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‘SNL’ is having a post-Trump renaissance, despite what you may have heard

Elon Musk aside, the spotlight on ‘SNL’ has dimmed since the election. You’re missing a show firing on almost all cylinders.

‘SNL’ is having a post-Trump renaissance, despite what you may have heard
[Photo: Will Heath/NBC]
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During a chaotic few weeks that saw an Afghanistan troop-withdrawal order, a Republican intra-party cancel-culture fiasco, major shifts in CDC guidelines on COVID-19, and a horrendous tipping point in the Gaza Strip conflict, one of the most enduring conversation topics was . . . Elon Musk’s episode of Saturday Night Live.

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The lead-up to the show, its immediate aftermath, and Musk’s subsequent actions around crypto all generated separate, connected discourses. But one thread woven throughout the entire saga—by Musk’s fans and critics alike—was the burning fact of SNL‘s irrelevance and overall state of disrepair. A lot of folks felt compelled to express either that the show hasn’t been funny in years or that they haven’t watched it in years, twin sentiments that cancel each other out. All this slander is a shame, however, because at least in this critic’s eyes, coming out of the Trump era, SNL has quietly become about as strong as it’s ever been.

Trump’s presidency started out as both a gift and a curse for the preeminent late-night comedy show, but it quickly curdled into just a curse. Too much was happening in the news, all the time, and it was often either too stupid or too terrifying to see rehashed in thunderingly redundant cold-open sketches each week. Trump proved intermittently great for SNL‘s ratings, but by 2020, audiences seemed burnt out on all the attendant turmoil reflected on the show, even beyond their exhaustion with Alec Baldwin’s noxious impersonation.

Only the first handful of the current season’s 18 episodes aired before America voted Trump out, though. While the Chris Rock-hosted premiere felt like more of the same, with high-profile pinch hitters such as Jim Carrey and 15-minute cold opens recapping yet another political debate, something had shifted within the show. More Trump-related material seemed to focus on less-explored topics such as the self-serving liberal pageantry around the then-president. One election PSA featured the cast posing as voters, voicing concern about just what the hell they would even talk about if Trump were no longer president—a question that some cynically minded viewers (and the writer of this article) might have wondered about the show itself.

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As much as Trump seemed to delight in being the main thing Americans were talking about at any given time, two topics had already superseded him in conversation by last fall: COVID-19 and systemic racism. Sure enough, SNL got some of its best material in years by paying more attention to those issues than the outgoing chief executive.

Over the past 15 months, the show has had the unenviable task of first finding a way to even exist during a pandemic, and then mine humor from every discrete phase of it. SNL was still in production as serious fears about COVID-19 seeped into the U.S., took a brief break during the early full-tilt panic stage, and then closed out its 45th season with a series of remote episodes. By the time the show resumed last fall, COVID-19 had become fodder for material rather than an inhibitor of it. SNL weighed in on ridiculous anti-lockdown protesters, the awkwardness of outdoor hangs with friends and indoor hangs with one’s pod, the inability to go home for Christmas, and the agony and ecstasy of pre-vaccine horniness and post-vaccine dating. The pandemic hit each person in different ways, but in casting a wide net SNL likely nailed at least one of them for just about everybody.

The show’s commentary on racism this season has been equally sharp and incisive. The show touched on corporate pandering and the icky motivations behind it, misguided white allyship, and wide-ranging discord around the Derek Chauvin trial. One sketch, however, approached a certain class of ostensibly well-meaning white people with particular acuity, humor, and intelligence. The fake ad for 5-Hour Empathy laid bare the fleeting nature of those heavy donations and antiracism reading lists; how empathy was something many white people might just flick on and off like a switch (or never flip on in the first place, or think they flipped on when they actually did not.

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Elsewhere on the show this season, the absurdist current that has always run through SNL (if too often relegated to the “10 to 1” spot) has flourished with delightfully unhinged sketches such as the Mr. Chicken Legs pageant, the Tiny Horse song, and Bowen Yang’s tour de force turn as the iceberg that sank the Titanic.

In its topical sketches, delightful turns toward nonsense, and everything in between, the show has lately often been firing on all cylinders.

The forever problem with Saturday Night Live has always been inconsistency. No matter what any random viewer remembers as their favorite season, I guarantee it would not hold up from episode to episode upon revisiting today. And guess what? The show remains inconsistent. That Elon Musk visit wasn’t the only time things went a bit off the rails in the current season. Fortunately, SNL is navigating the post-Trump and possibly soon-to-be post-COVID-19 era with aplomb and finding other areas of How We Live Now to tackle in its own way. Although it looks like there may be fewer reasons than ever to stay in on a Saturday night by the time the show returns next season, odds are that something well worth watching will be on for those who do so.

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Have a look below at some other memorable sketches from this past season.