Saturday Night Live’s cold open this week began in precisely the way you’d expect it to. There was Alec Baldwin, as Donald Trump. There was Kate McKinnon, as Hillary Clinton. Baldwin-Trump simpered and thumbs-upped and teeheefully noted that “they’re still buying it!”; McKinnon-Clinton animatedly pointed and waved and talked about her favorite part of the week being the loss of “that big, huge lead I had.” The two, apparently guesting together on Erin Burnett’s CNN show OutFront, talked about Twitter, and the FBI, and Vladimir Putin, and the recent endorsement Trump received from the KKK, and the rumors that there is, indeed, another hot-mic tape of Trump. Baldwin-Trump, as expected, began talking about his plan, once he is president, to jail his opponent.
But then: He changed course. He broke character.
“I’m sorry,” Alec Baldwin, the actor-comedian, said to Kate McKinnon, the actor-comedian. “I just hate yelling at you like this.”
The camera zoomed back to reveal the two, seemingly satellite-ing in from Florida and Colorado, standing next to each other, instead, on the SNL soundstage. “Yeah. I know, right?” McKinnon replied, following suit in the character-breaking. “This election has been so mean.”
“I mean, I just feel gross all the time,” Baldwin continued. “Don’t you guys feel gross all the time, about this?”
The audience erupted into applause and whistles.
And then things … took another turn. The camera cut to a pre-recorded scene featuring the pair leaving the confines of 30 Rock to gallivant around Times Square, as Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” played rousingly in the background. They held hands. They hugged the people they encountered, joyfully. (McKinnon even briefly hugged a man in a “TRUMP THAT BITCH” t-shirt.) They split a street pretzel. They danced an improvised hora. They hugged babies. Around them, American flags waved. Balloons ascended into the air. They hung out with Times Square versions of the Statue of Liberty, and of Uncle Sam, as people laughed and smiled and cheered.
It was extremely cheesy. It was not terribly funny. But, wow, it was cathartic.
Not to overanalyze an SNL cold open, but also to totally overanalyze an SNL cold open: The scene may have been shot in the final days before the election; it was also, however, future-oriented. It dispensed with traditional satire to acknowledge that, however the vote swings on Tuesday, the contest will be a close one. Neither candidate will end up with a mandate. Half the country—or at least half of the people who come out to the polls—will be disappointed; many of them will be angry. And Americans, starting on Tuesday evening, will have to find a way to be Americans together again. SNL’s skit speaks to that basic fact—and to the notion that, whomever one votes for or has already voted for, the shared fact of citizenship will have to be, after this long campaign ends, the main thing that matters.
The show decided that it was worth breaking the fourth wall to make that point. It was a rarity in the sketch-driven series, but one that puts SNL in league with what many of its fellow comedy shows have done throughout the campaign season: They’ve all been, in their idiosyncratic ways, getting serious. John Oliver, talking voter ID laws and special-purpose districts. Sam Bee, talking crisis pregnancy centers and superPACs. (And talking, too, with President Obama.) Whitney Cummings, talking sexual violence. Trevor Noah, comparing Trump to an African dictator. Amy Schumer, talking gun safety.
You could think of it, in a way, as the fifth wall: not just the one that divides the performance from the audience, but the one that acknowledges the wider audience that lives in the distance, beyond the screen. The one that appreciates a show not just as a thing unto itself, but as something that—via the slicing and dicing and sharing capabilities of the internet—can affect how the public, as a body, understands the world. The fifth wall is built into the comedy of The Daily Show and Full Frontal and Last Week Tonight, and even sometimes into network shows like the Late Show and the Tonight Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live: It’s a recognition of comedy’s power not just to amuse audiences, but to effect change.
Now, SNL is engaging in its own version of that wall-breaking. The show that gave us Ronald Reagan, mastermind, and Sarah Palin, seeing Russia from her house, and “Bitch is the new black” is now overtly weighing in on the election: not to endorse a candidate, but to endorse democracy. It’s reflecting the high stakes of an election that come down not just to party versus party, but to vision versus vision. Some things, the cold open suggested, are too important to be laughed at. Some things demand calculated earnestness.
So it was fitting that the cold open of SNL’s final show before Monday’s election special dispensed, in the end, with any pretense of comedy. It ended simply with Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon—actors, comedians, citizens—beseeching their viewers to exercise that most basic of rights and privileges: voting.
“And now it’s time to get out there and vote!” Baldwin said. He added: “None of this will have mattered if you don’t vote.”
“And we can’t tell you who to vote for,” McKinnon, echoed, her voice welling, just a bit, with emotion. “But on Tuesday, we all get a chance to choose what country we want to live in.”
And, with that, the moment of earnestness passed. The comedians—and the show that brought them together and gave them their stage—brought reality back to “reality”: “And live from New York,” they said in unison, “it’s Saturday night!”