5 Ways to Whip ‘SNL’ Back into Shape in 2018

After a disappointing run during the first year of President Trump, here are a few things ‘Saturday Night Live’ can do to turn things around.

Will Heath/NBC

Saturday Night Live has some problems. As we examined last month, the show has seriously struggled in its 43rd season to live up to the hype of the Emmy-winning season that preceded it. SNL, which felt so culturally relevant in 2016, more often than not seemed to be skating by in 2017 without the satirical bite so desperately needed in the age of Donald Trump.

But instead of just complaining about the show’s faults, we decided New Year’s Day 2018 was the perfect time to look toward the future and give some (hopefully) helpful suggestions on what SNL can do to restore some of its former glory. Elevating “Weekend Update” anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che to co-head writers was a big step in the right direction, but there is a lot more to be done.

It is perhaps important to note that these prescriptions come not from an SNL-hater but from a lifelong fan who never misses an episode and truly wants the show to be great. After more than four decades on the air, with Lorne Michaels at the helm for 38 out of the 43 seasons, the show has proven again and again that it is capable of clawing back from the brink of failure. Heading into yet another election year, now is the time to prove it once more.

  1. Replace Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump.

It’s not going to be easy, but it’s time to rip off the band-aid. When Alec Baldwin signed on to play Trump in the fall of 2016, he thought he would be doing it for three episodes. Then Hillary Clinton lost. Fifteen months later, Baldwin has played Trump on SNL 19 times by my count. As much as some viewers seem to still love his cartoonish impression, it has more than overstayed its welcome.  

SNL painted itself into a corner by casting a big star like Baldwin as Trump, replacing first Taran Killam and then Darrell Hammond. To turn the outsized role over to a mere cast member would feel like a demotion, maybe even a victory for the president, who has always despised Baldwin’s portrayal. But in order to move on, SNL has to cut Baldwin loose, especially since the actor seems fairly miserable in the role these days.

There frankly are not a lot of good options for a replacement, but there is one Trump impersonator out there who is more than ready to step into the role. We are desperately hoping that Comedy Central gives The President Show another season. But if for some crazy reason it doesn’t, SNL should jump at the chance to bring Anthony Atamanuik and his far superior Trump impression into the mix.

If it happens, expect a less than smooth transfer of power as Atamanuik and Baldwin have had their differences in the past.

  1. Find new targets in the Trump administration.

For a White House with so much turnover, it often feels like SNL is far too focused on only a handful of players. One way to move past its reliance on Baldwin’s Trump would be to broaden the field and start taking on more figures who deserve a critical eye.

For instance, since Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have only been played by guest stars — Jimmy Fallon in the case of Kushner and a slew of young female hosts for the first daughter, including a particularly memorable commercial parody starring Scarlett Johansson —  they have only popped up occasionally on the show. Surely, newbie Heidi Gardner has a great Ivanka impression in her back pocket. And who wouldn’t love to see what someone like Pete Davidson does with a portrayal of the adolescent-seeming Kushner, especially if his role in the Russia investigation heats up in the new year?

Then there’s another parody-ripe pair: Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and his wife Louise Linton. Instead of spending so much energy on her bizarre portrayal of Jeff Sessions, who may be on his way out of the White House soon, McKinnon could be having a field day with Linton and her tone-deaf spending habits. As for Mnuchin, doppelgänger John Oliver is already doing a solid impression on his show Last Week Tonight and probably wouldn’t mind dropping by 30 Rockefeller Plaza every once in a while.

Finally, Betsy DeVos. Our current Secretary of Education is ripe for more mockery than she has received. At the very least it would be a great excuse to cast Tonight Show writer and comedian Jo Firestone, who has been killing as DeVos on that show this past year.

Too bad SNL finally realized they should have Leslie Jones playing Omarosa just as she was on her way out the White House door.

  1. Let the women take charge.
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As has happened a few times in the show’s four-decade run, the most experienced and talented cast members right now are almost all women (15-year veteran Kenan Thompson is a major exception). Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, Aidy Bryant and Leslie Jones — along with newer faces Melissa Villaseñor and Heidi Gardner — are all rock solid performers, yet somehow often feel underrepresented in male-dominated sketches. That needs to change.

The handful of times when the show has aired all-female sketches over the past few years have been major highlights. Think of pieces like Aidy Bryant’s “A Girl’s Halloween” or, more recently, the “Welcome to Hell” music video, which examined what it has always been like to be a woman long before the #MeToo movement. More sketches from this perspective can only be a good thing for the future of SNL.

  1. Don’t worry so much about the “live” part of Saturday Night Live.

One more thing those two women-led sketches have in common? They weren’t live.

It was more true this past year than in most eras of SNL’s history: the pre-taped sketches were just better. Week after week, live sketches flopped while filmed ones soared. From commercial parodies to music videos to pretty much anything written by Julio Torres, these more polished pieces lend themselves to the type of social media sharing that can make or break an SNL sketch.

Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island guys first figured this out more than a decade ago, but it is even more true today. Some performers still thrive in the chaos of the live setting — Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer comes to mind — but the current cast seems to really excel when they are allowed to take their time in a controlled setting.

  1. Stop cutting hilarious sketches for time.

Speaking of pre-taped sketches, when is SNL going to stop messing with Kyle Mooney?

This one has been a personal gripe of mine for the majority of Mooney’s four and a half seasons on the show. The way SNL works is that they show an audience more sketches in the weekly dress rehearsal than can fit in the 90-minute show. Anything that doesn’t garner enough laughs gets pulled from the broadcast. Those sketches often end up on the show’s YouTube channel as “cut for time” videos.

It seems they almost always come from the eccentric and ambitious mind of Mooney, along with fellow cast member Beck Bennett and segment director Dave McCary, who formed the Good Neighbor comedy group after graduating from USC together. By design, their videos are meant to be consumed online, so is laughter from a live audience even the best way to judge their merit?

In an interview with The Daily Beast to promote his wonderfully bizarre film Brigsby Bear last summer, Mooney admitted that it can be “frustrating” when his sketches are removed from the show’s lineup at the last minute. But, he added, “it is nice that there is that outlet, that these things can live somewhere.”

On those too-rare occasions when they do make it onto the show itself, often in the experimental 12:50 a.m. time slot, SNL is better for it.