Despite a long history of political satire, Saturday Night Live hasn’t had a very strong election cycle over the past year, largely because of its failure to capture Donald Trump. Last season, the show treated the GOP presidential candidate with much the same detached bemusement as the Republican establishment: As played by Darrell Hammond, he was a cartoon bully—an arch, if crude, provocateur who couldn’t possibly ascend to the presidency. But this version of Trump bore little resemblance to the so-called demagogue at a forefront of an unprecedented political movement. So, over the summer, the show made a major change—and this weekend, Hammond’s self-satisfied smirk was replaced with the gargoyle scowl of Alec Baldwin.
It turned out that Baldwin, who appeared in the show’s cold open satirizing the first presidential debate, was just the jolt the SNL needed (and it translated to big ratings). The show is defined by its coverage of election years, from Phil Hartman’s chummy, hungry Bill Clinton in 1992 to Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush saying “strategery” in 2000 to, of course, Sarah Palin seeing Russia from her house. While the show’s previous iteration of Trump was slammed for being chummy and toothless, Baldwin’s new take felt loaded with venom.
This Trump took the stage and promised to be “so presidential,” then almost immediately offered up some casually racist and sexist remarks. He called the moderator Lester Holt (as played by Michael Che) “Coltrane” and “jazzman”; he accused Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama of taking his microphone “to Kenya” and breaking it; he proudly brought up Monica Lewinsky, calling her “very heavy.” Throughout the sketch, he sniffed, grunted, and grimaced at his opponent; Baldwin’s Trump seemed less like a class clown and more like a demonic version of SNL’s Drunk Uncle.
It felt like the first time the show was going after the candidate’s controversial policies and inflammatory rhetoric. But just as powerful was how little the writers needed to stray from his actual words in order to make a point. “We should be talking about the important issues, like Rosie O’Donnell and how she’s a fat loser,” Baldwin’s Trump yelled when asked about Alicia Machado; “And everyone agrees with me, and I just wanted to bring that up at a presidential debate of my own volition. Good idea, I did it.” It might have seemed ridiculous if it wasn’t almost exactly how it played out in real life.
Trump has been a figurative and literal character on Saturday Night Live for many years. He’s hosted twice: once in 2004, and again in 2015, in the middle of his presidential campaign. Phil Hartman played Trump as a blustery tycoon for a handful of sketches in the late ’80s; Hammond’s version was more rooted in Trump’s persona on The Apprentice. After one ill-fated sketch where the now-fired cast member Taran Killam tried the role, Hammond was brought back—but his Trump was still the smug playground bully who called Jeb Bush “Jeborah.” Despite being known as the show’s master impressionist, he never quite had Trump’s cadence down. Beyond that, his take on the character seemed oddly neutral at a time when Trump was proposing a ban on Muslims entering the United States and calling Mexican immigrants “rapists.”
Baldwin’s Trump is the show’s canniest yet. His character is heavier on the makeup—his face is craggy and deeply perma-tanned, while his gigantic eyebrows practically jump through the screen. It seems a little inspired by Baldwin’s take on Richard Nixon, whom he parodied on 30 Rock—grumpily paranoid, hunched over with his mouth hanging open, and wagging his fingers at the audience furiously. But the verbal impression also sounds more accurate, especially when he hits words like “Clinton” (spat out with derision) or “China” (delivered with an elongated groan).
Still, the biggest change came through in the writing itself—SNL now seems unafraid to use Trump’s own ideas and words to paint him as a sneering racist, rather than a harmless blowhard. “The thing about the blacks is that they’re killing each other,” Baldwin growled in the debate sketch. “All the blacks live on one street in Chicago ... it’s called Hell Street, and they’re on Hell Street, and they’re all just killing each other, just like I am killing this debate.” It was an only slightly heightened version of Trump’s actual pitch to black voters, itself rooted in racist stereotypes.
What led to this shift? This season of SNL has new head writers in Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, who wrote the debate sketch and may have decided to take a more aggressive tone going into the final months of the election. Trump’s hosting spot in November 2015 had also been widely criticized for being a cheap ratings grab that softened and legitimized a candidate who’d at that point already been condemned for his comments on immigration. Similar blowbacks from comedians and critics have greeted other late-night shows that have treated Trump gently, most recently Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show.
The particular irony was that NBC already had severed its relationship with Trump in the summer of 2015 because of his “derogatory statements”; SNL defended Trump largely on the basis of his popularity in the primary polls. “People got mad at us for having Trump on the show, but it’s like, he’s supposed to be on a comedy show!” the cast member and Weekend Update host Michael Che said to Seth Meyers this summer. “I’m mad at you for voting for him! That’s where he makes sense, on a sketch-comedy show! Let’s laugh at the orange man!” Trump certainly was the biggest story of the year, but it’s still remarkably rare for SNL to extend the hosting gig to a presidential candidate. Coupled with the season’s generally weak satire, the episode made the show look slightly desperate.
When SNL’s creator and executive producer, Lorne Michaels, was asked about the show treating Trump with kid gloves last season, he was his usual enigmatic self. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter last week, Michaels said, “He is the nominee of the Republican party. We’ve always tried to be non-partisan. I think that he’s one of the most controversial candidates that’s ever happened. But you’ll see what we do this week.” There was certainly new urgency on display last Saturday—Baldwin’s performance invited viewers to not just “laugh at the orange man,” but also to fear him.