Politics these days are making it hard for satire. Reality has hired all the good writers.
I would like to be in the writers’ room for Actual Political Events, which are consistently edgier and more entertaining than any parody of them manages to be. Consider last week, where Ben Carson literally spent several days insisting that, no, he had in fact attacked his mother with a hammer. Or the past several months, during which Donald Trump(?!!?) has been the GOP front-runner for president. Consider this video of Jeb(!) Bush caressing a moose.
Or consider this weekend, when Donald Trump hosted “Saturday Night Live.” Top-tier GOP candidate Donald Trump! That’s a funnier joke than anything else in the episode.
Reality is bringing its A-game. If anything, it is a little too on-the-nose.
At first blush, having Trump play a parody version of himself on “SNL” seems like a no-brainer: He has been playing a parody version of himself everywhere for his entire life.
But this actually gives him a kind of home-court advantage.
The big problem with the Donald’s appearance is that he is many jokes and not all of them are equally funny. The episode did not do a good job of separating them. He is a shameless self-promoter with distinctive hair and a knack for Twitter insults. He is also appealing to voters’ baser instincts with hateful xenophobia.
If Donald Trump were played by someone else who did not have to go home and continue to be Donald Trump, he would be the premier political satirist of our era. He has managed to show up at the GOP debates, insult Rand Paul’s hair, make sexist remarks about Megyn Kelly and Rosie O’Donnell, and criticize the super-PAC-funded, big-money-driven campaigns. He retweets tweets about himself. Frank Rich was right that his campaign works best if considered as satire — “In the short time since Trump declared his candidacy, he has performed a public service by exposing, however crudely and at times inadvertently, the posturings of both the Republicans and the Democrats and the foolishness and obsolescence of much of the political culture they share. He is, as many say, making a mockery of the entire political process with his bull-in-a-china-shop antics. But the mockery in this case may be overdue, highly warranted, and ultimately a spur to reform …” These are the triumphs of a joke campaign, designed to point out how broken the system is.
If the system is broken, why not vote for a joke candidate? Whoops, “outsider candidate.” After all, you’re only a joke until people start supporting you.
Trump is the greatest joke campaign of our era. His reality TV experience has fitted him perfectly for our 24/7 always-on coverage. He is great fun to watch, for a limited value of fun: greater than any other GOP candidate but less fun than an actual entertainer. But “Stephen Colbert” drew the line at emitting racist dog-whistles. “Donald Trump” does not. His parody is bone-deep and ugly. And he never breaks character.
Trump appearing at a regular GOP debate and just debating in his normal style are far more subversive than anything that happened on “SNL,” where he was dressed in leather and called “Gene Breads.” (This is a funny name, but I’m just not sure it was worth having him host a whole episode.)
Watching Donald Trump host “SNL,” you kept wondering whom the joke was on. It is possible for “SNL” to still get a jab in against a candidate while he or she is on the show. When Hillary Clinton appeared briefly in a sketch as a bartender, there was a genuine moment between her bartender, Val, and Kate McKinnon’s “Hillary”:
Val (Clinton): It really is great how long you supported gay marriage.
Clinton (McKinnon): Yes. I could have supported it sooner.
Val (Clinton): Well you did it pretty soon.
Clinton (McKinnon): It could have been sooner.
But Trump’s appearance mostly served to inoculate him against criticism. “The joke is that Trump is a joke, but Trump is here joking with us, so if he’s in on the joke, is he the joke or is America the joke?” is a note I typed to myself at 1 in the morning after tearing out half my hair. It was a Mobius strip of people insisting they were in on the joke. And in the process, the scary things about Trump got swept aside. The closest “SNL” came was Bobby Moynihan’s drunk uncle — but Trump himself was safely off-screen. Larry David’s heckle was met with a shrug.
Instead, “SNL” illustrated, in real time, the difficulty of parodying a candidate who is himself a better parody than anything you could come up with.
Here is a sketch where Donald Trump is running for president by making vague, impossible promises. Wait, no, that’s just reality. Here is a sketch where the “SNL” cast will do a sketch, and Donald Trump will tweet mean things about it, and we will — show his tweets? Are we sure this is a sketch? Here is a sketch where Donald Trump is hosting an episode of “SNL” — no, that can’t be a sketch. That’s just the premise of this evening. It was enough to make you find Leonardo DiCaprio and go lie down next to a train, in the hopes that you would escape what was clearly dream limbo.
Here is a sketch that is making fun of adult film stars and endorsing Donald Trump, because we can all agree that this is the definition of punching up.
“I don’t want to be in this sketch anymore,” Vanessa Bayer said, while dressed as a young accordion player, as Donald Trump tweeted dismissively. That is how I feel about this whole election.
Was “SNL” trying to show that we are all in a terrible sketch called “Reality”? Was it single-handedly trying to give us Donald Trump fatigue? (If you thought that “SNL” episode was Not As Fun As Anyone Said It Would Be, just picture a Trump presidency!) “SNL” is serious enough about making political commentary that it actually WATCHED the Rachel Maddow Democratic candidate forum on Friday. So it’s not that “SNL” is not trying.
But how can it compete? Whoever is writing the news has gotten all the good writers. They are the ones who put Donald Trump into the race in the first place.