Right around the time episode 4 of season 41 of Saturday Night Live began on the East Coast, a sudden, apocalyptic pain exploded my neck. It was a familiar relapse by several smooshed upper spinal discs (the emasculating medical term is "cervical spondylosis"), and when it got going, the pain was disorienting in its severity, a bright ache that easily overwhelmed several hydrocodones. Since my DirecTV bundle doesn't include east coast NBC, I had to fill the three hours by following the episode on Twitter, which is a weird, Rashomony way of piecing together any national event, and by the time it aired in California I was a foggy, queasy, groaning wreck. This seemed somehow appropriate for the night's host. Dulled, nauseous, achy—all these words can also apply to the way many Americans feel about Donald Trump's presidential candidacy.
After a Trumpless cold open, the hot sax licks of the SNL intro kicked in, and then we were plunging down into the familiar SNL stage. The fake Grand Central station set vaguely resembles Lex Luthor's subterranean lair in 1978's Superman, a setting that never seemed so appropriate. Trump is not just the world's most famous New Yorker, he's also one of the great New Yorker villains, every bit a Big Apple Bad Guy as Son of Sam, King Kong, or Boss Tweed. His appeal is his villainy. The silent majority [sic] has grown tired of its Jed Bartlett—it wants President Frank Underwood now (Trump's current leading adversary, Dr. Ben Carson, is the first modern presidential candidate to insist, against all evidence, that he really is an attempted murderer). No one wants to see Trump try to be a regular guy, as candidate Steve Forbes disastrously tried on SNL two decades ago.
Which is why Trump's toned-down "second act" is so baffling. Last week, The Donald announced that he'd reject sketches deemed too risqué for Iowa, perhaps keeping one eye on the SNL drag skit that doomed the last New Yorker to go for the gold. But 2016 isn't 2008. A PG-rated Trump reads like fourth-rate Steve Martin standup; a skilled performer playing a self-congratulatory rube. How did this play in Doon, Iowa (the town ranked most conservative in the state by Business Insider)? If the Trump championed by Joe Sixpack just a few short months ago is Trump the Disney Villain, did they respond as avidly to the Aw-Shucks Trump of this show?
During the monologue, Trump politely explained that people think of him as "controversial." The semantics of this word benefit him, since "controversial" is this year's polite substitute for "racist." When Larry David jokingly heckled Donald as a racist—apparently claiming the $5,000 cash prize offered by Deport Racism—the moment was an anticlimax (although is anyone actually speaking truth to power if there's a cash prize?). It was lazy comedy, and one that awkwardly spotlighted SNL's lack of Latino cast members.
The funniest sketch came early. In 2018, President Trump sat triumphant in the White House, all the blustery bullshit taken so seriously by his followers having magically come true. How would viewers in Doon react to such self-mockery? After a gag about Mexico handing over a check for the border wall—a Möbius strip brain puzzler of a joke: Was Trump the butt, or were Mexicans?—and a robotic cameo by Ivanka, the Donald artlessly grazed Cecily Strong's side boob and then we were out. Such was the show's harshest barb.
After commercials and a deft, Trumpless video, we returned with an interstitial photo of the host Betsy Rossin' it up with a (non-outsourced) American flag. Here I briefly perked up. What I wanted—and what I think Trump's millions of followers also wanted—was something akin to '96's great "Buckwell's Follies" sketch. In the skit, a gubernatorial candidate played by Alec Baldwin kills Lassie and wipes his ass with the American flag. He's villainized for his unintentional bad behavior to the exact same degree that Trump has been popularized for his own intentional bad behavior. How incredible would this sketch have been as a modernized reboot with an inverse ending?
After more yawns—a few jokes skirting Trump's naked racism, a fake Drake video with the Don as atonal honky, the _Back To The Future II_-style blandness of Sia's futuristic wig—we arrived at Weekend Update. Colin Jost and Michael Che played two mannequins with exquisitely bad chemistry. There was a prominent meekness to the racial humor, with jokes about Ben Carson, "tingling Negro senses," and the protesters outside 30 Rock condemning Trump's presence. Bobby Moynihan showed up as Drunk Uncle—a melancholy Chris Farley impersonation—describing himself as "Trump's Number One fan." And how would this bit play in Iowa? Does the oddly configured humor of Jeff Foxworthy—not so much self-deprecating as slyly wallowing— work if it slides out of the mouth of a vaguely Jewish New Yorker?
The show limped to its ending, deciding it didn't have the nerve to be a roast. There was a bar band sketch with Trump as a _Back to the Future-_ish "Laser Harpist", a disjointed family dinner sketch, a weird intro to another MOTR Sia song with Trump threatening a black man with a gun. Let's be honest here: it's easy to get distracted by Trump's anus-like mouth, so reminiscent of the talking buttholes in 1991's Naked Lunch (normally I would consider a facial/speech impediment as off-limits, but with The Donald it seems more like an affectation).
The show closed with a funny but nonsensical fake commercial, with a pair of dopey porn stars making so many off-color jokes it seemed like a callback to the opening monologue, intentionally rattling the good people of Iowa by calling attention to the "risqué" material Trump promised to veto (although I really have no idea what the good people of Doon would make of "a yankee doodle handie"). By the smooth jazz of the outtro, the night seemed deflated, nihilistic. Trump grazed his own daughter's side boob, then received a hug from Leslie Jones under the fast rolling credits. If there was A Dead Zone moment of horrific foresight, she was professional enough to not let it show.
I myself felt deflated and nihilistic, although I'm not quite sure why. This episode probably didn't do anything towards making Donald Trump the 22nd man (after 12 Americans, 9 Russians) to control humanity's destiny. And if the GOP were to tear itself apart like Rumplestiltskin, this campaign is more or less what it would look like. But viewed a day a time, the whole thing is quite literally a pain my neck.
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