The late-night sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live has long drawn on politics for a laugh, but in the Age of Trump the weekly NBC program has assumed a new role. The show that in the past regularly traded on non-political bits like Chris Farley’s bounding physicality or Adam Sandler’s sophomoric guitar songs has now become the cutting edge of the liberal assault on Trump and Trumpism.
Days after the votes were counted in the 2016 presidential election, for instance, the show opened with a somber performance of the Leonard Cohen classic “Hallelujah”. Dressed as Hilary Clinton, crowd-favorite Kate McKinnon barely held back tears as she soulfully sang the bittersweet ballade. The performance was almost funereal, and spoke to the deep sense of pain and confusion that most of urban, liberal America found itself in at the time.
But there was also a tone of defiance, as when McKinnon turned to camera and declared, “I’m not giving up, and neither should you!” Since then, SNL has unrelentingly mocked Trump with extended skits suggesting that he is an incompetent fraud, a congenital liar, and that Steve Bannon is secretly pulling his strings. Trump’s erstwhile majordomo Kellyanne Conway and beleaguered spokeman Sean Spicer have also come in for their fair share of criticism—Conway for being a media-hungry narcissist and Spicer for his simultaneously bumbling and belligerent attitude towards press. One recent sketch labelled low-profile First Daughter and presidential advisor Ivanka Trump “complicit”.
Such attacks go beyond the comparatively tame political spoofing that SNL usually engages in around election season. The writers and performers at NBC are angry, and they’ve apparently declared Trump’s every move—and everyone in his orbit—fair game.
In part this may just be good business. SNL is pitching to its audience—media-savvy and liberal urban millennials—and is reaping the rewards. The show is currently enjoying its highest ratings in two decades. Melissa McCarthy’s Spicer impersonation became an instant phenomenon, with just one of her skits reaching almost thirty million hits on YouTube. So, unsurprisingly, Trump-hating is good for business.
What’s more surprising is just how prominent the show’s anti-Trumpism has become. Longtime Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal recently shared his view that, “Saturday Night Live is the vanguard of the opposition party, which is the media. There’s a desperate race for satire to keep in front of the reality, or surreality.” Now, whenever Trump makes a speech, commits a gaffe, or (more rarely) announces an actual policy, SNL is guaranteed to pounce. Millions of viewers—including the president himself—regularly tune in to see how the show will handle that week’s news. For the large segment of America that remains not just dissatisfied with but indignant at the fact of Donald Trump’s election, SNL has become the mouthpiece of choice, a corner of the cultural battlefield where one knows one’s among friends.
That this is the case is a problem for our democratic discourse. For one thing, when political debate is handed over to the comedians, it suggests a forfeiture of that responsibility by traditional media establishments. Vigorous, goodfaith deliberation is undermined by a society that rushes to find a joke in every headline.
But more fundamentally, SNL’s place at the forefront of what Hilary Clinton has termed “The Resistance” only continues the running trend of polarization and compartmentalization in American life. And this not just because of SNL’s liberal politics—the show, like most of late-night TV—has always been liberal. But increasingly the comedy on the show is becoming dependent on a detailed knowledge of what happened on cable news that week.
As The Atlantic’s Megan Garber has pointed out, a recent SNL skit makes reference to a Tweet by the Nixon presidential library, a brief on-air eye-roll by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, and a single line from an extended interview Trump had conducted with the Economist—whether or not one wants to laugh at Trump, a great deal of preparatory knowledge must be assumed in order for these jokes to land. It remains a defining (and, apparently, unlearned) lesson of the 2016 election, then, that coastal media-conscious liberals consume an entirely different diet of news and commentary than their counterparts in the heartland. Of course, talk radio and Fox News react hysterically to each new skit about Trump, confident their own audiences won’t be watching the show themselves. By continuing to wallow in the easy ratings of hate-comedy, SNL only adds fuel to the cultural dumpster fire that is our civic discourse.
To be fair, there are a few signs that SNL is self-aware, as when they recently spoofed liberal group-think with a skit called “The Bubble,” which imagined an enclosed, “planned community of likeminded free-thinkers—and no one else.” Or the even more biting “Black Jeopardy” skit, in which Tom Hanks plays a prejudiced Trump voter who—surprisingly—winds up fitting right in on an all-black gameshow. Despite these moments of meta-humor, though, it’s clear enough where SNL is coming from and where, as a result, our attempts at national dialogue are heading.