The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How ‘Saturday Night Live’ managed to turn 2016’s chaos into TV gold

Kate McKinnon as Kellyanne Conway and Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump during the Dec. 3 cold open. (Will Heath/NBC)

It’s an unusual time for late-night humor. Rarely has the news cycle been so ripe for comedic commentary and the landscape so saturated with options for viewers.

“Saturday Night Live” has done well in that arena, airing a midseason finale on Saturday that concluded months of high ratings and critical praise.

SNL’s ability to skewer Donald Trump, book hotly anticipated hosts and attract weeks of hate-tweets from the president-elect himself have all boosted the show’s relevance. The sketch show successfully took advantage of a bizarre political climate that has brought its own record-shattering television ratings and, at times, has felt more like a reality show than the conclusion of a campaign season.

From press secretary Sean Spicer's comments about the show to the president angrily tweeting about Alec Baldwin, here is Donald Trump's history with SNL. (Video: Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

Preliminary ratings show that SNL is on track to surpass last year’s numbers. That makes sense given that political humor has long served as the show’s staple material, and its most defining moments — Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, Will Ferrell as George W. Bush — have often come during election years.

But this season also contrasts with last year, when “Saturday Night Live” ended up in a maelstrom of controversy for having then-candidate Trump on as host. That 2015 episode brought in record ratings and plenty of blowback, including concerns over whether SNL would break FCC rules on giving political candidates equal time on air. Protesters said the show’s producers and writers helped “normalize” Trump’s behavior during the primaries.

“I feel like the media has already normalized his behavior,” SNL co-head writer Bryan Tucker said in an interview with Vulture a year after the episode aired. “Our job is not to promote one candidate or the other. Our job is to take what’s already happening and make fun of it.”

In the end, many tuned in to see just what would happen. Trump appeared on camera for a total of 12 minutes in an episode that earned terrible reviews.

This season started off differently, with Alec Baldwin debuting his biting Trump impersonation. About 8.3 million viewers tuned in, and the Oct. 1 episode became SNL’s highest-rated premiere since 2008.

The real-life presidential debate mocked during the premiere earned unprecedented ratings in its own right, drawing more than 84 million viewers. SNL apparently understood a parody’s potential for high ratings: The show rarely announces upcoming cameos, but it did just that when it released a trailer promoting Baldwin’s Trump impersonation to complement Kate McKinnon’s take on Hillary Clinton. (McKinnon won an outstanding supporting actress Emmy this year for her work on the show.)

SNL also secured big names as hosts this season, most notably Dave Chappelle. The stand-up comic marked his return to television with SNL’s first post-election episode, which featured a more than 11-minute-long monologue, a cameo by Chris Rock and musical guest A Tribe Called Quest.

Comedian Dave Chappelle made his hosting debut on "Saturday Night Live." Here are some of the highlights. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

The Chappelle episode brought the highest ratings among the crucial 18- to 49-year-old demographic since Jimmy Fallon hosted the 2013 Christmas episode.

Dave Chappelle on SNL shows how much America could have used him this election cycle

Very early ratings from this Saturday’s episode, which featured Casey Affleck as host and Chance the Rapper as musical guest, have it on track to be the strongest showing since Chappelle hosted, and higher than the average episode rating SNL had in December 2015. A full ratings report will be published by Nielsen on Tuesday.

Aside from Trump parodies, these past few months of the late-night show have featured a series of notable sketches — some insightful political commentary, some downright silly — that inspired plenty of hot takes. Those include “Black Jeopardy,” Tom Hanks as David S. Pumpkins and a commercial for “Wells for Boys.”

SNL has also managed to stay in the news cycle days after an episode airs — thanks, in large part, to how real-life Trump has responded to the show. He’s repeatedly tweeted his grievances, calling the show “unwatchable,” “biased” and not “funny at all.”

Trump isn’t the first president ‘Saturday Night Live’ has skewered. But this feud stands out.

Baldwin has tweeted back in kind, saying he will stop if Trump releases his tax returns.

“Did you see that my friend Mr. Baldwin is in a Twitter feud with our president-elect?” SNL alum Tina Fey — who suggested to showrunner Lorne Michaels that Baldwin play Trump — said in an interview with David Letterman for the Hollywood Reporter.

Aside from making her sad that a Twitter feud is “so beneath a president,” she said of Trump, “You think you’re good at being a jerk on Twitter? You will now face the grandmaster of being a jerk on Twitter.”

Earlier this month, Matt Lauer asked Trump three times why he wouldn’t just stop watching the show. Trump skirted the question, repeated his gripes and finally said, “Frankly, the way the show is going now, and you look at the kind of work they’re doing, who knows how long that show is going to be on? It’s a terrible show.”

SNL returns Jan. 14 with Felicity Jones as host.

Read more:

A guide to all the ways Trump’s transition is like a reality show

Kanye West’s meeting with Donald Trump was a long time coming

Read Dave Chappelle’s entire SNL monologue: ‘It’s been a long time’