In light of the recent A.V. Club shout-out on Saturday Night Live, we wondered if this was the letter, which we ran in November 2015, that Kate McKinnon’s Senator Elizabeth Warren tried to read on Weekend Update.
There’s a scene in Tim Robbins’ 1992 sly sledgehammer of a political satire Bob Roberts—about a media-savvy, crypto-fascist political candidate who hides his ambition behind a wall of plain-talking, folk-singing populism—where the candidate is booked on a late-night comedy show called Cutting Edge Live. Famous for broad ethnic stereotypes (“The Immigrant Family”), and silly recurring characters (“The Lobsters”), the show nonetheless fashions itself as a hip, provocative enterprise, run by a soft-spoken, slightly effete figure whose pretensions to cultural relevance and edgy comedy (just look at the title) are belied by the producer’s ratings-minded, corporate-friendly stance behind the scenes. Like the rest of Bob Roberts, this riff on Lorne Michaels and Saturday Night Live isn’t the most subtle broadside, but it’s a vicious teardown of Michaels and the show. Hungry for the ratings guaranteed by Roberts’ ascending, faux-folksy right-wing candidate, producer Michael Janes (again—not a subtle movie), accedes to every demand the network and the candidate make, allowing Roberts to forego a more innocuous anti-smoking song for one of his strident political anthems. Confronted by his aide Carol, Janes purrs that everything has been vetted and approved by the network—and by him, leaving the flabbergasted underling to spit, “You’ve got nothing left, Michael. You’re nothing but a fucking shell with goo inside.”
Similar insults have certainly been hurled Lorne Michaels’ way since the announcement that Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump will be hosting SNL on November 7. There have been outcries over hosts before, most notably the Andrew Dice Clay debacle of 1990, when Michaels was roundly criticized for booking the infamously offensive standup and saw cast member Nora Dunn famously walk off the show in protest. On the political front, the closest analogy to the Trump gig came in 2003, when Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton hosted, prompting all of Iowa’s NBC affiliates to drop the show for the night, ostensibly due to concerns over interpreting the “equal time” rule for political TV time.
There, however, Sharpton was the longest of shots in the race, while Trump, depending on the week, is the Republican frontrunner. He is also, according to a lot of people, a bigot, or is at least pandering to the racist fringes of the GOP to garner support for his improbably successful bid to be the leader of the free world. As of this writing, groups including the National Hispanic Media Coalition, the National Council Of La Raza, and the National Hispanic Foundation For The Arts are pushing for NBC to pull Trump’s invitation on the grounds that his inflammatory racial rhetoric will be given legitimacy by an appearance in Studio 8H. Trump’s typically blunt response to these 40-some organizations is that all the outrage will guarantee even bigger ratings than the bumps Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon got when he appeared as guests on their respective talk shows in October and September. It’s hard not to lapse into an inner Trump here—“The ratings are gonna be yuuuuuge!”
What’s most baffling to some is that SNL—routinely called out for its liberal comic biases—seems to be endorsing Trump. Sure, he hosted once before back in 2004, but he was then most notable as the catchphrase-spewing host of NBC’s reality show The Apprentice, and the joshing he took was of the type the show is most comfortable with. Darrell Hammond did his Trump impression, and Trump played the boorish, self-aggrandizing blowhard the show needed him to be for the expected bits to land harmlessly. Now, however, SNL and Michaels are welcoming a bewilderingly viable presidential candidate to NBC’s airwaves for 90 minutes, a guy who’s made the demonization of certain, non-white ethnic groups a cornerstone of his appeal. As angry as some people are, they’re also confused. They shouldn’t be. SNL’s reputation as a radical television program has always rested more on its irreverence toward the medium than on its political satire.
