Six months ago, days after Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the race for the presidency, all eyes were on Saturday Night Live. It opened its first episode after the election not with the return of Alec Baldwin’s brash Trump impression, but with Kate McKinnon’s Hillary.
Seated at a piano, McKinnon-as-Hillary sang a stirring, earnest rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Barely getting through it without breaking into tears, McKinnon’s Hillary looked into the camera and said, “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”
Saturday night, McKinnon was back singing about the secret chord that David played to please the Lord, but this time it was as Kellyanne Conway in background to Baldwin’s garish Trump, who this time was taking lead at the keys.
Soon they were joined by Beck Bennett’s Mike Pence, Cecily Strong’s Melania Trump, Scarlett Johansson’s Ivanka Trump, Mikey Day and Alex Moffat’s Eric and Donald Trump Jr., Aidy Bryant’s Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and a person dressed as the Grim Reaper, aka Steve Bannon.
If McKinnon’s Clinton version of the song was serious and profound, telegraphing the gravity of the moment, the played-for-laughs revival on Saturday night’s season finale revealed the sheer level of lunacy the political situation has devolved into—not to mention the show’s relishing of the descent into madness.
As bookends, they exhibit the dual power of a show like Saturday Night Live when it’s at its best—extreme and irreverent, but also reverent—with a hefty dose of self-congratulation about the role it has played in the zeitgeist.
We’re used to SNL reacting to the news cycle. But this year, the show often launched the news cycle.
While skewering President Trump is hardly a practice exclusive to Studio 8H, few shows have done it under as bright a spotlight and with as much anticipation as SNL. Political sketches on SNL are news events in themselves at this point.
It’s unlikely that the comedic target on the Trump administration’s back is going to fade away in the months while SNL is on summer hiatus, nor will our desire to watch the show hit a bullseye after something particularly spoofable happens.
Already, we’re despondent that we won’t get SNL’s take on Melania’s swatting away of Trump’s hand. Or of the absurd visual of world leaders in Saudi Arabia with their hands on some mystical looking orb. And it’s only been two days since the finale.
It’s been customary in election years to witness something wild on the campaign trail and then salivate at the thought of how SNL would handle it that weekend. Rarely does the “SNL Is Always Great in an Election Year!” mantra extend past Election Day.
Not since the Bill Clinton impeachment scandal has the prospect of SNL tackling the political news cycle been as consistently tantalizing as it has been in the first months of the Trump administration, and the show has risen to the occasion with an onslaught of iconic, eviscerating sketches: Baldwin’s many appearances as Trump, Melissa McCarthy doing Sean Spicer, and the Ivanka Trump “Complicit” sketch, to name a few.
It’s certainly true that all of late-night has been nearly uniformly excellent (and uniformly brutal) in its takedowns of the Trump administration night after night, largely because audiences are compelling them to be more political and more politicized than ever. (As Jimmy Fallon has certainly learned.)
But it’s hard to argue that any of these shows generate as much anticipation as SNL does, nor has its material been as parsed, dissected, celebrated, and criticized as SNL.
The hall of mirrors that SNL erected to reflect back the madness in Washington became even trippier when it not only became clear that President Trump was watching the show, but, with his erratic tweets criticizing it, also became its most vocal armchair critic—albeit from an armchair that happens to be in the White House.
The Trump insanity shows no sign of slowing as SNL goes on its summer hiatus, meaning we’ll be without TV’s most mainstream comedic watchdog at a time we might need it most.
That’s certainly not to say that pop culture is in crisis because Alec Baldwin isn’t bathing in fake tanner and pursing his lips each weekend this summer.
Stephen Colbert has resurrected himself with scathingly witty political humor on The Late Show. Jimmy Kimmel captivated the nation and sparked an intense debate when he made a tear-filled plea for Obamacare after his son nearly died. Seth Meyers, John Oliver, and Samantha Bee have turned keeping the president accountable into a comedy artform, often accessorizing their blistering diatribes with investigative reporting and teachable moments.
While the question over whether late-night talk shows should be political is constantly debated—as is the question of taste, with hosts toeing some invisible line when it comes to their material—SNL isn’t subjected to the same scrutiny. In fact, viewers might even consider it the show’s duty to tackle politics with prejudice. Even those skewered embrace the role it plays, often appearing as themselves on the show alongside those who are paid to mock them.
The difference, then, between SNL and these other late-night shows is its ability to, in a mainstream sense, move the needle culturally with its take on politics. And with an administration that seems to be sending that needle all over the map, that’s a meaningful contribution to the zeitgeist.
There will be brilliant comedy about Trump this summer all over TV. NBC will even air primetime “Weekend Update” specials in August. But that doesn’t come close to the reach and the power of a political SNL sketch.
SNL isn’t universally popular, nor is it always funny (many will argue that it hardly is). But in a chaotic news cycle, you latch on to anything stable, and for the last six months that’s taken the form of catharsis in Kate McKinnon playing Kellyanne Conway.
Revisiting this weekend’s sketch at the piano, it’s easy to imagine that there are at least nine people who are relieved that SNL is going on its summer hiatus. And they were all singing “Hallelujah.”