As they say, the show must go on. And after a tragic week so unrelentingly awful that Tom Petty’s death barely reverberated, Saturday Night Live did.
Although the internet seemed to go most crazy over a sketch that featured a stunt-makeout between Kate McKinnon and guest host Gal Gadot, this week’s episode was most notable for what was missing: namely, Donald Trump. By excluding the chaos-magnet president from this week’s narrative, SNL handled the Las Vegas massacre with more class than Trump himself did.
The show was on summer hiatus earlier this year when a bomber killed 22 people at a concert in Manchester; and also in 2016, when an Orlando gunman carried out what was then the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history. In fact, the last time SNL had to respond to a similar tragedy was after the concert shooting in Paris back in November 2015. Cecily Strong opened the show that night by conveying SNL’s and New York City’s solidarity with the people of Paris–first in English and then in surprisingly fluent French. It was a gesture that echoed another time the show acknowledged a horrible tragedy without humor: The first cold open after 9/11, when then-mayor Rudy Giuliani appeared flanked by first responders, and Paul Simon performed “The Boxer” as a message of resiliency.
This week’s episode followed in the footsteps of its post-tragedy predecessors and also managed to squeeze in a Tom Petty tribute, with Jason Aldean covering “Won’t Back Down.” There was palpable gravity in seeing the singer with newly haunted eyes address the shooting, which took place during his Las Vegas performance last Sunday night at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival. It also sent a signal that this would be an unusual night of sketch comedy.
It must have been obvious to the writers that this wasn’t going to be a particularly rollicking episode. Some of SNL‘s most effective routes to laughter may have felt disrespectful in light of this week’s events. Instead, the show played it safe, giving Alec Baldwin the night off and eschewing politics–along with any other subject likely to offend. (Weekend Update, of course, is a different story, but we’ll get to that in a moment.) A fake commercial promoting celebrity-centric network E!’s breezy fall line-up included a meta-commentary on the need for nonpartisan nonsense at this moment.
“The world is a complete bummer right now, so turn your brain off,” a voiceover suggests before showing previews of the approximately 10,000 Kardashianic permutations coming up. Such nicely vague allusions to the current state of the world encompass Trump, the Vegas shooting, and all the natural disasters of late–without getting specific enough to turn anyone off.
The rest of the episode continues this trend of avoiding anything that might rub viewers the wrong way, ideologically–to its detriment in some instances. Weekend Update, of course, is the lone oasis dropping the facade that SNL does not lean any one way politically. Michael Che and Colin Jost spend nearly four minutes on the Las Vegas massacre, going all in on gun control. “This shouldn’t be a partisan issue,” Jost says, before offering several solid jokes about why limiting gun access should just be considered common sense.
During the segment, the hosts limit Trump’s involvement to a dig at his misadventures in Puerto Rico, and a suggestion for how to trick him into reversing the second amendment. They mostly back off of the president’s response to the shooting, even though Trump gave them plenty to work with. He waited longer to respond at all to the attack than he has in the past with any act of terror perpetrated by non-whites, demonstrating a double standard. When he did respond, he tweeted the bafflingly alien-like salutation, “warmest condolences.” He called the shooting in Las Vegas “in many ways, a miracle.” And perhaps most gallingly, on a day of national mourning, Trump forced Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to stage an impromptu press conference addressing reports that Tillerson had called the president “a moron.” This story, and Trump’s authoritarian rush to publicly debunk it, ended up overshadowing a presidential trip to Las Vegas to meet with victims and first responders.
SNL had the decency to leave Trump out of its response to the horror in Las Vegas. If only Trump had that decency, too.