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Live From Capitol Hill, It’s ‘Saturday Night Live’

Under Trump, the show is grabbing excellent ratings by steering straight into presidential trolling


Something strange happened during the broadcast of this weekend’s Saturday Night Live. In addition to the night owls and comedy nerds who offer their feedback in real time, Beltway types gave their opinions on sketch comedy as a matter of political strategy. “SNL just gave a gift to the White House with this sexist, unfunny Kellyanne Conway skit,” wrote reporter Olivia Nuzzi of a bit that cast Kate McKinnon’s senior adviser as the Glenn Close to Jake Tapper’s Michael Douglas in a cable network Fatal Attraction. “Prediction: The White House will use that sexist skit to dismiss all criticisms of Conway and lying more broadly.” There were also more serious investments in the show’s political capital. Earlier that day, progressive group VoteVets announced it had bought ad time during the show in Florida for an ad that directly addressed the president. VoteVets did so on the assumption that Trump would be watching from his beach club, where he was spending the weekend conducting official state business. The political sphere has enveloped 30 Rock whole — or maybe it’s the other way around.

Alec Baldwin hosting SNL isn’t even supposed to be an event. He’s done it more seasons than not since he first took the gig in 1990, with this performance his record-breaking 17th. But Friend of the Show Alec Baldwin now doubles as Thorn in Donald Trump’s Side Alec Baldwin. Boosted by its highest ratings in decades (which culminated Saturday in a six-year peak), SNL is now acting like it has our aspiring autocrat’s attention. The spirit has spread from last week’s cold open to encompass nearly the entire show. SNL has become a megaphone to the White House, a bullet point in the Politico Playbook, and a rare source of liberal soothing, all in one.

The Twitter-cast vision of Rosie O’Donnell as real president Steve Bannon didn’t come true, but the idea behind it did: SNL was no longer prioritizing creativity in either guest spots or sketch concepts so much as proven trolling capacity. Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer reportedly ticked off Trump in part because she was a woman, so Lorne Michaels brought her back, then had noted woman McKinnon play Jeff Sessions. And in a final, surreal jab, the show gave its penultimate spot to a melancholy, meta bit about Leslie Jones auditioning for the role of Trump himself.

At times, the show seemed to be tweaking us as much as our leader. “Is this a send-up on his fragile masculinity? Is this a Hamilton thing where you’re making a comment on race and politics?” Jones’s fellow cast members asked as she got into makeup. “Nope!” she cheerily denied — she just really wanted to play Trump. But both things can be true: A black woman in an orange wig can want to get under the president’s skin, even as she needles us for wanting her to get under his skin so very badly. A sketch envisioning the pitch meeting that led to all those patriotic Super Bowl ads was shrewder, targeting corporate co-optation of humanitarian crises: “The girl climbs the rope,” Aidy Bryant’s ad exec simpered, in a highlight. “She sees her new country for the first time, and she cries. Hard cut: Cheetos.” It was another layer of deranged for a broadcast that stopped being merely politics-adjacent in 2015, when it had candidate Trump host the show like an actor plugging his latest blockbuster.

Baldwin’s Trump impersonation didn’t even show up until the back half of the show, another move that felt like a play on our expectations. Anticipation for this week’s episode was almost completely Trump-centric, so the show made us wait on a Trump appearance for almost an hour. As with last week’s President Bannon sketch, the premise was basic enough that parts of Twitter predicted it days ago; again, ingenuity wasn’t the point. “Trump People’s Court” was a delivery device for an especially wild Baldwin and the night’s biggest applause line, courtesy of Cecily Strong’s “TV judge”: “I want one day without a CNN alert that scares the hell out of me! I just wanna relax and watch the Grammys, and no one has ever said that.” The quip was barely a joke, but at least it was cathartic.

SNL isn’t just responding to the politicians who now respond to the show; it is responding to our response to those responses. These sketches often played better than the episode’s more straightforwardly political material, which suffered from diminishing returns. McCarthy’s second outing was just as forceful but lacked the element of surprise, and that Fatal Attraction sketch might have worked better if it weren’t one Conway among the half dozen versions SNL has already offered. The triply self-aware material reminded us that SNL is just as weirded out by this turn of events as we are, and maybe just as uncomfortable.

At any other point in the show’s 40-plus years, this level of obvious gag-writing and head-spinning self-acknowledgement would be knocks on SNL’s effectiveness. But in a political environment where every other form of satire, even the critically beloved ones, has proved frustratingly ineffective, there’s no other option but for SNL leaning into its loudest, bluntest, most tweet-baiting incarnation. Besides, it’s already taken its place as Washington water-cooler chat: People have started responding to the show as if it will have political impact, which means it’s successfully entered the political sphere. As we spend our Sundays waiting for Trump’s inevitable response, SNL might as well start carrying itself accordingly. All that’s left is to let this bizarre two-hander play out.