SNL Runs an Ad for Elizabeth Warren

Depicting a rally, the cold open landed between comedy and campaigning.

Kate McKinnon as Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren’s campaign prides itself on prioritizing policy instead of just personality, and SNL made a surprisingly earnest attempt at following that directive. (Will Heath / NBC)

Have you heard this one before? Elizabeth Warren holds a town hall in Iowa.

That’s it; that’s the joke.

So went the logic of Saturday Night Live’s take on the 2020 election in its cold open this week. The show’s political sketches are always patchy, as the writing process appears to involve mashing up recent headlines and sprinkling in extra zaniness. When the topic is Donald Trump, the bits—for better and often for worse—fuel themselves on open mockery. Sometimes the writers will serve up a high-concept twist, as with the mid-show sketch last night that amusingly portrayed the milkshake-ducking of Conan the Special Forces dog. But SNL’s been less sure of how to handle the Democratic primary, which is overcrowded with characters and also tied up in detailed policy debates. As a result, the approach of yesterday’s show landed somewhere between comedy and campaign ad.

The invaluable Kate McKinnon continues to nail an anything-but-rote caricature of America’s No. 1 wonk. “Look at me, I am in my natural habitat, a public school on the weekend,” her Elizabeth Warren said as she took the mic. “And I just housed a Nature Valley bar so I am jacked up and ready to pop off!” There’s a way to speak these lines so that the joke is on the dweeb saying them. But McKinnon’s dervish routine, all kicks and fist bumps and grins, swaggers. Warren is a queen of can-do, and SNL—like many Democratic-primary voters, polls show—wants to give her a high five rather than a swirly.

Warren’s campaign, of course, prides itself on prioritizing policy instead of just personality, and SNL made a surprisingly earnest attempt at following that directive. The audience members at this fictional town hall dramatized the main lines of skepticism toward Warren in this primary, with Cecily Strong’s character wearing a Kamala Harris T-shirt while saying she was still undecided. McKinnon’s Warren dispatched the interrogators not with cute punch lines but rather, as the real Warren might, with folksy explainers.

On the question of why it took so long for Warren to unveil her Medicare for All funding scheme, McKinnon’s character noted a double standard in how she and Bernie Sanders are judged. She then used a poster to show her three-point plan to pay for universal health care: Cut military spending, tax Amazon, and tax banks—all of which are actual proposals of Warren’s. On the question of whether her plans were too radical for most Americans, McKinnon’s Warren replied with a line I could have sworn I’d heard at one of the Democratic debates: “You know why lobbyists are so against universal health care? They’re afraid you’re going to like it. ‘Cause it’s awesome!”

There were, to be sure, stabs at satire—directed toward both Warren and other Democrats—within the amplification of talking points. McKinnon’s character argued, for example, that Sanders is treated like the fun dad with whom “you eat birthday cake for breakfast then go to Six Flags,” while Warren is the mom who holds “your hand while you throw up in my purse.” When asked to explain her math, McKinnon’s Warren unveiled a complicated-looking board of charts and graphs and said, with hilarious matter-of-factness, “you’d die” if she tried to explain it. Regarding experts’ disagreements on the cost of her plans, she said, “When the numbers are this big, they’re just pretend.”

Late in the sketch, an audience member, played by Chloe Fineman, said she was nervous to lose her private insurance. McKinnon’s Warren made like a TV relationship coach, comparing Blue Cross Blue Shield to a “bad boyfriend” she should leave. Fineman’s character broke down, admitting that she was indeed “settling.” The bit wasn’t very funny, but it was forceful: an attempt at putting dramatic reform proposals in warm, human terms. Not incidentally, that’s also a challenge Warren’s campaign faces. Did Liz win that woman’s vote? “I don’t know,” Fineman shrugged. “Pete Buttigieg seems nice!”

For the rest of the episode, the host Kristen Stewart brought her blasé charisma to bear with mixed results. Many skits were solidly in SNL’s recent drunken- nonsense mode, involving not one big joke but a bunch of surreal, disconnected ones. A highlight: Aidy Bryant as a woman who buys an overpriced paint brand from the United Kingdom and pronounces the u in colour. On “Weekend Update,” Melissa Villaseñor and Heidi Gardner made an impression as an overrated child genius and her unloving stage mom.

The episode’s best moment of real-world commentary actually made no mention of presidential candidates, though it seemed oddly in line with the subtexts of the Democratic primary. It was a pop-punk music video in which the singers shout slogans against corporate capitalism but, over the course of the song, are seduced by the logic of office-drone ladder climbing. McKinnon’s Warren might shiver at its telling of a timeless tale: big structural change thwarted by the existing structures’ itty-bitty tricks.