How deeply, in the Trump era, I have come to feel a sense of resignation as I approach the cold open of a new episode of Saturday Night Live. As the hour nears, I am pre-exhausted. It is almost always political, in the sense that it features comic actors made up to look like politicians. And it is almost never political, if “political” means coming from a particular perspective, or advancing a particular position, or, basically, doing anything to risk a reaction more polarizing than “Hey, they’re doing that thing that I saw on the news two days ago.”
Last night, Saturday Night Live opened its 44th season doing that thing we all saw on the news two days ago — that thing we knew was inevitable. I do not envy anyone, least of all the show’s three male co-head writers (really, all men? Still?), whose assignment is to make comic hay out of something that is based so deeply on the pain of a woman putting herself on the line and of the millions of women watching her do it. It would have felt wholly inappropriate to have an actress imitating Christine Blasey Ford, “doing” her voice, wearing a wig, picking out which mannerisms to play up. And the most galvanizing two minutes of television of the week — two women tearfully and angrily confronting Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator — was nothing a comedy show could or should touch. Points to SNL for avoiding both. Knowing where not to go doesn’t make you funny, but it at least prevents you from being horrific.
That left Brett Kavanaugh, a riper target whose centrality to the opening sketch felt preordained from his first bray last Thursday. His performance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee was, among other things, so completely a performance that the only choice was which aspects of it to go at hardest. But that choice is crucial, and it’s the place where the show most often whiffs. When SNL’s political comedy is at its most toothless, it dodges the depths of who someone is in order to stay in the kiddie pool of how they look and sound.
The Kavanaugh sketch did a bit of both. What we got was a classic middling SNL take — not at all a fiasco, but not a sketch that people will replay the way they replayed Melissa McCarthy’s first appearance as Sean Spicer. Ever thirsty for celebrity, they brought in Matt Damon to play Kavanaugh. I was betting on Alex Moffat, who was instead assigned Charles Grassley and, like most of the actors playing senators, given nowhere much to go with it. (Speaking of SNL’s problems, even with a seemingly vast cast, it still apparently has nobody who can play Kamala Harris.)
Damon was prepared — his Kavanaugh wasn’t a lazy, cue-card walkthrough at all, and, thank God for small favors, he didn’t break once. He was in it, clearly ready to deliver, and he effectively brought across what was on the page — a groaning board of yelling and boasting (the safest aspects of Kavanaugh’s testimony to lampoon), and smaller portions of everything else. Literally, everything: the Klobuchar moment, the weepy references to his calendar, the conspiracy theorizing about “Kathy Griffin and Ronan Sinatra,” the callbacks to “P.J. and Tobin and Squi,” the “I didn’t have sex for many, many, many years … I was the proudest, drunkest virgin you’ve ever seen” humblebrag, the repeated beer references, and the lies about his yearbook were all given their turns in the spotlight. Let nobody argue that Matt Damon doesn’t understand the fragile interior of the douche bro; he went there. But he went there more empty-handed than should have been the case. All those referential moments weren’t shaped comic ideas so much as touchpoints of familiarity — they were SNL’s way of telling you that yes, it noticed what you noticed.
The scene seemed to unfold from a fairly solid actual viewpoint — a darkly comic notion of Kavanaugh as a petulant middle-aged man-child dangerously stuck in an arrested realm of posturing, insecure high-school masculinity. And it landed one solid right to the jaw, when he shouted, “I’m not backing down, you sons of bitches! I don’t know the meaning of the word ‘stop.’ ” But the sketch didn’t build so much as persist; it kept distracting itself from itself. It threw in an Alyssa Milano gag, and then repeated it, and also gave us Rachel Mitchell (Aidy Bryant) getting a tiny desk and no time to speak, and a recurring sight gag with water glasses, and a Bill Cosby riff, and a Mark Judge reference that flew past most of the studio audience. The sketch was unusually long — it clocked in at a lumbering, replay-unfriendly, everybody-into-the-minivan 13 minutes. And as is often the case when the show attempts to recreate something that’s already been picked to pieces, it checked a lot of boxes, and, in lieu of a climax, just sort of petered out and handed in its completed worksheet. (As for the politics of a gay woman on a historically ultra-straight show playing Lindsey Graham as a closet queen, I like a good Lindsey Graham joke as much as the next gay guy. I wish they’d found one.)
