This weekend’s Saturday Night Live wasn’t very good. There have definitely been worse episodes, sure, but this one fell somewhere below the median. It is an episode that I would normally characterize as “unremarkable,” but SNL, a show that has been inherently hit or miss since its start, is currently in a weird position of relevance that results in a flood of people remarking on it. Its ratings are higher than they’ve been in years. Because the current president has a history of watching and commenting on SNL, people have high expectations of a show that is at its best and most surprising when the opposite is true.
SNL was created with a “let’s put on a show” scrappiness. The first presidential impersonation was Chevy Chase not really doing an impersonation at all of Gerald Ford. Dan Aykroyd wouldn’t even shave his mustache for the show’s second presidential impersonation, Jimmy Carter. The writing was often loose in order to give the Second City–trained cast of improvisers the room to play around with the material. The whole point of writing and producing the show week-of was the hope that the cast would be able to pass the excitement on to the audience. From SCTV to Mr. Show to the mini sketch-comedy boom of the last ten years, new shows have come out aspiring to and often succeeding at writing sharper, consistently more focused sketches, but they never really touched SNL. This is for a few reasons, but maybe most significant is just how exhilarating it is when SNL nails it. Melissa McCarthy’s turn as Sean Spicer is a perfect example of this. As a script, that sketch was bloated, with parts that didn’t necessarily have much internal momentum, but it didn’t matter. Introducing a Sean Spicer impression just as he is peaking in the collective awareness, combined with who they got to do it, was magic. It’s hard to compare this confluence of extreme talent and timing to anything else in entertainment. It reminds me most of someone making an incredible home-run-robbing catch at the wall in the World Series. To continue the sports metaphor, arguably it is the routine-ness of most other plays in a baseball game that makes these classic moments classic.
I enjoy watching SNL more than any other show on TV, but I go into a new episode expecting to only really love a sketch or two. That ended up being the case Saturday night, but it was not any of the capital-P political sketches. (“Russell Stover” was my favorite.) Melissa McCarthy’s return as Spicer was somehow just as funny as the first, but it didn’t have the element of surprise. The premise of the Kellyanne Conway–Fatal Attraction pretape just seemed a little bit off. Trump going to People’s Court had its moments, and made sense on paper — of course a TV-obsessed president like Trump would mean People’s Court when he shouted “SEE YOU IN COURT” on Twitter — but the sketch’s need to give Cecily Strong’s judge character her own, sometimes unrelated jokes ultimately distracted from the satire of Trump. The latter two are sketches that usually would have been moved on from immediately, but because of the show’s current political penetration, they can’t be. It underlines why SNL may be a less than ideal leader in the resistance: The show’s at its best when not taken seriously.
It’s a point the show seemed to be making itself with its last two sketches. First, there was “Leslie Wants to Play Trump,” a sketch explicitly about the absurdity of the current weight given to who in the cast plays who in the Trump administration. Her cast mates ask her, “Is this a send-up on his fragile masculinity?” and “Is this a Hamilton thing where you’re making a comment on race and politics?” and she respond, “Nope, it’s about giving America what it wants,” as if she were Russell Crowe in Gladiator shouting, “Are you not entertained?” This nose-thumbing was driven home by the final sketch of the night, “Gym Class,” which was arguably the dumbest sketch SNL has done in a long time. With the thinnest of premises — a kid wants to break a school sit-up record — the sketch is just one fart joke. It’s not even a good fart joke, if you watch the sketch out of context. But in the context of the rest of the show, it takes on a different meaning: “You want us to speak truth to power, but instead we are speaking farts in your face.”
This is not to make an excuse for why this weekend’s episode wasn’t good, because SNL doesn’t need an excuse for below-average episodes — it’s part of what makes it SNL. It’s more that if huge audiences are going to continue watching it closely, they should know what to expect: farts.