For comedy professionals in particular, Aaron Sorkin’s hilariously self-righteous camp classic Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip has to be one of the most hate-watched and lovingly maligned pop culture misfires of all time. The show furiously insisted that an alternately mediocre and bewilderingly pretentious sketch comedy show modeled on Saturday Night Live was so important, controversial, and brave that democracy wouldn’t be possible without it, and society as we know it would devolve into anarchy, cannibalism and lawlessness.
I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was about a sketch comedy show so great and advanced that it never felt the need to be funny, and never was. The show depicted the world of sketch comedy as one devoid of levity and laughs (God forbid anyone should enjoy themselves while working in a field as sacred as televised skits) but full of misplaced passion and fiery speeches about the liberating power of hack jokes.
Studio 60 has been off the air nearly ten years. Its final episode aired June 27th, 2007 to a fraction of the audience that greeted its rapturously anticipated debut. Yet Donald Trump, among his myriad other bizarre quasi-gifts to our culture, has done something unexpected for Sorkin’s hokey valentine to SATIRE: he’s made its incredibly histrionic take on the significance of sketch comedy seem halfway plausible.
Trump has done this several different ways. He helped thrust Saturday Night Live into the white-hot epicenter of the comedy and pop culture world in part by hosting the show. I can only imagine the kind of endless, insufferable speeches a move like this would have inspired in Studio 60. It’s safe to assume that if Studio 60’s gratingly principled writer-producer protagonists Matt Albie (Matthew Perry) and Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) had put on a show like the Donald Trump episode of Saturday Night Live, they would have been honor-bound to commit ritualistic suicide for having betrayed their sacred muse, Satirica.
Secondly, Trump has helped perpetrate the illusion that Saturday Night Live is so important that its unforgivable slights must constantly be addressed by the leader of the free world by using his forum as president to constantly attack the show on Twitter. In the first-post election episode, Chappelle joked that we’d finally elected an internet troll as president but Saturday Night Live has benefited from his pervasive trolling while we’ve all suffered for it.
Lastly, Trump’s candidacy and election, not to mention the foibles of his advisors and cabinet, have provided endless fodder for the show itself. Saturday Night Live hasn’t gotten edgy or daring or important in the age of Trump: instead life has turned into a mediocre Saturday Night Live sketch. Saturday Night Live is uniquely qualified to capture that particular moment in our zeitgeist. “What if Donald Trump were president, and he was, of course, super vulgar and obnoxious and arrogant but also super racist?” is the half-assed Saturday Night Live (or Studio 60, for that matter) sketch idea that has become our horrifyingly half-assed reality.
Saturday Night Live’s newfound importance/self-importance can be attributed partially to the insufferably ubiquitous Alec Baldwin, who seems to view his current gig doing the world’s highest-profile yet 437th best Donald Trump impersonation with a sense of solemn obligation worthy of Studio 60’s dour comedy warriors. Baldwin behaves like it’s his sacred duty as an American citizen and foe of fascism to do one of the easiest impersonations this side of Jack Nicholson and not, frankly, a gig he should be grateful to have, and not treat like a crown of thorns he endures for the sake of humanity.
Saturday Night Live has become nearly as central to our cultural discourse as Studio 60 angrily demanded a mediocre sketch comedy show should be partially out of a lack of options. It has thrived in a relative comedy vacuum. When Trump shocked and horrified the world by winning, Stephen Colbert had long since traded in his zeitgeist-capturing faux-Conservative persona for his more authentic but less exciting true self. Letterman had grown a wild-man beard and was enjoying life as a semi-recluse. Trevor Noah’s Daily Show doesn’t have the kind of impact the Jon Stewart incarnation did, and the viral comedy machine that was Key and Peele was off the air. I think Jordan Peele made a horror movie or something?
