On a good night, with the right host, Saturday Night Live can still bring the heat in an unexpected way. Forty-three years in, the corny-wigs-and-voices format is creaky, the sketches are unpolished compared to the generations of innovative sketch shows that have come and gone since SNL launched, and a bad host means the show is borderline unwatchable. But in the past couple weeks, the John Mulaney and Donald Glover episodes have shown what Actually Good SNL can be.("Switcheroo," "Lobster Dinner," and "Lando's Summit" all made me laugh real laughs.) Caring about SNL in 2018 is a weird hobby to have—the bad bits are still punishingly bad, there are a dozen or more prestige-y shows that are more interesting—but you can make worse entertainment choices.
All of this is preamble to say to SNL, I come as a friend: Your cold opens are terrible, cringeworthy pieces of self-satisfied liberal propaganda that are sometimes so bad they seem like parodies of themselves.
Even if you avoid SNL you probably hear about these cold opens, which are consistently politically themed—though "themed" may be too strong a word because they are mostly just recaps of the political news of the week performed by A-list celebrities. Thanks to star power, these sketches inevitably draw headlines, and last weekend's affair (featuring Ben Stiller as Michael Cohen, Scarlet Johansson as Ivanka Trump, and Jimmy Fallon as Jared Kushner) was no exception. And honestly, if you're a fan of Very Famous People Appearing Together on Screen (a very successful genre, if the Avengers franchise is any indication), you'll get your money's worth. Look, Robert de Niro and Stiller are doing a Robert Mueller–themed reprise of a scene from Meet the Parents! Look, they got the real Stormy Daniels to play herself and deliver wooden #Resistance-worthy lines to Alec Baldwin's Donald Trump!
But beyond that novelty, the jokes are tired references to current events that never build on one another. Instead, they are limply tossed out as obvious applause lines to an anti-Trump crowd. Here's how the last cold open ended, with a phone call between Trump and Daniels:
TRUMP: Just tell me, what do you need for all this to go away?
STORMY: A resignation.
TRUMP: Yeah right. Being president is like doing porn; once you do it it's hard to do anything else. Besides, my poll numbers are finally up. And speaking of polls being up… [sticks out his tongue in what I guess is meant to be a sexual manner] Oh come on, we'll always have Shark Week. I solved North and South Korea, why can't I solve us?
STORMY: Sorry Donald, it's too late for that. I know you don't believe in climate change, but a storm's a-coming baby. [Applause]
TRUMP: I've never been so scared and so horny at the same time.
These stale lines aren't helped along by the performances. Stormy Daniels gets a pass because she's a bit of stunt casting anyway, but Baldwin's Trump impression also stands out as awful. He keeps his mouth open for reasons I don't understand, squints, and talks in a deep voice. That's it. The real Trump and Rob Schneider are correct: It doesn't work. (Anthony Atamanuik does a much better impression on The President Show.)
Schneider, believe it or not, had another trenchant critique of these sketches, which is that they skew too heavy-handedly to the left. "The fun of 'Saturday Night Live' was always you never knew which way they leaned politically," he told the New York Daily News last month. "You kind of assumed they would lean more left and liberal, but now the cat's out of the bag they are completely against Trump, which I think makes it less interesting because you know the direction the piece is going."
It's not surprising or even all that notable that SNL would go hard after Trump—the show has parodied every president, some more aggressively than others, since the 70s. But the show has shifted to the point where its politics are indistinguishable from the Democratic Party's. After the 2016 election, the show gave Hillary Clinton a worshipful send-off, with Kate McKinnon's Hillary singing a topical version of "Hallelujah" before telling the camera, "I'm not giving up, and neither should you." It was a powerful moment if you were a Clinton fan, but as Schneider said, the cat was out of the bag.
If SNL wanted to make some jokes about the Democrats, there's plenty of material, from conspiracy-spreading Resistance Twitter accounts to shitty email fundraising to the tension between mainstream centrist Democrats and angry socialist youngsters. If it wanted to wade into edgier waters, it could make some jokes about free speech on campus. SNL actually has done some recent tweaking of the left—"Girl at a Bar" stands out for its evisceration of male feminists—but most of its political material winds up in the cold opens, and the cold opens are nothing but anti-Trump vitriol all the time.
Not that there's anything wrong with vitriol, but this isn't even intelligent vitriol. During the Iran-Contra scandal, Phil Hartman helmed a brilliant sketch where he played Ronald Reagan as a president who was only pretending to be a senile fool while actually masterminding every aspect of his administration's shady dealings, flipping everyone's perception of Reagan as a cheerful bumbler. Today's SNL doesn't have anyone of Hartman's caliber, sure, but it also doesn't even bother to take that simple second step. Everyone thinks that Trump is a narcissistic moron, so the joke is… Trump is actually a narcissistic moron! Hilarious!
One problem with that anti-Trump worldview is that it's predictable. But as hamfisted and obvious as it is, it also veers into casual cruelty at times—last weekend's cold open included jokes about Melania Trump wanting her husband to go to prison (a repetition of a popular proof-free Resistance narrative) and Vice President Mike Pence trying to have phone sex with men. Not that I particularly think that SNL was being "unfair" to Pence, whose homophobia is pretty well established, but portraying him as a closet case is a lazy cheap shot that doesn't line up with reality. Pence might be an ignorant science denier who is out of the loop even on things that happen in the administration. But unlike many homophobes, he hasn't been accused of hiding his own attraction for men—why make such a generic joke about such a specific figure?
I have to include a bit where I cut SNL some slack, so here: It's really hard to create new sketches every week, and they have upped the difficulty level by trying to write an up-to-the-minute recap of weekly news events. But they don't actually have to do this. There's no shortage of center-left comedic commentary on the news, from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee to The Daily Show to The President Show to Our Cartoon President to Pod Save America to nearly every late-night talk show.
At best, the cold opens just echo the same beats and jokes as all those other programs (every good liberal recycles material). At worst, these sketches just coddle the audience by reflecting all of their assumptions and prejudices back at them: Yes, Trump is dumb, his administration is full of venal lackeys, Jeff Sessions is creepy, Cohen is a crook, all of your obvious, knee-jerk impulses and prejudices are correct. It's not just playing to the crowd, it's spoon-feeding the audience their own spit-up. It's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip come to life. It's exactly the kind of smug, smarmy bullshit that makes conservatives angry enough at the Hollywood elite to vote Trump just to stick it to them.
Seen from the right light, it's not just an unfunny lead-in to what can otherwise be a fine show. It's a toxic example of limousine liberalism, millionaires putting on a self-congratulatory show with jokes cribbed from the New York Times editorial page—come to think of it, it's exactly the kind of un-self-aware institution that a really good comedy show could grind down to size.
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