The promotional video for the upcoming season-opener of “Saturday Night Live” hit the Internet this week like a “Star Wars” trailer, with dramatic lights and pounding music. Kate McKinnon revealed her debate face as Hillary Clinton — and Alec Baldwin sat for a fitting of a Donald Trump hairpiece like Darth Vader being fitted for his helmet.
SNL, now in its 42nd season, has frequently shaped how voters see their presidential candidates. In 2000, the show turned Al Gore’s focus-grouped phrases into punch lines; in 2008, some voters were left thinking that Sarah Palin, not Tina Fey, said “I can see Russia from my house.”
But this year may be different, and not just because of the well-documented entertainment value of Trump. The season opens at a time when the comedy world is engulfed in an angry debate about how to make fun of Trump — and whether some practitioners have given him a pass on his more objectionable stances. For some, Donald Trump isn’t funny anymore. And that has prompted some writers, actors and producers behind SNL to ask this question: What if he wins? And will anyone blame them if he does?
“The more you descend into his kind of incoherent sensibility, the closer you get to the truth of who he is,” said Baldwin, who initially hesitated to take a role previously assigned to SNL regular Darrell Hammond.
“He’s running the ball 95 yards down the field, I can’t believe how far he’s come, and he fumbles the ball again,” Baldwin said. “He picks it up, he fumbles again, and he keeps getting closer. I watched the debates and I thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ For a lot of my friends, a lot of this isn’t funny anymore. When he was a sideshow, it was funny. Now he’s the nominee, and it’s not funny. It’s agonizing.”
SNL, which regularly draws around 6 million to 7 million viewers, has come under pressure to frame the election in starker terms than last season. But although the show’s “Weekend Update” segments tend to skew left, the presidential parodies are trickier. Other comedy shows might get didactic; “Saturday Night Live” aims to mirror and parody what voters already know. In an interview this week, SNL’s founding producer, Lorne Michaels, rejected the idea that the show could change minds.
“We’ve been doing [election-related satire] since 1976,” he said. “I thought Chevy Chase did very well for Gerald Ford, but Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter. So I think it has an effect, but we don’t influence people in how to vote. It helps on the nicest level. It informs people.”
SNL was criticized for “normalizing” this year’s Republican candidate when he hosted an episode in November. Trump had hosted before, as the star of “The Apprentice,” but the new sketches had him dancing to Drake and presiding over a utopian America where Mexico’s president hand-delivered payment for the border wall.
More recently, “Tonight Show” host Jimmy Fallon was panned by fellow comedians for a friendly Trump interview that ended with him fluffing the Republican nominee’s hair.
“The mainstream media and specifically NBC has gone too easy on Trump,” said Anthony Atamanuik, who toured America and Europe with a surreal, dark Trump impression and has optimistically planned a “last rally” for the character on Nov. 3. “I’ll sound like Trump for a second: ‘There’s something going on with NBC and Trump.’ ”
Added Andy Richter, Conan O’Brien’s sidekick on his TBS talk show: “Watching his hair get tousled was a bit more shocking than seeing him host SNL. Back when he hosted SNL, it was questionable. Now, treating him in the same way that you treat Judge Judy would seem irresponsible. It’s not funny anymore. There’s just too much blatant white supremacy being enabled by this campaign.”
Trump’s SNL appearance last fall sparked a passionate backlash. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus confronted NBC executives over the show. The Onion AV Club rated the episode a “dreadful, toothless, dead-eyed slog.” Trump’s supporters credited the show with winning him votes.
“His skits are funny and he has a good sense of humor,” “Apprentice” contestant-turned-Trump surrogate Omarosa Manigault told Politico this week. “Did you not see him dancing to ‘Hotline [Bling]’ by Drake?”
Since then, other shows have taken a decidedly different tack. “The Daily Show” and the explanatory-comedy shows it inspired now treat the Trump candidacy as a national emergency. The last season of “South Park” poked fun at a Trumplike “president of Canada”; the current season follows the campaign of a Trumplike demagogue who’s in too deep.