Playing the “not what it used to be” game is as old as the second season of SNL itself, but the idea that the show isn’t as biting politically as it once was has taken center stage in the Trump debate. People point to the first few years, when the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam mood supposedly made 8H a hotbed of radicalism. The truth is that SNL, while informed by the sensibilities of its mostly young, white, and liberal creative talent, was hardly engaging in groundbreaking social satire. Online denunciations of the Trump decision have pointed to the time Al Franken famously refused Henry Kissinger tickets to the show because of the illegal bombing of Cambodia, eliding the fact that the notorious smartass, loose cannon, and current U.S. senator wasn’t speaking for Michaels when he did it. (Franken similarly got told off when he ambushed disgraced Richard Nixon Vice President Spiro Agnew in the makeup chair at Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow show.)
SNL’s political material, even in those scruffier salad days, leaned more on performance and silliness—not that that couldn’t be effective. Chevy Chase’s bumbling, nonsensical Gerald Ford helped cement the image of the conservative president as a moronic, ineffectual stumblebum. That, in addition to the time the show hoodwinked Ford Press Secretary Ron Nessen by surrounding the host’s “we can take a joke” appearance—complete with a pre-taped Ford saying “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night”—with its raunchiest, grossest material yet, certainly did the Republican president no favors. (Nessen’s episode is the one featuring a commercial for jams called “Dog Vomit,” “Deathcamp,” and “Painful Rectal Itch.”) If there’s one instance of Michaels making an overt, SNL-sanctioned political stand in those first five years, it’s when, on Weekend Update, Chase set up a new campaign ad for Jimmy Carter—and then rolled a recording of Ford’s speech pardoning Nixon, followed by venerable announcer Don Pardo rather chillingly intoning “Four more years.” Cold, effective, and sort of ballsy, it’s the kind of pointed content that recurred far more often in the imagination of those hoping for SNL to take a stand this week.
Political edge on SNL usually comes when someone’s allowed to fashion a personal fiefdom inside the show. On Update, Tina Fey consistently found a way to be incisive and funny at the same time; later, Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler’s “Really?” segments emerged as a refreshingly cathartic feature. TV Funhouse didn’t just have Robert Smigel’s name (rather than Michaels’) attached to it—its animation schedule kept its production relatively autonomous. TV Funhouse’s regular intro saw a dog stripping away the show proper and an animated Lorne running after it, with a vocal caricature of the SNL boss yelling, “Give me back my show!” Michaels even once took back SNL from Smigel. After a typically biting bit called “Conspiracy Theory Rock” criticized a few large corporations—including then-NBC parent G.E.—for monopolizing the news media, Michaels had the cartoon pulled from all subsequent reruns. Michaels says “Conspiracy Theory Rock” just wasn’t funny enough; in a self-fulfilling prophecy, the move spawned its own conspiracy theory by suggesting the producer’s fealty to the powers that be.
The mantra that Michaels and SNL writers and performers recite whenever asked about the show’s political humor is that they make fun of both sides, which, is true—depending on how you define “making fun.” Legendary longtime SNL writer Jim Downey (for decades, the show’s token conservative voice) can come off as a contrarian: In the SNL oral history Live From New York, he’s on record as thinking the widely lauded Tina Fey-as-Sarah Palin sketches weren’t so hot, but he makes the valid point that SNL’s approach to mocking right- and left-wing political figures is very different. Dubbing himself a “conservative Democrat,” Downey is understandably critical of the fact that conservative politicians are traditionally roasted on the show for their ideas—which makes them out to be cold, mean, variably racist people—whereas figures on the political left tend to be called out for being too bookish, or socially awkward, or not particularly good at politics. That’s fair enough when looking back at SNL jokes about Al Gore, Michael Dukakis, and John Kerry, and the current commander-in-chief, whose actuals beliefs go unscathed.
