Might their encounter become a “Saturday Night Live” sketch? By leaking White House-recorded video of the exchange before Sunday night’s broadcast of the venerable CBS newsmagazine, perhaps Trump was hoping for just that sort of outcome — an opportunity for a sendup, on the off-chance that his shamefully petulant behavior toward Stahl and her crew might be seen as a clever triumph over the media.
SNL didn’t take the bait, choosing to cold-open Saturday’s episode in its customary, election-year way, with a sketch about last week’s final debate between the president (played by Alec Baldwin, who has made it clear to the world that this duty to the resistance has grown tiresome) and Democratic nominee Joe Biden (played by Jim Carrey, in a marquee stunt-casting that has brought less than hilarious results).
Sometimes, however, one can almost sense SNL and “60 Minutes” in a kind of age-old weekend volley. They are two of TV’s oldest institutions (having premiered in 1975 and 1968, respectively), yet together they retain a surprising vitality and relevance in this chaotic 21st-century presidential campaign. The more things change, the more they stay the same: America still looks to “60 Minutes” to get to the bottom of things, and it looks to SNL for a reminder to laugh, no matter how bad things may seem.
In their respective roles, however, only one of these shows is looking like a success right now. “60 Minutes” has delivered timely and highly informative reports this fall on the coronavirus pandemic, as well as eye-opening stories on the climate, the border wall, voter suppression and an exclusive interview with Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny as he recovers from a poisoning attack. (And let us not forget that great piece about grizzly bears in Montana.) Through its network’s ups and downs, “60 Minutes” remains essential weekly viewing.
SNL, meanwhile, faces the mighty challenge of keeping its show “live from New York” while not spreading the novel coronavirus to its performers, crew and audience — something that to any sane viewer looks almost impossible to do, if only because comedy, by its very nature, is so physical and intimate, and because Studio 8H has never been anyone’s idea of a roomy, well-ventilated environment. SNL has clearly struggled to come up with original and funny material since its Oct. 3 season premiere, running through its usual motions at half-speed. (“My Mom Married Kenan Thompson,” anyone? Anyone?)
Yet, whether out of habit or eternal hope, SNL’s viewers return each week in much the same way that “60 Minutes” viewers are lured by that ticking stopwatch — the promise of reliability. Given so many other ways to inform and entertain ourselves, these final days of the campaign give way to ancient rituals: What part of the debate will “Saturday Night Live” make fun of? What will the candidates say in their “60 Minutes” interviews?
Stahl’s interview with Trump was a snit fit before it ever really started, with the president interrupting and snapping at the correspondent, ducking her questions the same way he ducked beneath the show’s lighting rigs on his swift exit from the White House’s Roosevelt Room — petulance from a prickly president whose supposed mastery of message has gone limp.
Trump, always the martyr, insisted that “60 Minutes” would only lob softballs at Biden, who was scheduled to be interviewed on the same episode — itself a tradition during a presidential campaign season’s penultimate Sunday, when the show grills both candidates.
Fittingly, CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell brought out tough questions for Biden and often wouldn’t settle for his easiest replies. The interview covered court-packing, tax increases, the economy, China and unsubstantiated rumors about Hunter Biden’s business dealings. Biden misspoke when answering a couple questions, which “60 Minutes” caught, but in marked contrast to Trump, he answered all of them like a grown-up. The absurd humor in all of this once again makes itself known — no SNL needed.
One watches the president abruptly flee from Stahl (handing her a ratings boost, as well as lasting proof that he could never tolerate difficult questions) and wonders how he, a television addict, can really know so little about television history: Has anyone, in the 52-year run of “60 Minutes,” ever come out ahead by trying to dodge the cameras? Viewers have seen this behavior for decades in a “60 Minutes” rogues’ gallery of cretins — the hands thrust in futility in front of the camera lens, the rush to lock the car door and roll up the windows. The “60 Minutes” bad guy is his own sort of cliche.
As SNL’s Kate McKinnon said during one of the show’s rare moments of brilliance this season, as “Weekend Update” health expert Dr. Wayne Wenowdis: We know dis.
We know this, thanks in part to all that SNL has taught us about spotting a phony. As far back as a “60 Minutes” SNL sketch in 1984, Martin Short hilariously played Nathan Thurm, the nervous, hyper-defensive attorney representing a sweatshop that manufactured defective novelty toys.
Thurm tried to fend off Mike Wallace (played by Harry Shearer) by stalling, obfuscating, denying: “So what are you saying?” “Why would you say that?” (“Is it me?” Thurm asks the camera directly. “It’s not me, it’s him, right?”)
The president may have thought he played tough with “60 Minutes” on Sunday night, but he wound up doing his own impression of Nathan Thurm: “You’re so negative, you’re so negative,” Trump taunted Stahl, unintentionally echoing some of Thurm’s strategy, mostly by trying to discredit the journalist’s intent.
“Why are you pointing the finger at other people all the time? Why don’t you point the finger at yourself?”
Who said it? Trump or Thurm?
Longtime viewers of both shows will know.
60 Minutes (one hour) airs Sundays at 7 p.m. (later with football delays) on CBS.
Saturday Night Live (90 minutes) airs Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. on NBC.