He spent months as the butt of “Saturday Night Live” jokes. He hate-tweeted his displeasure. So why couldn’t he stop watching?
“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?” Donald Trump, then president-elect, told Matt Lauer in December. “It’s a terrible show.”
On Saturday, SNL concluded its most-watched season in 23 years, a feat it accomplished while ratcheting up the political material and going hard in the paint on Trump jokes.
SNL mounted a 42nd season chock full of celebrity guest appearances, highly anticipated hosts and sketches that broke out of the realm of pop culture to become politically relevant as well. Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impersonation prompted reports that the actual White House press secretary’s longevity in the job would be threatened by it. Ivanka Trump answered criticisms that she wasn’t a moderating force in her father’s administration, but a “complicit” one — framing captured in an SNL video short. And never before has someone who was about to become president been as vocal as Trump has been in his disdain of the show.
It’s quite the turnaround from the previous season, when SNL caught major flak for booking Trump to guest host in November 2015. The highly rated, poorly reviewed episode attracted protests from some on the left, who accused producers and NBC of “normalizing” Trump’s rhetoric during the primaries.
No one these days is accusing SNL of going soft on Trump. Lampooning politicians has always been SNL’s bread-and-butter during presidential campaign season. Remember Al Gore’s “lockbox”? Or the uncanny resemblance Tina Fey bore to Sarah Palin? But the political material tends to taper after Election Day.
Not this season, which began Oct. 1 and ended May 20. Almost every cold open — the sketch that kicks off the show — included impersonations of Trump or lampooned his administration. Resident Trump impersonator Alec Baldwin played him in all but three of them.
Putting on so many political sketches is the inevitable byproduct of the current moment. Weekend Update’s Colin Jost has pointed to SNL’s difficulty with presenting parodies in recent years, because of how fragmented American culture has become. Years ago, more people all watched the same sitcoms, listened to the same music.
“Politics right now is probably the closest we’ve come to a full-blown national phenomenon as anything in a long time,” Jost told the Hollywood Reporter. “And anytime people are paying more attention to politics, it’s good for our show. But you almost feel like a war profiteer at times because we’ve benefited from a situation that’s so tough.”
Clearly a number of SNL cast members and writers have strong feelings about Trump (um, they don’t like him). But for all the public perception that SNL is on a crusade to get Trump — a view the president himself has voiced — executive producer Lorne Michaels has been steadfast in saying that his show’s mission is to create laughs, not political change.
“The thing about SNL, from the beginning, is we were really not partisan,” he told the Dallas Morning News in February 2016. “In a time now where most of the news channels are very partisan, we don’t do that. We are doing what we think is funny.”
Michaels delivered a message following Election Day to the folks who work on the show: “Half the country voted for Trump, and our show’s for those people as well,” SNL Kent Sublette recalled to the Hollywood Reporter. “We’re professionals and we have to do our job, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
This season, SNL also had a few sketches that directly mocked liberals, such as one with Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock at an Election Night party, and another about a literal bubble for “like-minded, free thinkers … and no one else.”
And the show has made fun of Hillary Clinton, ribbing the Democratic candidate as robotic and awkward in her attempts to relate to the public. But the episode after Election Day featured an entirely serious cold open, with Kate McKinnon’s Clinton playing “Hallelujah” at the piano with tears in her eyes. Months later, Baldwin’s Trump did the same thing — but to poke fun at a chaotic week of bad headlines for Trump.
Now, without a prominent rival, Trump dominates not only SNL but the rest of late-night comedy, and the appetite for brutal Trump jokes seems to be quite large. Shows with hosts who deliver razor-sharp jabs at Trump’s expense, such as Stephen Colbert, have posted record ratings.
SNL has drawn an average of 10 million viewers this season, and Saturday’s episode was the most-watched season finale in six years, according to preliminary figures from Nielsen. This season also ended with some cast departures: Bobby Moynihan has been on SNL for nine years, but left after CBS picked up his sitcom; Vanessa Bayer departed after seven years; and reports surfaced over the weekend that Sasheer Zamata, there for three years, was also departing. (Zamata, cast after special auditions held by Michaels following increased scrutiny over the lack of diversity in the cast, was the first black woman to join the cast in seven years.)
In addition to such vacancies, there’s still the question of how SNL will tackle politics in its 43rd season. This year’s biggest political sketches — with Baldwin as Trump and McCarthy as Spicer — featured guests, not regular cast members.
Baldwin has said playing Trump is exhausting. And he’s not so sure about all this impeachment chatter amounting to much. “Look, I’d love to keep doing this per my availability, but I have other things I’m going to do, so I guess we’ll figure it out,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “If I’m doing a film in Rome in the fall, you can bet I’m going to be on a satellite from Rome doing Trump.”
Maybe by then audiences will finally tire of politics in their comedy shows. Or, at the very least, it’ll be possible to ignore it for a few hours on Saturday night.