Saturday Night Live is coming off its most-watched season in decades. The show cleaned up at this year’s Emmy Awards, winning nine trophies, including Best Variety Sketch Series. And it’s rarely—if ever—been worse.
Granted, each episode of the legendary series, now in its 43rd season on NBC, contains one or two gems. Recent high points include Chance the Rapper’s “Come Back, Barack” music video and an ad for the DNC that highlighted the Democratic Party’s biggest problems. (Both of those bits were pre-taped, not coincidentally.) “Weekend Update” has also been remarkably consistent this fall, especially Michael Che’s no-holds-barred rants against President Trump.
But when it comes to the show’s bread and butter—the live cold open sketch—this season has been severely lacking. And it has a lot to do with what has become a tired portrayal of Trump by Emmy-winner Alec Baldwin.
Baldwin didn’t think he’d be playing Trump past Election Day 2016, but there he was in the first cold open of the season two months ago, arguing on the phone with San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz about FEMA relief for Puerto Rico. “Ma’am, I don’t know if you know this, but you’re on an island in the water, the ocean water,” Baldwin’s Trump told her. “Big ocean, with fishies and bubbles and turtles that bite. We want to help you, but we have to take care of America first.”
Those words were barely an exaggeration of what the real Trump said during a speech a day earlier: “The response and recovery effort probably has never been seen for something like this. This is an island surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.”
Baldwin’s impression is accurate enough, but what does it tell us about the man he’s impersonating that we didn’t already know?
Two weeks later, he was reenacting Trump’s Pennsylvania trucker rally, delivering what felt like obligatory jokes on his various feuds with figures such as Bob Corker and Eminem. Missing were any new satirical insights about why Trump is so unhinged at his campaign-style rallies or, more importantly, why that might be a problem.
A cold open sketch a few weeks ago that found Trump taking a shower with Mike Pence, Paul Manafort, and Jeff Sessions was even less successful. It included jokes about how chaste the vice president is and yet another appearance by Kate McKinnon’s incomprehensible Jeff Sessions caricature. It’s hard not to feel like an actor so skilled at bringing women like Hillary Clinton and especially Kellyanne Conway to life is being wasted when forced to portray the attorney general as a bumbling, old-timey Forrest Gump.
“What an idiot that Harvey Weinstein is,” Baldwin, as Trump, said toward the end of that sketch. “He could have gotten away with all of it if only he had gotten himself elected president.” What was perhaps intended as a cutting remark about Trump’s accusers fell flat because Baldwin had spent the earlier part of the day accosting one of Weinstein’s victims on Twitter.
It’s notable that SNL only won its big Emmy Award in 2017, three years after the Television Academy decided to split up Variety Talk and Variety Sketch series into two separate categories, after losing to Inside Amy Schumer and Key & Peele the previous two years. In the days when SNL had to compete against Jon Stewart and Colbert, it didn’t stand a chance, just as it would be hard-pressed to beat Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, which took home arguably the more prestigious of the two prizes this year and last.
But for a show that still gets more than double the amount of viewers each week than current late-night frontrunner Colbert gets on a nightly basis, they could be doing far more to actively confront a president who is deeply unpopular and a danger to democracy. It’s no wonder Trump hasn’t tweeted about SNL in close to a year.
Taran Killam, who briefly played Trump on the show before getting replaced first by Darrell Hammond and then by Baldwin, recently called out SNL’s “hypocrisy” for having Trump host the show while running for president and then trying to act like they are one of his sharpest critics. He also accused Lorne Michaels of wanting to “play both sides” without ever really drawing a line in the sand about where the show stands politically.
That may have worked in another era, but as Colbert has shown with his ratings victory over Jimmy Fallon, audiences are hungry for passion and a point of view. And if most conservatives already think SNL is biased against them, why not lean into it instead of consistently going too soft on a man who the majority of the country doesn’t like anyway?
Even Baldwin seems to agree with this premise, at least to some degree.
In a recent episode of his podcast Here’s the Thing with guest Bernie Sanders, the actor expressed concern that he was making Trump “too cuddly and too funny” and “taking people’s mind off something really, really serious.” Baldwin, who has a new book out in the voice of Trump, seems well aware that his comedic portrayal of the president might not be helping.
Last summer, before Baldwin had started playing Trump, author Malcolm Gladwell used another iconic SNL impression—Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin—to denounce what he viewed as the show’s “toothless” satire problem. Like Baldwin, Fey would often just repeat what Palin had actually said for comic effect. “They want the laugh, so they make fun of the way she talks,” Gladwell said on his podcast. “But the way she talks is not the problem.” The same could be said for Baldwin’s Trump.
And that’s the same critique that John Oliver levied this week on Late Night with Seth Meyers, albeit without naming Baldwin or SNL. “It’s easy to do bad comedy, because you just need to repeat what he says,” Oliver said. “And that’s not a joke, that’s repetition. Whereas comedy, especially if you want to try to do something that’s not just happening online all the time, is an effort.”
If SNL wants to remain the important cultural institution that it has been for the past four decades, it’s going to need to start putting in a little more effort.