Last Week Tonight with John Oliver has had a running bit this season, in which the show gets messages directly to President Trump. (Calling him that still feels cosmically incorrect, like saying “Doctor Santa Claus” or Diet Heroin.) Oliver’s methodology involves buying ad space on Fox News during shows Trump watches, like hiding a pill in peanut butter. Alternatively, though, if Oliver is determined to make sure Trump hears what he has to say, he could seed a scene into Saturday Night Live.
Although Trump doesn’t tweet about SNL these days as much as he used to, he obviously still watches some of it–and it’s still a thorn in his side. Reports keep emerging about how the president engages with the show, a fact that is certainly not lost on the writers. Watching SNL now is like if John Oliver snuck messages into the whole runtime of Fox and Friends, instead of just the occasional ad. The show is aware of its impact and now may be hoping to use it to manipulate the president like Fox News does.
Jimmy Fallon made it clear in his opening monologue–one long dance number–that he came to party, not to make political satire so riveting viewers almost forget about when he turned Trump into a cuddly grampa on The Tonight Show two months before the election. The writers, however, had other ideas, with some searing political sketches, a fiery Weekend Update, and no less than three separate instances of laying into United Airlines as it endures one of the worst PR weeks of the modern era. Fallon may have been completely silent during his turn as Jared Kushner in the cold open, but the character’s presence spoke volumes.
The sketch covers tons of topical ground before Kushner even makes his appearance–with the delightful, hopefully sticky nickname: Kushball. Alec Baldwin’s Trump discusses his first 100 days with Beck Bennett as Mike Pence, going over all the many non-starters and broken campaign promises, along with the excessive amount of time spent at the private business venture he owns–Mar-a-Lago. But it’s when Trump brings in Kushner, his “little Jewish Amelie,” that things get interesting.
Fallon appears as the 36-year-old foreign policy Svengali wearing that instantly immortalized ill-fitting flak jacket. He’s summoned to the Oval Office for a climactic installment of, well, if not exactly The Apprentice, a reality competition called Who’s My Number Two? Kushner has to face off against Steve Bannon, represented once again as the shrouded, skeletal specter of death. As seems to be the case in real life, Kushner wins and Bannon is ousted back to hell. Here is where the show’s writers signal an awareness of their impact.
One of the reported reasons for chief strategist Bannon’s diminished stature in recent weeks is Trump’s apparent distaste for all the President Bannon jokes in public discourse. There was even a protest movement created to inflate this perception by sending the White House postcards addressed to “President Bannon.” But the portrayal that may have made Trump the most upset is when an SNL sketch ended with Bannon sitting at the president’s desk and Trump playing with a toy at a tiny desk on the floor. This moment seems now like the inciting incident of what led to Trump declaring last week: “I like Steve, but you have to remember he was not involved in my campaign until very late… I’m my own strategist.” What’s clear from the way this most recent sketch ends is that SNL would like to cast Kushner in the same shadow-ruler light, so that the president may turn on him too, and actually get, you know, an elected official who knows what the hell they’re doing as an adviser. The scene closes with a callback to the offending sketch from February, with Kushner easing into the president’s desk, and Trump once again plopping down on the floor to play with a toy while the grown-ups make decisions. This is the show’s way of saying, “Game on, Kushner.”
The other major political message this week that seemed addressed directly to Trump came with the return of Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer.
Spicer’s week wasn’t quite as much of a PR fiasco as United’s, but it was a close race. After invoking moral relativism between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Adolph Hitler, Spicer bungled several non-apologies before finally approaching a sincere mea culpa. McCarthy’s parody of the press secretary found a couple interesting wrinkles with putting a semi-apologetic, Easter Bunny suit-clad Spicer on the defensive, but what really stood out was the sketch’s dark ending. A major difficulty of working on SNL or any late night show, really, during these politically chaotic times is that there is always late-breaking news that renders some of your prepared material redundant. In the case of this past week, the late news involved increasing tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, culminating in a failed missile test on the NK side and some nuclear saber-rattling on ours. While the story came up on Weekend Update, the writers also wedged it into the end of the Spicer sketch.
“Oh and by the way, the president’s probably going to bomb North Korea tonight,” McCarthy says, not even sounding like she’s impersonating Spicer at this point, but merely reminding viewers of their actual current circumstances. “Everybody, just eat as much candy as you want because this is probably our last Easter on Earth.”
It’s a bleak note to end a sketch on, designed to reflect the gravity of the national mood back at the audience–an audience the writers know includes the impressionable president himself.