“It’s great to be here at Saturday Night Live,” Donald Trump said when he first hosted the show, back in 2004. “But I'll be completely honest: it’s even greater for Saturday Night Live that I'm here.” At the time, this statement was probably true. Trump was hot off of The Apprentice, a television program about Donald Trump firing people, and his appearance was a synergistic ratings boon to a fellow NBC show. The venerable comedy institution benefited because in 2004, the main reasons to dislike Donald Trump were merely his arrogance, his lifestyle, and the fact that his hair was impossible. All of those things are still true, but since last hosting, Donald Trump has also said and done so many despicable things that taking the reins of the Birther movement against President Obama almost doesn't crack the top five. (Almost!) Before last night, it would have been difficult to say who in November 2015 profits more from Donald Trump being on SNL. After watching this epic miscalculation, though, it’s clear that nobody wins; not Trump, not the show, and certainly not us.
Saturday Night Live has always been a place where political figures have gone to humanize themselves. On HBO’s presidential comedy, Veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s then-VP Selina Meyer goes on SNL to prove she was a good sport amid a minor scandal. Hillary Clinton did so spectacularly just a few weeks ago. Sometimes, however, instead of defanging the satire, politicians succumb to it. Sarah Palin’s climactic appearance in 2008 sort of over-humanized her, giving the world permission to vastly prefer Tina Fey’s version forever. With Trump, it’s difficult to understand how he — an entertainer and entrepreneur with an astoundingly troubling xenophobic worldview — even emerged as a legitimate political figure. Could we really put all that aside for a night and watch him be cute on SNL? Apart from moral question of whether Trump should be given the keys to this vaunted comedy castle while running for president, there’s also the issue of whether it would be funny if he did. Despite his years honing crack comedic timing by firing people on TV, the answer is an emphatic, definitive no.
Not only was Trump not funny during his meager 12 minutes of screen time on Saturday Night Live, he proved to be a black hole of comedic antimatter through which no humor could escape. Even the many sketches Trump did not appear in lacked any punch or bite, to the point where it feels safe to assume many of the writers and performers either didn’t want to waste their best stuff on an episode their friends would be studiously avoiding, or they took an intentional dive out of some sort of spiritual crisis. In Trump’s previous hosting effort, he played himself in multiple sketches, talked up the high ratings of the show where he fired people, and even managed to plug his latest book. The scenario played out pretty much the same this time, subbing in his polls for Apprentice ratings — with the writers again finding a way to mention his most recent book on Weekend Update, the only part of the episode bearing any signs of life. By the time musical guest Sia showed up with her hair covering her face, you had to wonder if maybe she'd cultivated the whole face-hiding thing she’s been doing for two album cycles specifically because she knew she’d one day be on SNL with Trump.
MSNBC Forum Cold Open
Larry David’s opener is a rare bright spot. He reprises his portrayal of Bernie Sanders from the recent Tracy Morgan episode. This time, rather than a debate, the context is the Rachel Maddow–hosted Democratic Candidates Forum — a thing whose existence nobody can quite explain. At first, David’s appearance feels like another exercise in diminished returns, but the bit culminating in “vacuum-pennies” redeemed the whole thing and then some. Kate McKinnon also continues to have fun with Hillary Clinton’s mutable identity and eagerness to pander.
As he did in his 2004 monologue, Trump walks out very slowly to address the crowd — he will get there in his own time, thank you very much. He might not have bothered. There’s no real idea here, just a forced sequence where Aidy Bryant highlights her physical resemblance to Rosie O’Donnell — which sort of broke my heart — and an on-deck Darrell Hammond dusting off his Trump imitation. (Taran Killam had one, too, rounding out the total onstage Trumps to three.) The only mildly interesting thing was Larry David pretending to heckle Trump by yelling out “You’re a racist” at a key moment. Our host’s unperturbed reaction, though, and an immediate pan to David, confirms that this was indeed a planned thing, not that a million clickbait headlines won't pretend otherwise. In any case, it’s a rather uninspired way to address the elephant in the room, which is that Trump has said hateful things very recently in a public bid to become president of the United States.
