It was telling that Saturday Night Live began the first sketch of its new season in the middle of the Senate’s recent hearings on the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. And revealing, too, that the cold open was concerned entirely with Kavanaugh and not Christine Blasey Ford, who was mentioned but not depicted in the sketch.
“We’ve heard from the alleged victim, but now it’s time to hear from the hero,” said Senator Chuck Grassley (Alex Moffat). Ford, who has said Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in high school, didn’t really come up again. The focus was on the judge himself, overflowing with juvenile bluster and played by Matt Damon, the latest in SNL’s long line of celebrity guests taking on topical roles. Two days after a genuinely wrenching moment in American political history, the country’s biggest comedy show returned to the airwaves and attempted to wring some satire from it.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost all of the jokes were at Kavanaugh’s expense. His gale-force defense from Thursday was translated into a tour de force of entitled whining by Damon, who played the judge as a perpetual 17-year-old, still enamored with his wild summer of ’82. “I’m a keg-is-half-full kinda guy,” Kavanaugh explained, sticking up for his friends “P.J., and Squi, and Handsy Hank, and Gang-Bang Greg, which you know the liberal media is gonna find some way to spin.” It made sense for SNL to concentrate its mockery on Kavanaugh’s angry performance, rather than on the riveting, dignified testimony given by Ford. But the show also risked turning the nominee into a harmless, cartoonish buffoon, defanging him before the week is out.
It is not news that President Donald Trump watches SNL; the White House was reportedly “rattled” by the casting of Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer in 2017; one source told Politico, “Trump doesn’t like his people to look weak.” Kavanaugh’s confirmation now hangs in the balance, as the FBI investigates allegations of sexual misconduct against him, which he has vigorously denied. At such a crucial moment, even the public perception of the judge filtered through a show as silly as SNL might matter—though that perhaps reflects more on the White House than it does on Lorne Michaels and company.
The Kavanaugh put forward by SNL was, for one, aggressive. “I’m gonna start at an 11. I’m gonna take it to about a 15 real quick,” he yelled at the start of the sketch before tearing into an alleged Democratic conspiracy: “I’m here tonight because of a sham, a political con job orchestrated by the Clintons, and George Soros, and Kathy Griffin, and Mr. Ronan Sinatra.” The judge fixated on his glory days as a teenager. Asked whether he ever drank too many beers, he shot back, “You mean was I cool? Yeah.” And though the sketch largely avoided details about the sexual-assault claim the hearings were meant to address, one line was delivered with particular intent to sting: “I’m not backing down, you sons of bitches. I don’t know the meaning of the word stop.”
In focusing on the most meme-worthy, stunning moments of Kavanaugh’s testimony (his professed love of beer, his haughty refrain of “I got into Yale”), Damon turned the judge into a fuming teen, loud but unthreatening, breaking into tears at every mention of his high-school buddies or his beloved “beautiful, creepy calendars.” Only when Kavanaugh proclaimed that he was “the proudest, drunkest virgin you’ve ever seen” did the sketch come close to acknowledging what he was actually accused of, and how strange some of his defenses were.
It’s an approach that felt logical, since sexual assault isn’t something that can be easily boiled down to pithy punch lines. But by homing in on Kavanaugh as a frat-boy caricature, the sketch necessarily blunted the broader power and significance of Thursday’s testimony, and obscured the stark contrast the judge struck with Ford’s much more measured performance. Damon’s casting was solid—the actor was playing on his preppy charm, and portrayed the pugnaciousness well enough—but it belied the show’s deeper problems with trusting its own cast to take on the big roles.
Damon is now part of an all-star ensemble that includes Alec Baldwin as Trump, Robert De Niro as Robert Mueller, Ben Stiller as Michael Cohen, and many more. By casting A-list actors in these roles, Michaels gives the impression that the people they’re playing will only be in the news for so long, and that the Trump administration may depart SNL’s stage sooner rather than later. But the circus goes on and on, and even Saturday Night Live is finding it harder to get at the joke.