We Need Saturday Night Live to Survive the Next Four Years

Over the weekend, Danielle Muscato’s excellent and epic Twitter rant went viral. In it, she takes President-Elect Donald Trump to task for caring more about a sketch comedy show than preparing to run the country. The backstory is an example of the kind of media feedback loop so common these days, with Muscato tweeting in response to Trump’s own tweet critiquing the long-running Saturday Night Live and actor Alec Baldwin for their unflattering portrayal of his, you guessed it, obsession with Twitter.

In the wake of the most depressing election in recent memory and the living nightmare of the last month—likely just the beginning of attacks on the free press, women’s rights, education, LGBTQ+ equality and basic human decency, among other things—I’ve had very little to laugh about. In fact, sometimes it feels like my every spare moment is spent reading article after article about impending doom and responding to various calls to action. This is as it should be right now, in a time of crisis and concern. But it’s SNL that reminded me to leave room for laughter and that comedy can be both cathartic and productive.

On the whole, the show may be hit or miss, but that’s just the nature of sketch comedy.  Still, SNL is often at its best when its engaged in political satire. This season’s series of debate spoofs were no exception, with the inestimable Kate McKinnon playing Hillary Clinton and Alec Baldwin delivering a masterful impression of Donald Trump. Each sketch emphasized the head-shaking, jaw-dropping moments from the real debates, rendering them even more potent in their absurdity. (You can watch them here, here and here.)

During the show days prior to the election, SNL disrupted its usual “cold open” format: McKinnon-as-Clinton and Baldwin-as-Trump broke character and ran through the streets of New York City giving out hugs. While some lauded the move as a necessary catharsis for a toxic election season, others accused SNL of not doing enough to advance progressive causes, as Liz Shannon Miller wrote in IndieWire:

Meanwhile, in the final days of the 2016 campaign, “SNL” decided to shy away from taking a hard stand on the election. Instead it aimed for catharsis across party lines, which, to be honest, was refreshing in the moment. But history will look back on it as a wasted opportunity to really say where we were as a nation, as well as a wasted opportunity to speak out.

In retrospect, I think we all wish we could have done more, but that doesn’t mean that the desire to offer viewers an emotional outlet is unimportant. In fact, SNL‘s powerful response post-election, with McKinnon-as-Clinton singing a raw, heartfelt rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to open the show, speaks volumes about the its enduring influence and political resonance, especially since SNL tends to only forego a comedic cold open in the wake of a national or global tragedy.

The last few weeks have seen further evidence of SNL as a crucial vehicle for continued and incisive satire. Take, for example, the sketch where Trump tries to prepare to take office. Baldwin lampoons his impossible campaign promises—and McKinnon, now downgraded from Clinton to playing Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, artfully uses her role to reflect some of the horror so many of us feel at the recent turn of events. When Trump thanks Conway, saying “I wouldn’t be president without you,” McKinnon, looking shell-shocked, responds, “I think about that every day.” Minutes later, she asks for a time machine.

Both sentiments are ones that resonate beyond the sketch and beyond the show to engage with the political tenor of the moment.

If Trump’s own response to his portrayal is anything to go by—and we’ve already witnessed it several times now via his unfiltered tweets—SNL is still hitting its mark. While satire isn’t the only, or the most significant, way to combat the effects of political oppression, regressive policies or fear of an unknown future, the show provides some welcome levity—with teeth.

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an honors faculty fellow at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University. She’s written for both popular and academic venues on gender and sexuality in American culture, contemporary art and television.

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