Why ‘Saturday Night Live’ Needs to Update Its Act Before It’s Too Late

This weekend, Saturday Night Live debuted its new Trump for election season, played by Alec Baldwin. Naturally, Baldwin nailed the character like he would if he were playing him in a serious biopic, and the fake-tan game was next-level. But some Sunday-morning critics like Yahoo!’s Ken Tucker were quick to point out that Trump is no usual politician; simply making fun of his obviously eccentric mannerisms, and equating those quirks with those of Hillary Clinton or other candidates, is offensive at this stage.

It is offensive. It’s also just lazy comedy. And Saturday Night Live needs to rethink its approach, with a mere 36 days to go before Election Day.

SNL can and should go way, way deeper on this one. Not because they are our only hope against electing a racist, unstable narcissist — believe me (as he’d say), the SNL powers that be guarded themselves well against that expectation in the press leading up to Saturday’s season premiere, denying that their little comedy show could have any real impact on elections. “I think it has an effect,” creator/executive producer Lorne Michaels said in a great analysis piece in The Washington Post“but we don’t influence people in how to vote.”

Of course, they could, and have, affected elections, Tina Fey’s devastating Sarah Palin portrayal being the prime example. (We all know by now that it was Fey-as-Palin, not Palin, who said, “I can see Russia from my house.” Right?) But there are ways SNL could still give The Daily Show and its descendants (Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee) a run for their political cachet. To do that, SNL has to get over the way it’s done things for 41 years.

When the show premiered in 1975, simply poking fun at the mannerisms and speaking patterns of a president or potential president was a radical act. Moving from the JFK days of grave respect for our leaders to the era of Nixon, this represented a genuine shift. So re-enacting the week’s events — press conferences, debates, and interviews most of us had seen in real life — with the SNL satirical twist was enough. Ha, ha, we said to ourselves. That was what he really meant. 

Now, the show must go far beyond sending up politicians the same way it sends up pop stars. It needs to skip the debate re-enactment — by the time it airs, the Internet has chewed up every moment and spit it out via memes, recaps, and tweets anyway. You knew Kate McKinnon was going to do Hillary’s debate shimmy, but it was funnier when Internet memes compared her to Shaq, and we’d seen a billion other iterations by Saturday.

I’m loathe to start pitching sketch ideas to the professionals, but as a general starting point, why not imagine scenarios Trump’s insane policies might bring about? He builds his precious wall, but refuses to pay the workers, as he’s done so many times in his own business, so he has to finish it himself with his tiny hands. He finds himself in office with no actual plan besides, “Believe me, it’s gonna be huge. We’re gonna win.” He fills his cabinet the only way he knows how, via Celebrity Apprentice, only to find his mid-list celebrities are taking the job more seriously than he is. He stars in a terrifying buddy comedy with Putin. Baldwin and Fey play Trump and Palin in a Very Dark 30 Rock about supposed leaders who can’t seem to form complete sentences.

As I said, I’m not an SNL writer, so I’m not pretending these are the ideas that will save us. Just examples of new ways to think beyond impressions and lazy re-enactments. Maybe they won’t save us. But it might even be good for comedy if they try.

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