Tuesday, January 28, 2020
Jan. 28, 2020

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Politics a burden, blessing for ‘SNL’

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Alec Baldwin may have logged his 17th turn as host of “Saturday Night Live” on Feb. 11, but he has been a regular presence on the show since October, pinch-hitting as the NBC late-night comedy’s resident Donald Trump impersonator. Perhaps subverting expectations, it wasn’t Baldwin who started the show but Melissa McCarthy who arrived to preside over the cold open as White House press secretary Sean Spicer. It was a performance that worked all kinds of comedy magic when she debuted it a week prior — largely because her first appearance was so unexpected and so hilariously hostile.

There’s a law of diminishing returns with this kind of thing, not that the concept has ever stopped “SNL.” It can be hard to hit something as squarely and thrillingly as McCarthy’s initial surprise appearance, so you can understand why executive producer Lorne Michaels brought her back. But here’s the issue with recurring sketches: If you don’t advance the idea, what’s the point? With the “hey, isn’t that … ?” factor gone from McCarthy’s still amazingly ultra-combative performance — truly, the human embodiment of ALL CAPS — everything came down to the writing.

Asked by a reporter about flubbing the mention of a terrorist attack in Atlanta, we got this volley back from the podium: “Yeah, I said that wrong when I said it, and then you wrote it, which makes you wrong!”

But there was some “light terrorism this week when Nordstrom’s decided to stop selling Ivanka Trump’s line of clothing and accessories.” Let’s step back and admire the subtext and political commentary embodied in that phrase “light terrorism.” That’s economy in comedy writing.

Aside from the popularity of the original bit, I suspect it made a return for another more fascinating reason. As Elahe Izadi noted in the Washington Post, “Trump is running the government as a president who cares very deeply about appearances — so much so that a ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch could affect how he does it.”

This is an unprecedented phenomenon and one that “SNL” has not had to contend with … ever. You have to wonder if this makes Michaels & Co. almost giddy — or sick to their stomachs. Maybe both. There’s a certain responsibility and a very specific sort of expectation that has suddenly been thrust on the show, and based on this episode, I don’t think anyone there wants it.

Let’s not forget, this is the same show — the same executive producer — that feted Trump as host over a year ago. “Where does ‘SNL’ stand on anything?” I find myself wondering. The reason for this is that Michaels is not especially politically minded, I suspect, but more of a pragmatist when it comes to ratings and what will get people talking.

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