A great comic actor, with the right material, can use impeccable imitation to reveal deeper truths. When Tina Fey first took on Sarah Palin in the Saturday Night Live season premiere that aired ten years ago this month, the pinpoint accuracy of her hair, her glasses, and her accent were all rich surface pleasures that had been anticipated for weeks, but Fey was going after bigger game. By burrowing as fiercely as she did into Palin’s speech patterns — the aggression with which she landed on certain consonants, the way her mouth would keep moving independently of her mind as she jumped from soundbite to soundbite, unconcerned with coherence or connection — she painted such a precise and unsparing portrait of a politician skilled at noise but inept at content that even the conservative columnist Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “to utterly nail a public figure” as well as Fey nailed Palin “amounts almost to a public service.”
But Fey was an exception. More often than not with political figures, SNL settles for imitative gestures: This is how he talks. This is that weird thing he does with his face. This is that word he says funny. This is that odd physical gesture we’ve all seen before. Last season, that certainly became the case with the writing of Alec Baldwin’s Trump, of which even he is now manifestly tired — how many times can you play “self-aggrandizing blowhard” before it starts to feel like you’ve got nothing else in your arsenal?
It may be that we’re in a moment — and by “moment,” I mean “endless soul-killing years-long slog” — so defined by anger that a certain kind of political comedy is all but impossible. You can’t win by being so afraid of losing half your audience that you say nothing, and if you want to say something real — as Seth Meyers and John Oliver and Samantha Bee routinely do — a laceratingly caustic monologue, offering passion with poison-tipped punchlines, is a better format in which to do it than a sketch.
Not so many years ago, a Thursday event that riveted a large chunk of the nation to its screens two days before the season premiere of SNL would have been seen as heaven-sent. But things work differently now: Two days is a year. By the time SNL aired, it was bringing up the rear. A brilliantly savage one-minute viral video intercutting Kavanaugh’s quavery self-aggrandizement with clips of Pulp Fiction’s Samuel L. Jackson (“Look at the big brain on Brett!”) had filleted the nominee more effectively than any sketch was going to — and had been viewed 11.4 million times before SNL even reached the starting gate. And by then, we’d also gotten Bee’s special Friday video posting from “my sadness den,” in which she channeled the anger and sadness of women fed up with “rape culture” and the “shriveled old scrotums” on the Judiciary Committee who help make it possible. Jimmy Kimmel had gone after Kavanaugh’s “frat out of hell” attitude. And Meyers had delivered 11 solid minutes of his signature “A Closer Look” in which he got in some brutal hits while making it completely clear that his sympathies lie with Ford — not by hinting it but by just, you know, saying it. Which he can do because he’s a person, not a multiheaded entity, and comedy is always better when you know exactly who it’s coming from.
With SNL, you don’t. You know that you’re hearing the product of writers’ room arguments and Lorne Michaels’s hand on the tiller and time wasted on discussing Kanye’s need to wear his stupid goddamn MAGA hat and a whole array of agonized backstage contortions intended to produce comedy that represents the perspective of a brand rather than an individual.
You know that in a topical opening sketch, the laughter will usually be the laughter of satisfaction at a correct prediction (Oh, they’re doing that, I knew they were gonna do that, how perfect that they would do that) rather than surprise, except when the surprise is the unannounced appearance of a famous person, as it is in so many of the shows that it doesn’t really qualify as a surprise anymore. You even know the punchline, since all cold opens must eventually narrow to the same seven words. Maybe, at this point, that familiarity qualifies as a comfort. And maybe, in year 44 of Saturday Night Live, familiarity is the only expectation we can reasonably have. Still, if SNL can somehow muster it, it’d be nice to be shocked. It’s been a while.