'Saturday Night Live' and the ineffectiveness of humor in the Trump era

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·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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Kanye West, Adam Driver, and Kenan Thompson on <em>Saturday Night Live</em>. (Photo: NBC)
Kanye West, Adam Driver, and Kenan Thompson on Saturday Night Live. (Photo: NBC)

Over the weekend, Saturday Night Live returned for another season of reminding us about the uselessness of political humor in these times. It was predictable that SNL would lead off its show with a Brett Kavanaugh confirmation-hearing sketch; the only surprising thing about it turned out to be the casting of Matt Damon as Kavanaugh. Otherwise, it was typical Donald Trump-era SNL stuff: Very few jokes — instead, lazy paraphrases of things that were actually said during the hearings, as though mere quotation is enough to make anyone laugh. SNL now exists primarily to remind us that we are living in the era of You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, that Trump’s election pushed America over into an absurdity that only becomes more and more serious every time he says or does something awful.

The cynicism of SNL is impressive. Producer Lorne Michaels framed the Kavanaugh sketch as a breaking-news report from Fox News, thereby guaranteeing that Fox News would then broadcast SNL clips all Sunday morning. (Just to remind you how much of an alternate universe Fox viewers exist within: On Sunday’s Fox & Friends, co-host Pete Hegseth introduced the clip by telling his viewers that Damon is “an ultraliberal activist who’s also an actor,” while another co-host said that Damon should not have been allowed to perform in this sketch because “he knew about Harvey Weinstein.”)

Alas, the one performance worth seeing took place after SNL went off the air, when this week’s musical guest, Kanye West, wore a Make America Great Again cap and rambled about supporting Trump. (Trump then tweeted of Kanye: “He’s leading the charge!”) West tweeted on Sunday that Michaels has invited him to host the show later this season. That may finally be an SNL worth watching in real time.


Traditionally, humor can be used to sap power from the powerful and to comfort people in times of despair. But it’s become obvious that humor is useless as a tool against Trump, and it’s not even much of a comfort for those who are upset by him. In years past, it was possible to be invigorated by the contemptuous ridicule heaped upon figures such as Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and Dick Cheney. Now, the sheer volume of awfulness dumped upon America by Trump and Fox News and their mastery of the 24-hour news cycle has made it impossible to feel as though any joke has the power to heal or wound.

It isn’t just SNL — this is also true of Stephen Colbert’s Late Show, in which the host is barely interested in interviewing guests and comes to life primarily during his opening, headline-analyzing monologues. It’s also true of Samantha Bee, whose Full Frontal is minimally interested in eliciting laughs these days, and of Bill Maher, who spends HBO’s Real Time flailing about with his trademark mixture of entitled glibness and anger.

Over the weekend, Amy Chozick wrote a New York Times piece explaining why she thinks Trump will be elected for a second term. She rooted the piece in Trump’s origins in another television genre — reality TV. Chozick suggests that Trump benefits from the public’s interest in the endless entertainment — the unceasing performance — contained within his political career. She’s right, I think: If SNL viewers are still titillated by lame lampoons of Trump and all of the dreadful people he’s promoting into public office, the rest of the country will probably settle for more Trump for years to come. It doesn’t matter that the humor is lousy.

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