But that’s not to say that SNL should be more conservative than it is. In his career, Michaels has been shown to be as left-leaning as a pampered multi-millionaire mogul can be, and while SNL was never the bastion of radicalism conservative critics or rose-colored hindsight would have it be, it’s hardly a haven for right-wingers. The show’s humor consistently veers left. Why that traditionally remains true of most good comedy is a fight for another day, but SNL has remained successful for so long because it seeks the heat wherever it lives that week. But if the hot target is of the left, the tone of the comedy is different than if, say, a Republican presidential candidate comes out and states that Mexican people coming to America are “criminals, drug dealers, [and] rapists,” or mentions immigrants within the same breath as the statement “tremendous infectious disease is pouring across the border.” (Just a tip for political candidates: If you start a statement like “Mexicans are…” and end with anything but “…from Mexico,” you’re saying something racist.) A public figure saying something racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic—that’s when SNL, for all its often-tepid social satire, will traditionally hold up that person for scorn. Donald Trump is guilty of all of those things. Whether he truly believes them or is saying them to pick up votes from those who do (and which is worse?) is beside the point when the show is giving him a platform.
The usual strategy when a political figure guests is to let them show that they’re human, that they can take a joke and needle a few back, and then everyone hugs during the goodnights. Hillary Clinton’s recent appearance rather smartly broke the mold, folding the process into an actual sketch, where the push and pull was given a few new levels to work on. But what will the show do with Trump, a major New York figure, presidential hopeful, and a former host?
When the Palin material was the talk of the country, her requisite appearance was pared down to a noncommittal cameo, watching Fey’s Palin from the monitor backstage with Michaels. In the process, she’s mistaken for Fey by show pal, noted liberal, and Fey’s 30 Rock co-star Alec Baldwin, who got to call Palin “that horrible woman” and berate Michaels for betraying “everything we stand for” by having her on the show. In her memoir Bossypants, Fey talked about the thought that went into the scene, expressing her unwillingness to appear to be supporting Palin’s views while still giving the people and the network the Palin appearance that they wanted. As is true with Trump’s current White House bid, Fey spoke specifically of how Palin and John McCain’s supporters were picking up on—and escalating—the coded racism in the candidates’ stump speeches, and that the candidates weren’t exactly going out of their way to discourage them. But Fey’s not around anymore—she wasn’t on SNL anymore back then, either, but she participated in shaping her Palin sketches. Even if she were, Trump’s coming gig presents a seemingly untenable situation for those in charge of coming up with material. So far, the cast and writers have been silent on the subject, a fact that further suggests interference from on high in order to ensure Trump’s participation. (Talk about an SNL conspiracy theory.)
While it’s entirely possible the show will take the normal route of having Trump rub shoulders with Taran Killam’s serviceable faux Trump in the monologue, and trade a few affectionate jabs with the cast (and absorb a few typically watery ones from the Update desk), following that tired, innocuous script will not only infuriate Trump critics, but will provide SNL critics with incontrovertible proof of the show’s long-rumored irrelevance. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine that the show will openly insult or even meaningfully challenge its guest. Apart from NBC’s fear of losing a guaranteed ratings smash, it’s unlikely the show would have the nerve to do anything even as sneakily subversive as it once did to Ron Nessen.
Which brings us back to Bob Roberts. It’s reductive to think Lorne Michaels is as mercenary and spineless as his big-screen doppelgänger—isolated and increasingly out of touch as Michaels sometimes seems, he’s hardly a ratings-grubbing philistine. He’s got blind spots about his show (its gender and ethnic makeup, for one major thing), but he’s also given a whole lot of funny people a chance to express their very different creative sensibilities on SNL. Plus, a 90-minute live comedy show every week is a ridiculously bold endeavor in itself, one whose uniqueness and degree of difficulty is perpetually underrated. A 90-minute, meticulously polished, pre-taped comedy show might be more consistent, but it won’t be on the air for 41 years. With all that taken into account, Michaels’ decision to have Donald Trump on his show is a dismaying, and, yes, puzzling thing. (If it indeed is Michaels’ decision—I look forward to reading the updated Live From New York edition that covers the last few weeks in a few years.) Having Trump host is a no-win situation for SNL, because, no matter what it does, Trump will have what he wants most: the undivided attention of what’s sure to be the biggest SNL audience of the year.