It’s been a long summer, in a way that seems temporally impossible. Next month will see the return of Saturday Night Live, with host Ryan Gosling and musical guest Jay Z. If the vast expanse of time between now and the season finale back in late-May has made our collective memory a little fuzzy on how the show handles Trumpian sketches, though, last night served as a not-incredibly-flattering reminder.
Weekend Update: Summer Edition started with a sketch that would’ve no doubt been the cold open on SNL proper. Alec Baldwin recreated Trump’s chilling rally in Phoenix Tuesday night, the source of much controversy throughout the week. The actor-turned-professional-Trump-impersonator went through the major beats of the rally, in the manner of someone ticking off items on a to-do list. Just how funny viewers found it likely depended on how raw their anger remained about the actual rally.
People mildly upset might have enjoyed moments such as Baldwin’s Trump pulling out a list of his prior remarks on Charlottesville, and accidentally reciting the Access Hollywood tape transcript. But for anyone who saw in Trump’s Phoenix rally further support for white supremacists, an escalation of his attack on the media, and a threat of government shutdown if his unpopular border wall is not funded–those people required more reason to laugh than just a satirical play-by-play.
A lot of things happened over this long, grueling summer. Millions of Americans were inches away from losing healthcare, the president announced a ban on transgender military personnel, and the conversation on Russia first heated up to a boiling point and then suddenly seemed less important when the president offered unambiguous support for the “very fine people” marching with Nazis and KKK in Charlottesville. All of that doesn’t mean SNL shouldn’t make topical comedy. By all means, bring it on. We’ve entered a new phase, though, and we need new strains of comedy to go along with it.
Being reactive to news by slavishly recreating it works sometimes, obviously. Melissa McCarthy’s take on Sean Spicer was thrilling because of the performance and because the writers came up with some brash, absurdist ideas for heightening the source material. (Using puppets as props, for example, and the mobile podium.) If there’s no clear way to innovate on the news at hand, though, perhaps it’s time to abandon the news and take what’s jarring about it in an unexpected direction.
Here's more proof that the greatest minds think alike. pic.twitter.com/BaWgVAT83N
— The President Show (@PresidentShow) August 24, 2017
Instead of reacting to the news, the show should predict it. Anthony Atamanuik has had a lot of success with The President Show in that regard. For instance, The President Show filmed a sketch in which Trump defiantly looks right into the eclipse and half-blinds himself… three weeks before the eclipse. Weekend Update: Summer Edition started with Baldwin’s Trump wearing dark glasses as he wobbles to the podium, after enough time and craziness had passed that viewers were less likely to even remember Trump actually did look into the eclipse on Monday.
To be fair, SNL truly was innovative many times last season, during a time when late night comedy shows were thrust into uncharted territory, along with the rest of the world. They will likely do so again this season. But if this particular sketch is a hint of what SNL has in store for fall, it’s going to fall flat.