Post-Election ‘Saturday Night Live’ More Poignant Than Funny

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For years now, each episode of Saturday Night Live has begun with an impression-laden political-humor cold-open, whether the show had any ideas or point of view on the events of the day or not. During much of the Obama years, in fact, the show produced current-events openers out of what seemed liked grudging obligation, trying to stay sharp in between the election years that tend to bring the show extra attention. Once in a while, the show will forego a political opening, and even less often, it will skip a sketch opening entirely. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012, SNL opened with a performance by the New York City Children's Chorus. When they started their season a few weeks after 9/11, they opened with Paul Simon performing "The Boxer." Their first show after the 2016 election unexpectedly joined those ranks when it became clear that Kate McKinnon dressed as Hillary Clinton sitting at a piano was not there to do a funny lament about her election loss. She sang an abridged version of "Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen. There were no jokes.

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This simultaneous tribute to Clinton, who lost Tuesday's presidential election (at least in the electoral college) to Donald Trump, and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who died last week, was strangely moving, particularly when McKinnon finished singing and announced — perhaps nominally as Hillary, but pretty clearly as herself, too — "I'm not giving up, and neither should you." It was a bold way of placing Trump's victory closer to tragedy than tragicomedy. It was also, arguably, an elegant dodge. Saturday Night Live famously and often self-consciously prides itself on making fun of "both sides," and that was certainly the case with its often-weak Trump parodies, especially last season as his path to the Republican nomination cleared up.

Some of the show's fake ads (like one where a series of unrepentant racists cheerfully explain they love Trump for "telling it like it is," etc.) had some bite, and this season's recasting of Trump from lovable ol' Darrell Hammond to grouchier, more malicious guest star Alec Baldwin also remade Trump from silly egomaniac to something more closely resembling the sour, ignorant monster of a real thing. McKinnon's Hillary, which has never been a particularly strong impression in a technical sense, has always been more likable than Baldwin's Trump, even when the show indulged in some of the same false equivocations as the news media, but the show didn't help matters by having the real Trump host just about a year ago. (Clinton appeared earlier in a single sketch; Bernie Sanders, too, did a few cameos in the episode hosted by his doppelgänger Larry David.) The episode wasn't just soft on its guest but notably terrible, highlighting the worst tendencies of both its host and the show as an institution.

All of this left me uneasy about the prospect of SNL yukking it up following Trump's surprise showing last Tuesday. Obviously, the show was surprised, too; it says something about their perception of Trump's chances that Lorne Michaels chose friend-of-the-show but non-regular Baldwin over an actual cast member to play their new Trump. Nonetheless, I anticipated a mostly toothless, mostly depressing opening sketch about Trump painting the White House gold or some dumb shit, with maybe a cursory nod to the very real danger posed by his inexperience, xenophobia, corruption, and overall vileness. Instead, Baldwin was nowhere to be found, McKinnon sang a sad song, and the show put off figuring out how to satirize President-Elect Trump for another week.

Plenty of progressive viewers were probably put off by this decision — a dodge not just of comedic strategy but of whatever culpability SNL holds in the acceptance of Donald Trump as a viable candidate for president. His hosting gig will likely remain a stain on the show for a good long while, and rightly so, but it's also worth pointing out that SNL's writers and performers do not invite, approve, or (as far as I know) lobby for or against particular hosts, any more than Kate McKinnon or Vanessa Bayer can be personally blamed for the appearance of Twentyone Pilots as musical guests earlier this season. If anything, McKinnon's performance felt like a tacit (if entirely unspoken) mea culpa — an acknowledgment that much of the show's staff was as saddened as any number of progressive New Yorkers.

It was also instructive in the tricky business of getting back to normal life following the election, including silly routines like watching Saturday Night Live. The post-election episode, hosted by semi-recluse Dave Chappelle, was a particularly fascinating mixed bag. There were relative rarities like that non-comedic cold-open and a mini-set of Chappelle stand-up in the monologue (actual stand-up in the monologue used to be more frequent, but these days it happens maybe once or twice a season, tops), plus a video piece that was entirely Chappelle-centric, making reference to his own litany of sketch show characters. There were two performances from A Tribe Called Quest that were not entirely outside the norms of SNL, but certainly more powerful and interesting than the average musical guest for the past bunch of seasons.

Similarly, Chappelle's stand-up, beyond being allowed to settle into its own rhythm (rather than the usual go-go-go pep of the often-musical monologue), deviating from a strict Trump/Clinton narrative but still plenty political. His riffs about blaming ISIS for the Florida nightclub shooting (speculating about the deep cover that would require) and the phrase "Blue Lives Matter" — those lives aren't "blue," he pointed out; cops have a uniform they can remove — were particularly sharp. They didn't need to be phrased as rebukes to the Trump-supporter mindset; they just were. Matching the seriousness of the opening bit, Chappelle turned contemplative by the end. He'll doubtless get some bad press for saying he'll give Trump a chance, but the important moment came after, when he noted that Trump owed minorities and the oppressed a chance, too.

And there were some attempts at addressing the political situation outside of the opener, with a sketch where Chappelle and guest Chris Rock offer wry real-time comments on election night at a party full of shocked white people, and the usual Weekend Update jokes. That Chappelle/Rock bit should have killed, but it didn't; the time-jumps throughout the night gave their commentary a canned feel, and the observations about how black folks may have been less surprised by the force of the country's racism than lefty white folks, while valid, felt weirdly smug in context. Weekend Update tried its best, and Colin Jost and Michael Che got off some decent shots, but they weren't able to make the proceedings much actual fun.

Could anyone, though, for viewers legitimately depressed by the election results? The cast and crew of Saturday Night Live is pretty much at the bottom of any sympathy lists for people whose jobs/livelihoods/existence will be harder in what I guess we're going to be calling Trump's America. But for fans of the show looking to re-enter that comforting routine, there may be a re-learning process ahead: Can political satire compete with this genuine nightmare? Can a Baldwin impression of Trump (technically pretty good, as those things go) stay funny over the now-necessary long term? Can the show go back to its white-bread-and-butter routine of making fun of "everyone" with an often-tedious sense of obligation? Or is every episode going to open with a different cast member singing another sad song? For this week, at least, it was oddly comforting to see the show looking as shaken up as some of its fans.

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