Saturday Night Live opened its first post-election show with a moment that grows only more extraordinary with thought (and, in my case at least, repeated viewing): Kate McKinnon, dressed in her familiar Hillary Clinton character, played the piano and sang the recently departed Leonard Cohen’s classic “Hallelujah.” When I first saw her at the piano, I assumed she’d be performing a parody song that, even if respectful, would also make us laugh. In fact, I spent the first half of the song still sort-of waiting for it to take that turn, even though that would be a questionable choice in light of Cohen’s death; the comedic turn never came.
As the comedy-free trajectory sunk in, its brilliance shone: It gave me, and presumably the rest of the half of the nation that supported Clinton/cannot sleep at the thought of a Trump regime, an image we didn’t know we wanted, but felt like the perfect catharsis. It served as a far more memorable tribute to Cohen, one that will be remembered for years, than some basic musical performance would. It opened the show on what had to be the most somber note ever in the show’s history following an election result. It kept any image of our new president, even a lampooning one, out of our sight at this raw time. And it was only improved by McKinnon’s in-tune but modest singing voice, more earnest than technically beautiful. Who knew the world could even stand another cover version of “Hallelujah,” let alone desperately need it?
The performance also flowed well into the opening monologue from host Dave Chappelle, who was booked for the appearance before the election but served as the perfect transition into a new time for America, and thus the show. He dropped N-bombs, as is his wont, as well as some brutal commentary on Black Lives Matter, ISIS/mass shooting jokes (yep, it worked), a stunning story about visiting the White House for an all-black (except for Bradley Cooper) party recently, and a genuine wish for Trump’s presidency. (“I’m wishing Donald Trump luck. And I’m gonna give him a chance. And we, the historically disenfranchised, demand that he give us one, too.”) Chappelle was at his finest, deploying beautifully phrased stories and jokes and gut punches as spontaneously as if they had just occurred to him.
It was great to see Chappelle back in the national-television game at a time when we need gutsier, more pointed satire of the kind he used to do on his Comedy Central sketch show. (No doubt whom his blind, black white supremacist character would vote for this year.) I hope this signals a bolder direction for SNL as we move into uncharted territory. As Saturday’s show proved, comedy can be a serious force if it wants to be.