Last Saturday night, a comedy cabal assembled in NBC’s Studio 8H for SNL’s Season 44 finale. It opened in a dreadfully familiar place: the Oval Office. There, President Donald J. Trump (Alec Baldwin, all violent spasms) crowed with self-satisfied delight, for he was on “cruise control” to a 2020 win and “there’s nothing the Democrats in Congress can do about it.”
With that, Trump and his loyal confederates broke into a parody version of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.”
“He’s a loose cannon rippin’ up the laws of society,” belted Aidy Bryant’s Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “But they call him Mr. Bad Advice, cause he listens to Fox News guys,” chimed in Cecily Strong’s Melania Trump, prompting Beck Bennett’s Mike Pence to add, “I want to make a super-straight man out of you!”
The aural waterboarding didn’t stop there. Kenan Thompson’s Clarence Thomas riffed on abortion; Trump’s large adult sons (Mikey Day and Alex Moffat) whined; a ghoulish Wilbur Ross, played by Kate McKinnon, broke into a guitar solo; and De Niro’s Bob Mueller gave steely stare. “Guys, it’s been fun,” Trump concluded. “I don’t know what’s next for me, but I wouldn’t be Donald Trump if I didn’t say, tune in next season to see who lives and who dies.”
Even the most zealous of Resistance™ keyboard warriors could see that this partisan song-and-dance routine was shambolic and lazy; the most eye roll-worthy tribute to Queen this side of Bohemian Rhapsody, and a prime example of the show’s biggest failing its past two seasons. To wit, if Saturday Night Live wants to be great again it has to start ignoring Trump—and they can begin with kicking Baldwin’s uninspired impression to the curb.
In his dozens of appearances on SNL, Baldwin’s Trump send-up has really only been effective once: creeping up on McKinnon’s Hillary during a presidential debate. It fails on both a technical and conceptual level, capturing neither Trump’s weirdo mannerisms (Darrell Hammond nailed it) nor his damaged-guy essence (Taran Killam came close). It’s a defanged caricature, perhaps owing to Lorne Michaels’ decades-long deferential relationship to the real-life Trump—a man he once called “a moderate” candidate, and who directed Killam to not “vilify” him and “find a way in that makes him likable.”
If that weren’t enough, the sketch show’s Trump skits have devolved into a form of comedy stenography, its orange antagonist regurgitating his looniest boasts near-verbatim—proclamations that have already been atomized by late-night comedy hosts when Saturday rolls around.
Much of this has to do with SNL’s shameless pursuit of ratings (this is, after all, the show that had Trump host in November 2015, and allowed a MAGA hat-wearing Kanye West to deliver a wacky pro-Trump rant in its Season 44 premiere). With 11 million-plus viewers, Season 42 of the series—beginning in the final months of the 2016 election and ending four months into the Trump presidency—attracted its highest ratings in 22 years. So Lorne Michaels and Co., it seems, have decided to ride that ratings wave, comedic quality be damned. And though the show’s ratings have dipped the past two seasons, they’re still considerably higher than before Baldwin donned the yellow wig and orange make-up.
Baldwin’s Trump made seven appearances in SNL’s 44th season. Were any of those sketches the least bit memorable? They weren’t even among the best political sketches of the season, which included Matt Damon’s fratty, belligerent turn as then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Bill Hader’s Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) losing his marbles during the Michael Cohen hearing.
SNL was at its best this season when it steered clear of politics—an area of fatigue if there ever was one—and focused on incisive cultural commentary and mining the weekly host’s talents. Oddball pals Pete Davidson and John Mulaney teaming up to deconstruct Clint Eastwood’s batshit-crazy-sounding film The Mule was comedy gold (these two need a weekly segment, or their own comedy series). Or how about Adam Driver’s elderly oil baron berating a classroom full of kids in “Career Day?” Those “Oscar Host Auditions,” featuring Aidy Bryant’s bang-on Hannah Gadsby impersonation? John Mulaney’s ambitious musical skit “Bodega Bathroom?” Adam Sandler’s tearjerker of a tribute to Chris Farley? The show’s always soared when it combines good-natured humor and warmth, and there is none to be found when it comes to the Trump and his cronies.
So Saturday Night Live, it’s time to retire Baldwin’s Trump. Instead of channeling your creative energies into satirizing the day-to-day lunacy of this administration, maybe try to give viewers a respite from it. And for the love of god, get rid of Trump’s large adult sons. Those two miss the mark even more than daddy.