“Saturday Night Live” usually responds to a national tragedy by eschewing comedy. Usually, it has no choice.
Three weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, SNL premiered its season with a speech by the stone-faced mayor of a bloodied city. After the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, the show’s opening sketch was simply children singing “Silent Night.” Because how would you joke about that?
But when SNL returned to the air this weekend after a month-long hiatus during which the country’s worst high school shooting occurred, the show used President Trump to bridge the gap between the tragic and the ridiculous.
It had been less than three weeks since 17 students and staffers were fatally shot in Parkland, Fla. — but in those weeks Trump had: (a) met with teenage survivors of the attack while holding a crib note that read “I hear you”; (b) said that if the high school’s teachers had been armed, one of them would have “shot the hell” out of the gunman; (c) broke with the National Rifle Association and proposed confiscating guns (“Take the guns first, go through due process second”); (d) backtracked hours later; (e) said he would have run into the school unarmed to confront a man with a high-powered rifle.
Which is to say that SNL had no problem finding material for its opening sketch on Saturday.
The sketch was an imaginary sequel to Trump’s televised meeting on Wednesday, in which he had stunned members of Congress by calling (at least briefly) for strict gun control.
Alec Baldwin played an oval-mouthed, vacant-eyed Trump, as he has since the 2016 presidential campaign. He was flanked by two flags, an obsequious Vice President Pence (played by Beck Bennett) and a burbling Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Cecily Strong).
“Last week I met with a group of teenage survivors of gun violence,” Baldwin said. “And I want to assure them once again …”
He picked up a note card.
“I hear you. And I care.”
Baldwin’s Trump impression has not changed much since 2016. He tends to leave his mouth locked in the shape of whatever vowel he last pronounced. The real Trump digressed from his vacillating messages about gun control last week to complain about it.
“We have to take a hard look at mental health,” Baldwin said, echoing Trump’s actual assertions that most school shooters are mentally ill, then digressed into Trump-style bragging: “Which I have so much of; I have one of the healthiest mentals. My mentals are so high.”
“But we have to respect the law,” Baldwin-as-Trump said. “Believe me, no one loves the Second Amendment and due process more than me. But maybe we just take everyone’s guns away. Okay, nobody is allowed to have a gun. Even whites.”
On his left, Feinstein made happy gurgling noises. On his right, Pence looked constipated.
“The youth of America deserve to feel safe and secure in their schools,” Baldwin said, “because, folks, I can only run into so many schools and save everybody.”
This led into an extended non sequitur in which Trump imagined himself running into the high school, tackling the shooter, “then I’d just keep running and running and running,” all the way to North Korea (which has been in the news, too), where he would assault dictator Kim Jong Un and, thus, solve the issues of gun violence and nuclear weapons in one sprint.
Now Baldwin’s monologue, like the real Trump’s speeches, lost any semblance of focus. “SNL” writers used the rant to address the other major news of the week, of which there was plenty.
Baldwin’s Trump lamented the abrupt resignation of White House communications director Hope Hicks. “She was like a daughter to me,” he said, then made an obscene gesture with his tongue. “So smart. So hot.”
He mentioned Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whose murky debts and business ties appear to be imperiling his job as a White House adviser. He attacked Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as the real Trump really did last week.
“I brought back the steel industry by destroying the auto industry and tanking the stock market,” Baldwin said, a reference to the international alarm caused by Trump’s announcement of steel and aluminum tariffs last week. SNL either had no time or inclination to mention that the president subsequently assured the country that “trade wars are good.”
Only at the end of his monologue did Baldwin’s Trump remember its beginning.
“But maybe we do just take all the guns away,” he concluded.
The fake Feinstein was grunting happily beside him. Bennett’s Pence appeared to wipe away a tear.
“Live from New York, it’s ‘Saturday Night,’ ” Baldwin said. He was looking at his notes again.