True, Samantha Bee has been killing it, as the young people probably no longer say, but the internet is a voracious content-consumption machine. Saturday Night Live is an hour and a half of Grade A Blue Chip branded content that begs to be recycled by pop culture websites every Sunday and Monday morning. The media beast needs to be fed constantly and at 90 minutes, Saturday Night Live has three times as much content to be recycled as, say, an episode of Inside Amy Schumer. And if pretending that every half-assed, pained Alec Baldwin-as-Trump turn is “must-see” hilarity brings in the clicks, then they’re going to be consistently over-hyped. After all, you’re never going to see a website teasing, “You might want to watch if you’re curious, come on, this is Saturday Night Live, it’s never going to be that good or that bad” clips.
Saturday Night Live hasn’t gotten bolder or more audacious in light of its new prominence, although I suspect that the Studio 60 gang would have very much loved having Kate McKinnon-as-Hillary Clinton open the Trump-as-President era by having her sit at a piano and emote her way through Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It’s the kind of big, melodramatic gesture they adored on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. It was at once movingly sincere and cloyingly, distractingly unearned. The opening conveyed that Lorne Michaels, like Studio 60, thinks that sketch comedy’s job is to help a nation heal in a time of crisis, not just to be a source of entertainment and escapism.
That’s admirable if more than a little disingenuous considering Michaels’ willingness to put ratings above everything. Take the Jimmy Fallon-hosted last episode, which was not billed as a tribute to blandness in comedy but came off that way. It’s impossible to watch Fallon return to the Saturday Night Live set without being reminded of two glaring, historic recent nadirs in late-night comedy. I’m speaking of course about the Donald Trump-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live, which was an enduring embarrassment for everyone involved and, perhaps even more embarrassingly, that awful, awful moment when Jimmy Fallon playfully tousled Trump’s hair during a visit to The Tonight Show in a bid to convey to the world that while Trump might seem like a hateful, bigoted tyrant in the making, he really was just a silly goose with a playful sense of humor who can laugh at himself.
If Michaels was concerned about audiences being reminded of his lack of spine and insatiable ambition, you’d never know it from the episode itself. The Jimmy Fallon episode doubled down on the almost offensive inoffensiveness and lack of bite that has made Fallon the most harmless man in late night since Jay Leno brought the world the Dancing Itos.
Studio 60 imagined that heavy-handed sketches about “Crazy Christians” would inspire furious debate and sketches rooted in comedia del arte would wow audiences. Instead, Saturday Night Live became water-cooler conversation once again for much more predictable, much more commercial reasons: a movie star is impersonating a president whose whole existence, as I wrote, feels like a bad SNL sketch/King Ralph reboot and another movie star is playing the walking, bumbling, stumbling joke that is Sean Spicer. Melissa McCarthy’s Spicer is a highlight of the season, especially on a Baldwin-hosted episode that was a particularly lazy exercise in Baby Boomer self-congratulation, but McCarthy’s performance as Spicer is rooted in cross-dressing and prop comedy involving angrily moving podiums, not Moliere homages or Gilbert & Sullivan riffs, as they are on Studio 60.
The fictional show within-a-show in Studio 60 was forever pushing boundaries and challenging corrupt authority and making people think while doing an astonishingly convincing impersonation of bad television. It was supposed to be important because it took chances. Saturday Night Live, on the other hand, has enjoyed a heightened profile and significance in the age of Trump it has done little to deserve by being consistently safe and predictable and formulaic.
While Trump’s candidacy and presidency have been a nightmare for the rest of us, they’ve been a godsend to Saturday Night Live. In the age of Trump, Lorne Michaels’ long-running comedy institution didn’t get great or daring or even better; it just got lucky, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, given its history, it remained lucky. It was in the right place at the right time with the right movie stars to exploit a singularly awful moment in our culture that’s also singularly suited to its particular style of safe, non-threatening comedy.
Nathan Rabin is the author of five books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and the recently released Ebook “Short Read”, 7 Days In Ohio: Trump, The Gathering of The Juggalos And The Summer Everything Went Insane.