Live From New York…it’s a Hillary Clinton campaign ad.
On Saturday night, Studio 8H was briefly remodeled into a pop-up Ready For Hillary campaign headquarters for the 41st season premiere of Saturday Night Live.
The guest of honor herself even showed up for a heavily teased set, one that was tailor-made to lampoon the two biggest critiques of her persona—that her presidential ambition can at times read as deranged entitlement and desperation, and that she lacks relatable charisma—all while not-so-slyly dropping campaign platform items disguised as jokes.
And how much does Clinton want to be president? That she’s willing to sing “Lean On Me” on national television in order to get it. (Give the inevitable Democratic nominee credit: She’s the only political candidate in the race right now embarrassing herself on purpose.)
There’s a palpable excitement in the zeitgeist when SNL is airing during an election year. While the election is still technically more than a year away, politicians are already lobbing softballs right down the pipe for the sketch show to skewer—and the show has been in batting practice all off-season, primed and ready to swing at the easy targets.
Donald Trump, easily spoofed by Taran Killam, was the subject of the cold open, joined by Cecily Strong’s unexpectedly sharp take on Melania Trump. The gimmick: Melania’s praise of her husband’s presidential bona fides surreptitiously illuminates the lunacy of his candidacy. A fake commercial then continued the damnation of the Republican presidential candidates, advertising Abilify, the drug for people who think they can be president. It’s meant to be prescribed to “11 specific people.”
Weekend Update took aim not just at the GOP field, but at Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden as well, all in the pursuit of shaming viewers through comedy. The seeming moral of the punchlines: Can anyone sane really vote for anyone but Hillary? The show’s resident young person even poked fun at the severity of the current situation, in which Donald Trump looks like a viable presidential contender. It “scares people my age into caring about politics,” he joked.
But the night’s set piece was obviously the Clinton appearance.
The conceit was that Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton—as pitch-perfect and loving of a political satire that this show has ever seen—was wallowing at a bar after overhearing people talk about their love for Donald Trump and confronting the harrowing reality that her obvious credentials may be slighted in favor of his bombast. She commiserates, as a “normal, everyday person” does, with her barkeep, Val—played by the former First Lady.
Clinton looked totally gassed to be there, and remarkably at ease. Her line readings were natural, especially for someone so often accused of being robotic. Even though a few slow cues threatened to take the air out of the sketch, it was the perfect “I’m in on the joke” showcase for a candidate who has notoriously struggled to launch the kind of charm offensive politicians like President Obama seem born to wage.
There were the winking jabs at how off-putting and out of touch Clinton can seem. “God, I love a scalding hot vodka,” McKinnon’s version jokes. The apparent mandate to mention being a grandparent once every third sentence was also mocked: “I have a 1-year-old granddaughter. She calls me Madam President.”
Clinton-as-Val snuck in a few campaign positions and ribbed herself on her lethargy in arriving at them, specifically her stance on the Keystone Pipeline and gay marriage. A twice-repeated laugh-line, “I could’ve supported it sooner,” took on acute, touching meaning as delivered by McKinnon, who is openly gay.
McKinnon, it must be said, is a dynamo.
It’s hard to mock Hillary Clinton, as her personality isn’t exactly larger than life. Amy Poehler’s take was to make her a tad maniacal, but she homed in on an astute perspective: the maddening frustration she must feel being the smartest person in the room and knowing it, but being forced to suffer fools in the name of politics. McKinnon has run with that take and refined it, humanizing grand ambition in a way that makes her Clinton endearing and justified in her entitlement, rather than simply sociopathic.
And when it comes to humanizing the image and brand of Hillary Clinton, perhaps nothing is more humanizing than public humiliation—which is precisely what we all witnessed as Clinton attempted her own Donald Trump impression and then actually sang a song on live TV.
But it’s one exchange that summed up the transparent campaign goal Clinton set out to accomplish by appearing on SNL, and the one SNL was more than happy to help her achieve. “You’re easy to talk to, Val,” McKinnon’s Clinton said. “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that,” the newly sympathetic and relatable real thing replied.
It should come as no surprise that Clinton turned the SNL season premiere into a major campaign stop. And maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that Lorne Michaels and the show were so game to trump for her.
Exactly how much of an effect the show can have on an election is a subject of much debate. Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue that Sarah Palin’s weekly roast on the show didn’t contribute to her ticket’s downfall. And in the recent documentary Live From New York, commemorating the show’s 40th anniversary, Will Ferrell wondered whether his characterization of George W. Bush as a man you’d want to get a beer with helped get him re-elected.
Longtime SNL writer-turned-politician Al Franken admitted that, though changing the world isn’t the show’s overt mission in election years, “every once in a while you make a good satirical point that actually elucidates something.” In his opinion, Darrell Hammond’s take on Al Gore was the show’s single most impactful political sketch. (Not that he’s happy about it.)
“When it’s only a few hundred votes, anything can tip the election,” he says. “So if you want to point to one SNL sketch that maybe tipped an election, it’s the lockbox.”
Suffice it to say Hillary Clinton is hoping that crooning “Lean On Me” arm in arm with Kate McKinnon could have a similar effect.
In the same Live From New York documentary, Lorne Michaels asserted that, “We’re nonpartisan and it’s important we stay nonpartisan.” Maybe that’s true, that the show is resisting taking the sides of any one political party. But it has a, by this point, long tradition of taking the side of at least one politician.
You can trace the show’s unabashed support of Hillary Clinton back to Jan Hooks’s brilliant portrayal in the ’90s of the then-First Lady as the one pulling her husband’s puppet strings. It was certainly obvious in the now iconic sketch with Tina Fey as Sarah Palin and Poehler as Clinton, the perfect political satire and one that hailed Clinton’s competency as passionately as it blasted Palin’s stupidity.
But perhaps the peak of all this was Fey’s sermon from the Weekend Update pulpit demanding atonement from those who sexistly conflated Clinton’s get-shit-done demeanor with bitchiness. “Bitch is the new black,” indeed.
The bitch was back in Studio 8H Saturday night, and she was welcomed with open arms.