“Saturday Night Live” has skewered American politics since its inception in 1975, which means it has taken on the Ronald Reagan presidency, the Bill Clinton sex scandal, the 2000 election and its hanging chads, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and multiple wars. Still, the Trump presidency has posed a unique problem for the show.
Hirings and firings in Trump’s administration come about as fast as the president can tweet them. The immense number of newsworthy events have placed many people in his inner circle on national television — personalities who in a different administration might have gone unknown to the general public, such as Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen.
It would be unreasonable for SNL to expect its current cast to impersonate all of these characters, particularly given the speed with which they tend to rotate out of their jobs. So, like in years past, the show has turned to outside celebrities to help.
It began last season when Alec Baldwin was continually brought in to play President Trump. Melissa McCarthy then played Sean Spicer, while Larry David impersonated Bernie Sanders.
“None of the show’s most memorable moments belongs to regular cast members anymore,” the New York Post noted at the time.
Maybe not, but the show’s ratings soared.
As much as fans have enjoyed the cameos, however, many critics have hammered the show for them, pointing out that the celebrities outshine the actual cast members, who aren’t given the opportunity to grow or endear themselves to the audience.
Before this season began, the Atlantic’s David Sims wondered what strategy the show would employ. “Does it double down on the short-term play it made last season — lots of guest stars taking on lots of topical figures — or start to hand roles back to its actual ensemble, in the hopes of building them up with audiences?”
And as the 43rd season concluded Saturday, it was clear the show chose the first option. To its credit, it fully admits this.
Tina Fey, a former cast member and head writer for the show, hosted the season finale Saturday. Her monologue wasn’t aimed at politics, as many predicted, but at this very casting decision. The show doubled down on this choice to mock it.
Fey began by asking for questions from the audience. And thus began the Famous Person overload.
First up: Famous Comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
“I have a question,” he said. “Do you think the show has too many celebrity cameos these days? Because I’m worried the cast isn’t getting a chance to grow.”
Fey agreed, saying she thinks “it hurts the show a little bit.”
Cast member Beck Bennett tried to ask the next question, only to be interrupted by Fey, who wanted to hear from Famous Actor Benedict Cumberbatch.
Then: Famous Comedian Chris Rock. Famous Actor Robert De Niro. Famous Former Cast Member Fred Armisen. Famous Actress Anne Hathaway. Famous Actor/Musician Donald Glover. Famous Comedian Tracy Morgan.
The bit might hint at change. In the past, the show has acknowledged its casting issues while on air. Consider that in 2013, the show addressed the fact that it didn’t have a black woman in its cast by having host Kerry Washington portray Michelle Obama, Oprah and Beyoncé, all in the same sketch. SNL hired sketch comedian Sasheer Zamata a few months later.
But avoiding celebrities might be difficult, as the problem the show faces is twofold.
First, impressions take time to master. Dana Carvey, arguably one of SNL’s greatest impersonators, described the process of creating a Trump impression on “Conan.” It’s not particularly quick. Given that some members of the Trump administration (see: Anthony Scaramucci) have lasted less than two weeks, perfecting an impersonation might not be worth it.
Plus, the show doesn’t have many cast members who specialize in impersonations as it did in the past with comedians like Carvey, Mike Myers, Phil Hartman, Darrell Hammond, Kristen Wiig, Jay Pharoah and Bill Hader — to name a few.
Kate McKinnon plays that role now as the show’s go-to impressionist. And, luckily, the writers have embraced cross-gender impersonations, which allow her to take on the likes of Jeff Sessions and Rudy Giuliani. But even that trend began with an outsider: McCarthy as former press secretary Sean Spicer. People found McCarthy’s performance hilarious in part because she is a woman and Spicer is not.
Now, it’s just par for the course that McKinnon will impersonate the men of Trump’s White House, in part because she’s excellent and in part because Trump doesn’t employ many women.
The other issue created by the number of people in Trump’s revolving door of a White House is that most people know the major players’ names, but probably not their mannerisms.
Most Americans, for example, probably know that Cohen is Trump’s personal lawyer who facilitated a $130,000 hush payment to porn star Stormy Daniels. Maybe they even know what Cohen looks like. But they most likely don’t know how he acts or what he sounds like.
So why not bring in a famous actor? When SNL brings in Ben Stiller as Cohen, the famous actor doesn’t really need to do an impression. The fact that he bears a resemblance to the lawyer is enough.
It’s similar to when the show brings in De Niro to be special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. He isn’t impersonating Mueller — he’s simply reprising his former “Meet the Parents” character, which might be a nod to the Mueller/Cohen dynamic but is decidedly not an impersonation. But it works, because he’s a famous actor and that’s a popular movie.
The celebrity cameos, though, are wearing thin for some.
“If you’re a fan of Very Famous People Appearing Together on Screen (a very successful genre, if the ‘Avengers’ franchise is any indication), you’ll get your money’s worth,” wrote Vice’s Harry Cheadle in a recap of an episode this season. “But beyond that novelty, the jokes are tired references to current events that never build on one another.”
Novelty, of course, wears off. After the onslaught of celebrities in Season 43 — one cold open included Stiller, Martin Short, Jimmy Fallon, Scarlett Johansson, Baldwin and Stormy Daniels — it’s difficult to see how the show could get bigger without actually welcoming the entire cast of Avengers. And McKinnon has been on the show for seven seasons, which is a long run — it’s likely she’ll soon follow a new path.
As we prepare for Season 44, Sims’s question is again relevant: Does the show again double down on its short-term strategy, or will it finally feature its increasingly diverse cast? Poor Luke Null. Never stood a chance.