Film & TV

Saturday Night Live and Its Mean-Spirited Players

Alex Baldwin as President Trump in a Saturday Night Live skit on December 1, 2018. (Saturday Night Live/YouTube)
What happens to political TV when comedians are not ready for democracy

The night before the election, the cabal at NBC’s Saturday Night Live got in one last prejudiced shot at the presidential race with a nationally broadcast but awkwardly titled network program, “Saturday Night Live (SNL Election Special), November 2, 2020.”

Not much wit in that title, probably because wit has failed the program over the political and White House changes of the past few decades. SNL has become ever more partisan — which in comedic terms means obvious. Even as COVID-19 fears restricted the size of attendees invited to Studio 8H, the “live” audience responses contained more applause than laughter, more confirmation bias than mirth.

Monday night’s “Election Special” compiled several recent skits that typified the way SNL has remade itself from its mid-’70s beginning as a satirical variety show into a dubious political force. The “Election Special” brought counter-programming to the spectacular marathon of populist rallies that President Trump was barnstorming over Election Eve weekend; it was also continuous programming for NBC, part of the major network alliance that restructured its former “news” coverage into warped discourse and strategic distortion of events and issues. (The most glaring example being chirpy NBC Today Show hostess Savannah Guthrie, unleashed as a suddenly serious scold — an intemperate interruptresse — during last month’s failed ambush of the president at NBC’s “town hall.”)

SNL’s “Election Special” played to the show’s questionable new status as political commentary. While TV, print, and Internet journalism rely on opinion and analysis more than factual reporting, the old separation between corporate “news” and “entertainment” divisions has dissolved. Most odd in this development is the frequent use of SNL clips by various media outlets. The clip-show approach (borrowed from exhausted sit-com writers) isn’t real journalism but only further demonstration that most media derives from the same ideology and literally the same source, constantly replicating an already stated opinion. The Big Boys follow the repetitious outrages on social media.

Because it’s now routine for cable programs to include the latest SNL clips as political news (Fox News’s Pete Hegseth and Will Cain sometimes can be seen wincing at the obligatory nods to their competitor network), NBC’s “Election Special” felt redundant.

Yet this replay of SNL’s revue sketches proved enlightening, despite one’s instinct to dismiss the outright political bias shown by NBC and SNL producer Lorne Michaels. It became clear from the clips chosen that politics are not SNL’s forte. Its cast of performers and writers have forsaken the humanizing point of comedy and satire for obvious personal prejudice — the last resort of pundits who can’t sustain argument.

The “Election Special” clips provide a measure of how SNL has changed. From the amateur leagues of liberal showbiz that hatch performers who are working out private issues and group-think camaraderie, with the cast originally billed as the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, SNL today must be recognized as a troupe of Mean-Spirited Players.

Although the mean-girl, frat-boy tendency was always there, performers such as Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Dan Ackroyd, Dana Carvey, and a few others managed to balance caricature with affection throughout the Clinton and two Bush administrations. But the latter is when know-it-all-ism began to prevail, turning repulsive as network media fought back against the 2000 election. Eventually, these mainstream comedians lost their sense of humor and became self-congratulatory jesters to the court of Obama.

The best “Election Special” skits were post-Obama bits like those of Maya Rudolph, whose Kristen Welker and Kamala Harris impersonations have accurate behavioral and vocal specifics, although the slant toward Harris’s presumed intelligence is unconvincing.

The dishonor role:

*From Kate McKinnon’s uninspired imitations of both Hillary Clinton and Laura Ingraham, it’s clear that SNL prides shrillness over caricature.

*Alec Baldwin’s scrunched-face, uglified Trump gag is less an impersonation than a projection of Baldwin’s egotism and uncontainable bile. Baldwin is where SNL hits bottom, appealing to the most trite and insensible hatred of liberal spoilsports.

*Larry David’s curmudgeonly Bernie Sanders is contemptibly soft and false while Jim Carrey’s Biden coddles real everyday dementia, both David and Carrey being afraid to offend their base.

No longer a ring of ambitious counterculture outsiders who respect the diversity of the popular audience, SNL is an official institution of Left Derangement Syndrome.

 

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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