference. You’ve probably seen the bit in which a pretend reporter tells Alec Balwdin’s Trump that repealing Obamacare could kill people. You’ve probably sat back and listened to the response; ‘listen, sweetheart, I’m about to be president, we’re all going to die.’ You’ve probably felt a bit underwhelmed. The joke, you see, falls flat on its arse.
There’s the expected dose of canned laughter, Alec Baldwin continues his meandering Trump impression and you, the viewer, can’t do much more than sigh and dwell on the hollow feeling in the pit of your gut. The line is emblematic of exactly what’s wrong with SNL’s riffs on the Trump administration. It’s less an illustration of just how stupid Donald Trump is, and more a joke relayed directly from Alec Baldwin to the audience. Coming from the egotistical Trump’s mouth, the joke feels sort of egregious, incorrect, distinctly out of character, and it shatters the sketch’s narrative illusion. ‘This is not actually happening’ it tells you, ‘you’re watching a man pretending to be Donald Trump for the purposes of comedy, and you’re not even enjoying yourself, are you? You fat, gormless twat.’ At least, that’s what it tells me.
Whatever it tells you, though, that’s bad storytelling. And comedy, like everything, is reliant on good storytelling. It’s reliant on peaks and troughs, on subverting and living up to expectations, on amplifying the stakes or letting them simmer, on carefully managing understatement and overstatement, on showing not telling. SNL, or at least SNL’s takes on the Trump administration, seems to struggle with all that. Take, for example, the rest of that press conference sketch. It’s based, of course, around Trump’s actual press conference, and so it attempts to cover all of the major issues. We get questions about Russia manipulating the election results, another about the whole ‘golden shower’ debacle, we get questions about Obamacare, we get to hear Alec Baldwin call CNN ‘fake news’ and Buzzfeed a ‘failing pile of garbage’. We get a neat, comically themed round up of all the latest news. But that’s largely all we get. The sketch attempts to cover all of the topics in turn, to unveil the fundamental ludicrousness of each as they emerge. The mention of a ‘pee party’ prompts a barrage of bad piss puns and a topless Vladimir Putin poses as an American journalist to blackmail Trump from amongst the reporters. But all of it, like that initial one liner, falls a little bit flat.
What the show fails to do is to pick one of those topics, and to ram it into the centre of their sketch, to decide to really buckle down on hammering home the innate absurdity of one of those subjects. Why not, for example, have some kind of interplay between Vladimir Putin and Trump? An irritable Russian statesman advising Trump through some sort of earpiece, getting more and more frustrated as the bumbling Trump stumbles on the verge of giving away their relationship? That might have some kind of arch, an ascending graph of absurdity, frustration, leading to a definable climax. We what have instead is a flat-line. A comic death march through unyielding wastes, we have the monotony of a slideshow. We are presented with a series of things which we know actually happened (well, largely), and we’re expected to laugh nonetheless.
Or take a more recent sketch, one called ‘Trump People’s Court’. This is a little more overtly fictional, it’s got a little more room for conjecture because it’s not tying itself to anything that, you know, actually happened. The idea is that Donald Trump has dragged a handful of federal judges to The People’s Court from telly to dispute them overruling his travel ban. Obviously, it’s not too original. The idea of ostensibly highbrow politics colliding with the low-brow idiocy of TV courtroom reality shows, is a well-cooked comic archetype. Nonetheless, though, you have a little more control over the narrative beats, over the nature and the absurdity of the setting. For all of that, though, the sketch suffers from all of the same problems, from all the same narrative aimlessness. Vladimir Putin turns up in the last chunk only to leave thirty seconds later, one line delivered and joking high-fives distributed. He contributes nothing to the wider narrative tapestry, lends nothing to the stakes. He’s a non-sequitur, a thing contributed for his own sake.
And yet what’s remained consistently strange to me has been the response SNL has mustered. Of course satire becomes more important when the political stakes are high, when America stands teetering on the edge of some form of fascist annihilation, but SNL has done more than just draw ratings, its drawn critical praise. Vanity Fair called it ‘some of the most piercing comedic satire going’ and Indiewire claimed Melissa McCarthy’s second cold open as Sean Spicer was ‘worth watching a billion times.’ It seems odd, confused, somehow. I mean, certainly, Baldwin and McCarthy pull of their roles with a respectable sort of gusto, but they rarely, in fact they never, compensate for bad writing. Because, bloody hell, who calls piss puns ‘piercing satire’? Pissing isn’t ‘piercing’, it’s loud, brash, cure-all toilet humour.
Maybe it’s just that we want to see our fears echoed back at us, to understand that someone else is just as baffled as we are, to know that it’s the world going insane, not any one of us. Saturday Night Live, for all of its myriad faults, strips the Trump administration down to its fundamental absurdity; it attempts to reveal to us all of the man’s ugly, belligerent, silly stupidity. It is, in a strange way, comforting in its simplicity, it never presents new ideas or new dangers. Watching it, we are allowed to toy, momentarily, with the idea that none of this is actually happening, that the idea of Donald Trump actually being president is itself a shitty SNL sketch.
Because, most of the time, that’s the joke. The sole narrative constant in these sketches is the continued stupidity of the central figure, and the excellence of the central caricature, Sean Spicer’s swaggering school yard bully-boy belligerence, on Trump’s strange wrinkled jowls. The real joke here is the Trump administration itself.
Taken for what it is, that has a kind of value; it’s comfort food comedy, a big duvet in which to wrap yourself up and forget everything else. It’s hard to expect SNL to do anything more than that, too; it’s operating in a very difficult political climate, attempting to parody a man who has not only rewritten the rules of politics but who has rewritten the rules of political comedy. How do you point out the absurdity in something when that absurdity is self-evident? How do you undermine the pretensions of a president who talks about sexually assaulting women? It isn’t easy, it isn’t like saying ‘Michael Gove looks like what would come out if you squeezed a decade old pimple’ because there’s nothing to undermine, no pretences to drag down.
Still, though, you have to wonder how much change this can really enact. It seems emblematic of liberal comedy’s flailing attempts to adjust to Trump’s new precedent. You have to wonder, as Melissa McCarthy attacks a pretend reporter with a leafblower and laughter rings out hollow from your TV screen, if this is the best we’ve got.