With Trump ascendant, there are hints that SNL may change its tone as well. On Twitter, some of the show’s writers have lit into media coverage of Trump for letting him off easy. “Media: The bar is only low for Trump at the debate because you keep SAYING it’s low,” wrote a head writer, Chris Kelly, before Monday’s Trump-Clinton showdown. “You’re teaching us this idea. Keep the bar HIGH FOR BOTH.”
“Donald Trump, who became rich after being given millions by his dad, may become president after being given millions by your dads,” tweeted Pete Schultz, a writer for SNL’s “Weekend Update” segment.
Up to now, McKinnon’s award-winning Clinton has received arguably SNL’s harshest criticism. Hammond’s Trump was a boorish insult comic who steamrolled his opponents — much like the real Trump. Larry David was tapped to play Bernie Sanders as a put-upon skinflint. Sanders incorporated some of David’s jokes into his speeches.
“It was a positive in the campaign, absolutely,” Sanders said in an interview about the David impression. “He was incredibly funny.”
McKinnon’s Clinton, a breakout character, was less of an obvious boon to the campaign. A typical sketch had her promising anything that voters wanted, with a rictus and wild eyes. “Aren’t we such a fun, approachable dynasty?” she asked in an early sketch about a “spontaneous”-looking campaign video. In last season’s finale, she and “Sanders” shared a drink at a bar over how the primary was “so rigged” — an impression that continues to cost Clinton votes from her left.
McKinnon, who thanked Clinton in her Emmy victory speech, told the New York Times’s Maureen Dowd in 2015 that Clinton was “a brilliant intellectual, a crusader for things I care deeply about.” Asked about the idea that her impression could swing the election, McKinnon called it “the worst thing I could ever imagine,” and described the impression as a joke more at society’s expense than the candidate’s.
“If you had a man saying the same things, that would not qualify as a comedic character, and I think that’s deeply problematic and speaks more about our culture than it does about her,” McKinnon said. “She’s a staunch, passionate lady, and in our culture, unfortunately, there’s something funny about that. There shouldn’t be anything funny about that, but that tickles us for some reason. So that’s what I’ve been working with, and her zeal is what I find delightful about her.”
McKinnon isn’t the only comedian with regrets that the election has been framed as a choice between a relatable buffoon and a power-hungry dynast. Vic Berger, a video editor with the comedy channel Super Deluxe, began to worry when his videos of Trump humiliating his opponents became memes with Trump fans. In Berger’s latest video edit, it’s Trump who gets humiliated by Clinton.
“I noticed I was getting tons of Trump fans becoming fans of my work,” Berger said. “Turns out, what any right-minded person would see as despicable behavior was what these Trump supporters liked best about him. I think it might say a little about the intelligence of these people in how they misunderstood my videos.”
In other instances, comedians have lashed out at their brethren. The hottest criticism of Fallon’s Trump interview came from TBS’s Samantha Bee, who blamed network programmers for enabling “a fascist.”
“They’re not going to be deported,” she said. “They’re not going to live under a president who thinks of them as a collection of sex toys.”
That attitude has pervaded comedy sites, too. “I feel like we need to stop looking for the comedy in everything,” said Adam Tod Brown, a columnist and podcast host at Cracked.com who warned that Trump could follow in the steps of Adolf Hitler. “I get that jokes and comedy are a way to cope with terrible things. The problem with Trump is that people went into this thinking it was comedy, and that it didn’t need to be taken seriously. It did need to be taken seriously. A threat is a threat.”
On Saturday, millions of SNL viewers will learn whether the show’s writers and actors agree. Baldwin praised McKinnon and the team working on the debate sketch. But he isn’t sure that five weeks of satire will shift the vote.
“No one’s mind is being changed,” Baldwin said. “I don’t think me playing Trump is going to change anything on those metrics. The people who love Trump hate my guts already.”
Paul Farhi contributed to this report.