Throughout the 2016 election and in its aftermath, Saturday Night Live hasn’t been shy about calling in favors. From Larry David (as Bernie Sanders) to Alec Baldwin (as Donald Trump himself), the show has relied on guest stars to an unprecedented degree, though with varying results. The serial outsourcing highlights the shallowness of SNL’s bench; it’s also shown that relying on a non-cast member to portray a central character may handicap SNL’s ability to respond to the news in a timely, effective fashion. But after some early post-inauguration stumbles, Melissa McCarthy’s glorious cameo as pugilistic press secretary Sean Spicer indicated the superstar approach’s possibilities.
McCarthy’s exuberant physical comedy paired perfectly with Spicer’s aggression, especially since, as Melissa-as-Sean put it, “I don’t talk so good.” The voracious gum chewing, the prop flinging, the podium pushing — all of it came naturally to the expertly-wigged McCarthy. But her performance, however refreshing, didn’t resonate as much as her appearance itself did. SNL is famous for its celebrity guests, but you don’t usually get an objectively massive movie star making a pit stop to tweak the president right before starring in one of the biggest ads on the biggest ad night of them all.
McCarthy’s appearance was not a run-of-the-mill “surprise” appearance, even in a season filled with them. Unlike Alec Baldwin’s Trump impression, McCarthy’s Spicer wasn’t announced in advance. Unlike John Goodman’s Rex Tillerson, hers wasn’t a supporting role. McCarthy isn’t an SNL alum, like most midseason drop-ins, or promoting a movie, like Jennifer Aniston was when she stopped by a few weeks ago. She wasn’t even in the cold open, the traditional domain of SNL’s political sketches; there’s too much happening in politics to plausibly fit the week into the opening 10 minutes. (This fact was folded into the Spicer roast itself — “LIVE FROM NEW YORK,” McCarthy hollered, only to be greeted with a, “Yeah, that already happened.”) The sketch came as a true surprise, something vanishingly rare, and integral to the bit’s success.
As some Monday morning subtweets made clear, SNL has the power to do what some of Trump’s own family members apparently cannot: it can puncture his self-constructed bubble, a knowledge that’s clearly begun to influence how its writers put together the show. What started as a few winking one-liners has escalated into a whole new level of targeted trolling. In a premise reverse-engineered to pick at Trump’s most blatant insecurities — and pulled straight from a Twitter hashtag — the cold open positioned Steve Bannon as the real president and Trump as a child Bannon indulgently leaves to play with his toys. Kristen Stewart put their long-simmering feud to rest: “I’m like, so gay, dude!” And then, 20 minutes in, Melissa McCarthy barged in to needle the press secretary with whom Trump has had well-publicized issues.
Popping by Studio 8H is no longer a mere lark or publicity stunt; it’s taking a turn on a microphone with a direct line to the leader of the free world, and his thin-skinned crony too. Spicer thought McCarthy could stand to “dial back” her intensity a bit, which means she gave just the right amount. Donald Trump has any number of subconscious instincts that dovetail perfectly with our fractured media environment, but one lesson he and his administration seem incapable of internalizing is that the best way to delegitimize your opponent is to ignore them. The “failing” New York Times saw its subscriptions skyrocket, and Saturday Night Live now has serious stick-it-to-the-man cachet.
SNL’s problems with tone and Trump-related credibility run deeper than a megawatt superstar or even a mea culpa Kate McKinnon part — there’s the Betsy DeVos we asked for! — can patch over. Still, an A-lister making time in her busy schedule for the sole purpose of taking a potshot at the White House buzzed through the weekend straight into Monday water-cooler chat. At this rate, SNL has an ever-spinning revolving door of talent to mirror Trump’s packed fun house of goons. Remember: We haven’t even gotten a steady Ivanka yet! When’s Elizabeth Banks back in town?