White House 2018
Speaking of which, the first sketch to feature Trump takes place halfway through his first term as commander in chief. It turns out, everything worked out great, but only in a bizarre, Twilight Zone–type way, in which the president of Mexico is grateful for the awesome wall we built bordering his country, and is happy to pay for it, too. This would all have a shot at being funny if Trump weren't actually running for president, and a scary amount of people didn't support his impossible reality. When Trump breaks the fourth wall to address the audience directly — “I said to the writers of this sketch, ‘Keep it modest’” — nobody in the audience feels compelled to laugh. This becomes a trend: both the studio audience not laughing, and Trump breaking the fourth wall so many times you can’t help but wish it would just fall down on him.
Over the past couple years, SNL has been full of female-centric digital shorts that liven up their surrounding episodes — “Back Home Ballers” and “Dongs All Over The World” among them. When this sketch started, it looked to be cut from the same cloth — and, unfortunately, that's also its undoing. “Bad Girls” is an overly familiar celebration of minor breaches of the social contract, the kind seen most recently in “Say What You Want To Say” from the Dakota Johnson episode. The juxtaposition of cutting from a squad of Imperator Furiosas jamming out, M.I.A.-style, to a trio lying to a hostess in order to get seated before the entire party arrives, felt a little stale. Everybody involved deserves better and has delivered better before. For a digital sketch that doesn’t feature Trump to miss the mark is truly dispiriting.
The conceit here is that Trump wouldn’t appear in a restaurant sketch, so instead he’s live-tweeting it. But Trump was on the show so little this episode, and so often as himself, that his appearance altogether was more like a live-tweeting session anyway. There’s also the sneaking suspicion that the discomfort the cast members are projecting here as they anticipate what Trump is going to tweet about them likely lines up with some actual discomfort. Ultimately, I’d way rather have read along as any one cast member live-tweeted the entire episode than watch most of these sketches.
“Hotline Bling” Parody
You know your SNL episode is in big trouble when the sight of Martin Short as Ed Grimley dancing in a Drake parody can’t even momentarily raise the bar.
Weekend Update felt like a glimmering oasis in a world gone mad. Leslie Jones had one of her best desk pieces in some time, condemning men’s texting game in fiery fashion. Colin Jost and Michael Che had fun with all the recent Ben Carson revelations, which are already funny even without sharp jokes. And Bobby Moynihan stole the show with a long, barbed bit about his Drunk Uncle character being the world’s biggest Trump supporter. (Seriously, I would pay a princely sum to see footage of Trump watching this part of the show in real time.) It was a Pyrrhic victory, though, because everything said at Trump’s expense during Weekend Update — and the rest of the show by extension — only reinforces why SNL probably should have sat this idea out. If the writers really feel this way, and if they think the audience feels this way, too, why give someone with such dangerous ideas a platform or the chance to be in on the joke?
In an episode full of nadirs, this was perhaps the most nadir-y of all. Let us never speak of it again.
Before introducing Sia for the second time, Trump reunites with the musical guest from his 2004 episode, Toots from Toots and the Maytals, played here by Kenan Thompson. Lorne Michaels or someone seems to want to keep reminding us that Trump hosted the show before, as if that somehow legitimized his comedy credentials.
Porn Stars: Donald Trump
For his grand finale, the black hole of comedic antimatter that is Trump sucks all the fun out of Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong's long-running Porn Stars series. The product the ladies are shilling for and mispronouncing this time is nightmarishly viable political candidate Trump. Somehow, the dude won't even appear as himself until the very end, at which point he comes out to address the audience directly. (Again.) The problem with this sketch, finally, is the same problem with the entire concept of Trump hosting Saturday Night Live at all: The joke of Donald Trump is neither fun nor funny anymore.