Why Saturday Night Live Destroys Trump, and John Oliver Doesn’t

Photo: Getty Images, NBC

Last weekend, in Tampa, Florida, 200 people who paid to see Amy Schumer perform stand-up at Amalie Arena walked out in the middle of the show. (Total attendance was over 10,000.) Though we can’t know for sure (maybe Tampa's babysitters union demands an early curfew), the sense is that they left because things got too political. Schumer talked about gun control and called Donald Trump an “orange, sexual-assaulting, fake-college-starting monster,” resulting in a mix of boos and cheers. "I don't want to hear that. We wanted to have a good night without distractions with the politics," one walker told the Tampa Bay Times.

Whatever the reason for it, the Schumer walkout encapsulates a couple of long-standing media trends that have reached a peak during the Obama years: the tremendous boom of entertainment content, especially on TV, which has replaced mass audiences with niches; and political polarization, abetted by social media. The two have combined this election season in a big way: No two late-night shows have been more critically praised than Last Week Tonight With John Oliver and Full Frontal With Samantha Bee; not coincidentally, they are also the two shows that are the most unabashedly liberal.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently tried to blame the transparent bias of Oliver and Bee for creating a culture divide that resulted in the rise of Trump, but it would be more accurate to say that they are reacting to the divide by speaking to their side — informing them, and weaponizing them for a future debate on Facebook with that one friend from high school. This is something new. Johnny Carson would joke around about politicians, but the critiques were usually surface-level and agreeable. Jay Leno and even David Letterman maintained detachment from the political weeds (although Letterman occasionally tipped his liberal hand). Jon Stewart institutionalized comedic political commentary and eventually led to Oliver and Bee, but he still aspired to make fun of both sides.

The result, especially in the case of Bee, is catharsis. But is it persuasion? As Bee told Time, “I don’t think we move the needle at all,” referring to the fact that her audience is made up of people who already agree with her. Preaching to the converted can definitely result in great comedy — it’s easier to get people to laugh if they are coming to the joke from similar perspectives. But does it change minds? Schumer broke out with issue-oriented sketches — like the one about rape culture, or the one about a gun-show loophole — that went viral as people shared them on social media, partly as a way of communicating the stance they had on the issue all along. Perhaps the people who left on Sunday night only knew Schumer from Trainwreck, an apolitical hit movie comedy.

On Monday, Howard Stern offered a counter example when he said on his show that he doesn't intend to play all the tapes he has of Donald Trump appearances, even if he knows they would be incriminating. "I feel Donald Trump did the show in an effort to be entertaining and have fun with us, and I feel like it would be a betrayal to any of our guests if I sat there and played them now where people are attacking him," Stern said.

This is a defense of old-school neutrality (although Stern is a vocal Clinton supporter). Even if Stern is upholding a certain level of courtesy and empathy here, there’s also a more self-serving implication: Why would anyone ever be candid with him if they knew Stern could potentially sell them out later? Stern might never have gotten the incriminating quotes in the first place if he were perceived as hostile. It also makes it easier for Stern to criticize Trump to an audience that undeniably includes a large contingent of conservative men.

That is the power of having both sides on your show. Lorne Michaels has long worked hard to maintain the perception that SNL makes fun of the left and the right, to the frustration of employees like Horatio Sanz, who called former head writer Jim Downey "the Karl Rove of SNL" for writing what Sanz believed to be pro-Bush sketches. Partly, this is a business decision: You don't stay on the air for 40-plus years if every four years you alienate half of your potential audience. Just as important, though, it positions the show's comedy to hit harder.

There has been a liberal argument this election season that letting Trump appear on late night at all, or treating him with anything less than disdain when he does, is tantamount to “normalizing” him — making a candidate whose statements and positions should be considered beyond the pale look like just another politician. Ralph Nader, Al Gore, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain have all hosted Saturday Night Live, but when Donald Trump did it last year, there was an unprecedented backlash, including  a “Dump Trump” rally outside 30 Rock. (Jimmy Fallon’s softball treatment of Trump on The Tonight Show this year was met with similar outrage.) Even though SNL has now moved on to its traditional skewering of both candidates, some critics still think the damage has been done: The Ringer recently called the show "defanged," and Yahoo’s Ken Tucker wondered if SNL is "helping Trump get elected."

But let's say there was a bully in your junior high. What will hurt him more: the nerds saying he's a mean jerk or the older kid who reveals, "I hung out with him once and that dude sucks"? I contend the latter. (If you think neutral shows can't effectively criticize, consider Stephen Colbert, who was still able to “destroy” Trump during the candidate’s September and February appearances on the program.) At least that's what Trump's tweet from this weekend implies:

It is not as if the most recent debate sketch was more vicious than other jokes directed Trump’s way during this campaign (though the "committed so many crimes, she's basically a black" line was rough stuff); it was that SNL was doing it. You don't see Trump complaining about Bee because her show is expected to go after him. Trump did respond to both Oliver and Seth Meyers (the most vocally biased of the network late-nighters) once, after each said publicly they didn't want him on their show*, with Trump saying the same thing: They have low ratings.

That’s a reflexive response for Trump; he doesn’t actually know the ratings. But that’s not how he responded to SNL. He says it’s not funny to him (and his people), but he tacitly acknowledges that he (and his people) watch it.  If one of comedy's functions is speaking truth to power, it sure helps if the powerful are actually listening. And it helps if the powerful's potential followers are also listening (SNL's first two episodes of this season were watched on TV by 11.8 and 7 million people respectively; the average Oliver or Bee episode reaches about 1 million). The perception of neutrality helps.

Though they might’ve indulged Trump more than some are comfortable with, neither SNL nor Stern are letting him off the hook. In his recent comments about Trump, Stern mocked the idea of "locker-room talk." And that most recent debate sketch was one of three about Trump in the last episode of SNL — not including “Weekend Update,” which was particularly harsh to the Republican nominee. (Clinton was only part of the debate sketch, and she was portrayed favorably; in “Weekend Update,” WikiLeaks was just used to set up Kate McKinnon’s Russian character.) The difference is that some of those people who walked out on Amy Schumer might have stayed tuned in when SNL parodied Lemonade, with Melania as Beyoncé singing, “Without us you wouldn’t be standing there / You’d just be that guy with the weird hair.”

* The story previously stated that Trump also responded to Oliver after Last Week Tonight's big Drumpf episode.