Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Saturday Night Live’s Feb. 11 episode, hosted by Alec Baldwin, brought the show its highest ratings in six years. This should come as no surprise, since the show has enjoyed a steady run of success thanks to its complicated relationship with President Trump. Trump has hosted the show twice, once in 2004 and once in 2015. But Trump’s view of SNL evidently shifted after Baldwin began impersonating him on the show, frequently tweeting his negative reaction to these impressions, even in the months after his election. This unprecedented response from a president to SNL has increased audience interest, and thus, the show’s power. However, SNL should be held accountable for its lethargy in denouncing Trump, and the show should be more thoughtful in deciding how to construct an impression of him.
Presidential impressions on SNL are nothing new. Back in 1975, during the show’s first season, Chevy Chase portrayed Gerald Ford. There was no political bite to those sketches or even any real impression, just a series of pratfalls and spilled drinks that mocked Ford for being clumsy. As the years went on, the presidential impression became a mainstay of the show, but with varying degrees of political critique. More often they functioned like any other comedic impression, honing in on one idiosyncrasy of the subject and magnifying it to comic proportions. Dan Aykroyd’s Jimmy Carter was smooth, Dana Carvey’s George H. W. Bush was ridiculous-sounding, Darrell Hammond’s Bill Clinton was horny and hungry, Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush was a “goofy-but-harmless frat boy” and Jay Pharaoh’s Barack Obama primarily showed off Pharaoh’s ability to capture a voice. These impressions were more about searching for an element of speaking that was comedic, rather than using comedy as a tool to comment on their policy. Phil Hartman’s Ronald Reagan stands out a bit for being more critical. His impression portrayed Reagan as kind and feeble in public, but more evil behind the scenes. Even so, the 1980s saw many others also take a turn at playing Reagan. On SNL, laughs always came before politics.
But with Trump, SNL is forced to contend with something entirely new. Among the litany of ways he differs from past presidents, a crucial one for SNL is that he cannot be made into a character because he already is one. It is unnecessary and insufficient to mock him with vocal quirks or odd mannerisms. Trump speaks and tweets in such a coarse and idiotic manner that efforts to heighten him are futile. Every time Baldwin is on screen as Trump, he is tasked with making an already ridiculous figure into something singularly funny.
From a writing perspective, comedians must recognize that established modes of comedy might not apply to a man who ignores all precedent. During the campaign, SNL struggled with this, often opting to have Baldwin repeat Trump’s quotes verbatim as punch lines. After his election, the show has thankfully made many attempts to break its traditional format by portraying Trump as a narcissist who has given up real power to villains like Rex Tillerson and Steve Bannon. The show has, of course, critiqued Trump outside the impression with sketches that mock Sean Spicer, the Muslim ban, Kellyanne Conway and his supporters’ racism. But specifically in the realm of the presidential impression, the show is still finding its way. Many viewers delight in Baldwin’s silly facial expressions, and with stellar ratings, NBC is in no position to complain. But SNL must carefully consider the impact of the impression. The question of how to satirize a president without inadvertently helping to legitimize him has always been a tricky one, but society can no longer ignore it. The show already has to answer for letting Trump host during an election campaign, providing a platform that in some ways worked to normalize him as a public figure (even if they attempted to take shots at him during the episode). If the show is willing to take accountability for this mistake on the air, it would be a good step toward atonement.
In light of the show’s weak history of strong presidential critiques, the Trump presidency is a kind of crossroads for Saturday Night Live. At a time when the show has an especially large audience (including the president himself), SNL has the opportunity to break some of its own norms to rethink political comedy. A willingness to attack the administration from multiple angles, such as Melissa McCarthy’s already-historic impression of Spicer, is a good start. If they considered letting a female comedian impersonate Trump (a joke teased last episode with Leslie Jones) or turned Baldwin’s Trump into a more horrific figure (Anthony Atamanuik, anyone?), they could shift the role of the presidential impression from one of mockery to real satire. Of course, SNL is a comedy show first and foremost, but after 42 years of presidential impressions, it has a promised quality of politics too. The show has embraced that idea in recent episodes, and I hope that trend continues. We can hope to see fewer toothless impressions in favor of those that get laughs from substantive challenges to Trump. Anything less runs the risk of normalization.
Jack Lewis is a junior government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.