When Trump launched his presidential campaign by accusing Mexico of sending rapists and drug dealers across the border, the network said it was “ending its business relationship with Mr. Trump,” which meant canceling agreements to air Trump-owned beauty pageants. Yet NBC invited Trump to host “Saturday Night Live” just four months later and featured him as a guest on the “Tonight Show” three times during the campaign.
Remember the Jimmy Fallon hair tousle?
Comedian Samantha Bee, host of “Full Frontal” on TBS, ripped NBC in September for enabling Trump to soften his image on the network's late-night shows.
“NBC did sever ties with Trump after he called Mexicans rapists — if by severing ties you mean inviting him on their flagship comedy programs to show millions of Americans what a fun guy he is,” Bee said.
Even when Trump was not on the stage, “Saturday Night Live” handled him relatively gently for most of the campaign. Sketches generally portrayed him as an unserious, idiosyncratic candidate with goofy hair but stopped short of the kind of biting commentary that often characterized jokes by comedians and hosts Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert and, of course, Bee.
“SNL” developed a harder edge in the final month of the campaign, however, when Alec Baldwin took on the role of Trump impersonator. The shift was not instantaneous — Baldwin mostly stuck to surface-level humor in his debut — but the show rattled Trump with a mid-October parody of a presidential debate.
In the sketch, Baldwin-as-Trump is asked by an African American voter whether he can be a “devoted president to all the people.” He responds by calling the man “Denzel” and talking about inner-city violence. Then he transitions into an attack on Hillary Clinton: “She's committed so many crimes, she's basically a black.”
The skit suggested that Trump is either racist or, at minimum, jaw-droppingly insensitive when discussing race. Trump hated it.
Watched Saturday Night Live hit job on me.Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging election!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2016
“Saturday Night Live” has remained sharply political since Trump's inauguration. Most recently, comedian Melissa McCarthy skewered White House press secretary Sean Spicer in a sketch that reportedly also got under the president's skin.
A new show based on “Weekend Update” would add to NBC's change from Trump-friendly territory to a place where the president is a frequent target of pointed, comedic criticism.
The new approach has apparently been working; “Saturday Night Live” is enjoying its highest ratings in 22 years. It's a whole lot easier to keep doing something that's popular.
Still, it is notable that NBC has gotten bolder after handling Trump with gloves for so long.