This past Saturday, Aziz Ansari hosted the first Saturday Night Live episode of the Trump presidency. More than aware of the occasion, he delivered a thoughtful and often hilarious monologue that touched both on Trump himself, as well as the issues that led to his election. He made some pointed comments about the rise of casual white supremacy (calling it the “lowercase KKK”), and managed to piss off Chris Brown by comparing him to Trump, and joking that “Make America Great Again” was the political equivalent of “these hoes ain’t loyal.” It was a thoroughly intelligent monologue, and it did a fine job of putting Trump’s presidency in perspective and providing relief to a nation that is justifiably fearful of what its new leader might do. It would have been the best monologue of the year by a wide margin, if not for the even stronger monologue that Dave Chappelle delivered two months earlier.
Chappelle hosted right after Trump’s election, when America was perhaps even more petrified than they were this past weekend. At least by now, the shock has worn off, and while many are still scared, people have at least gotten used to the idea that trump will be President for the foreseeable future. Chappelle and Ansari both did fantastic jobs of providing levity to the Trump situation while also making insightful points about race relations in America. When considering the two hosts that Lorne tapped for the post-election and post-inauguration shows, two things come to mind: both were people of color and both were standup comedians. The first point is important because when considering that racial resentment played a large role in putting Trump into office, getting a non-white perspective to push back at Trumpism was essential. That being said, the second point matters as well. Quite simply, after a “wait, what…” moment like Trump’s victory, people needed to laugh, even if it was a nervous, uncomfortable sort of laughter.
The Chappelle and Ansari monologues were perfect showcases of the power of standup comedy. Both went on considerably longer than the normal SNL monologue tends to, and yet it hardly mattered because the crowd was captivated throughout. While these shows will likely be best remembered for their connection to Trump’s election, they also make a strong case for SNL bringing in more comics to host. Even when there aren’t major political stakes on the line, standup monologues are just really enjoyable. It’s always great to see a well-known performer take on comedy’s biggest stage, especially when they’re trying out new material. Louis CK’s bit about pedophiles in 2015 may have gotten mixed reviews (some thought he had gone into forbidden territory by even bringing the topic up), but it was still enthralling to see a comedian who had nothing to lose try out a bit that they knew could bring controversy. What makes the presence of a standup on the SNL stage particularly welcome, however, is how dull the monologue can be when any other type of person hosts.
Let’s be honest, if the monologue isn’t the absolute worst part of SNL, it’s by far the most predictable. More often than not, the host introduces themselves, gives us the obligatory “it’s great to be here hosting Saturday Night Live!” Then, the musical number. It’s almost always a musical number. More than likely, it involves two cast members on each side of the host wearing matching costumes. It also usually involves one joke, and it goes on far longer than any person would reasonably want it to. When SNL doesn’t go that route, it tends to give us the equally predictable “questions from the audience” bit, or the “one cast member comes out at a time and asks the host about something” bit. Admittedly, some of these monologues are executed better than others, but the predictability alone is enough to make it tedious, and leave most viewers asking “can we just get to the fake commercial already?” Even when the host is an extremely intelligent person, more than capable of talking to the crowd for 4-5 minutes, SNL still clings to these tired tropes. Only when a comedian is hosting is the monologue permitted to be, you know, an actual monologue.
Obviously, there are limits on how often SNL could go to the standup well in a given season; after all, the show draws ratings from bringing in popular actors and musicians. Still, it would do the show well to give standup a little more love, especially when considering what an important role it plays in the history of the show. George Carlin hosted the first episode, and Richard Pryor came in later on the first season, giving us the immortal “Word Association” sketch along the way. The show also frequently brought on standups that weren’t even hosts and just had them do a set. It can’t help but feel like SNL kind of left standup behind as it became more and more mainstream, as bringing in big name actors became more and more important. This is somewhat understandable, but Chappelle and Ansari (along with other recent standup hosts like Louis CK, Chris Rock, and Kevin Hart) have proven that there’s a still a place for standup comedy at Rockefeller Center. Hopefully, Lorne will take note and bring in more comics in going forward.