Alec Baldwin collapses onto his dressing-room couch at Saturday Night Live like a man participating too enthusiastically in a trust fall. He is 58 years old. He has three children under 4. He has been dividing what’s left of his time between filming a movie with Emilio Estevez in Cincinnati and answering the call from NBC whenever it comes, which, because of his now-signature portrayal of Donald Trump, has been many weeks this season. His appearances gather eyes like car accidents; some clips have been watched on YouTube more than 20 million times. Those legions of viewers have formed a kind of makeshift resistance, a community of the gaslit, together feeling a little less crazy for knowing that at least Alec Baldwin can see what they are seeing. Turning the president into a running joke might prove the most consequential work of his career. It’s at least been the most consuming.
Baldwin has bags under his eyes, his normally enviable hair appears as though it’s been beaten flat with a tire iron, and he has two blood-red spots on the bridge of his nose. His whole body looks like it aches. He is keeping it going by alternating between a bottle of Diet Coke and some grainy concoction from Starbucks served in a bucket. This week he is hosting SNL for a record 17th time, expectations are soaring, and the pressure, like the workload, is telling on him like a terrible secret. It’s only Tuesday.
There is a knock at the door. It’s time for Baldwin to go to makeup. Among his many chores today, February 7, he has to pose for this week’s “bumpers,” the photos of the host that bookend SNL’s commercial breaks. His wife, Hilaria, is coming in later with their kids for what will be a lovely family portrait, but the first shot is of Baldwin as Hamlet, holding the skull of the ill-fated court jester Yorick, with Baldwin’s Trump wig on it. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times.
Baldwin walks down the hall slowly, listing a little, as though he’s walking on a ship. When he reaches his destination—bright lights, mirrors, and a bunch of people who are really happy to see him—he straightens up and smiles, jolted to life by the affection. He climbs into a chair, and a woman surveys his hair for half a second before firing up her clippers. A makeup artist asks whether he can put cooling pads under Baldwin’s eyes, and Baldwin beckons him forward as if to say, “You think I’d rather look like this?”
On a shelf behind him, his custom-made Trump wig shines golden on a life-size model of Baldwin’s head. The shelf contains the disembodied heads of every cast member, each labeled with a name and a size. Vanessa Bayer has the smallest; Baldwin’s dome is tied with several others’ for the biggest. There have been rumors that he will wear the wig for the entire show—that on Saturday, February 11, he will play Trump in every sketch. The team here in makeup has heard as much.
“No,” Baldwin says. “No. That would be a horrible idea.” He slips into Jack Donaghy, the executive he played so well on 30 Rock, dry as straight gin (“What am I, a farmer?”). “There’s a lot of talented people here. When I show up, I’m really only one of several people who make the show worthwhile. Sometimes I’m the least of what makes the show worthwhile.” He returns to playing himself. “That’s the most idiotic idea I’ve heard in my life. Ninety minutes of me walking around, like—”
Then it happens.
Baldwin’s face spasms almost uncontrollably, seized by muscle memory. He opens his left eye wide, he nearly closes his right eye, and he pushes out his wet lips as far as his chin will allow, his mouth turned suddenly into a bottomless black pit. His hands fly up, his fingers doing ridiculous, discordant things. He turns his head as though he’s been startled by a loud noise, and the woman cutting his hair has to snatch away her clippers with a jerk, her face gone urgent with the realization of how close she came to disaster.
“These are my golf clubs,” Baldwin says, his trademark voice transformed into Trump’s strange muffle, his naturally seamless, rapid-fire cadence turned halting. “They were given to me as a gift from Qaddafi. We’re doing a lot of business together, Muammar and I.”
Baldwin stops there. “Muammar,” he repeats, his mouth pushed out to the point of rupture, now satisfied that he has it right.
Everyone but the very professional hairstylist is in stitches. “Careful,” she says. “You’ll have a bald spot.” Baldwin relaxes. She moves quickly to finish her work, exchanging the clippers for scissors. She can’t help but marvel at the magnificence taking shape before her. “It’s unbelievable,” she says to no one and everyone at once. “He has gorgeous hair.”
Baldwin looks at himself in the mirror. “I don’t have anything else left,” he says. “It’s so sad. Seriously: age. Now you see why Cary Grant retired. People will do that to me on the internet. ‘Oh, here’s a picture of you … WHEN YOU WERE HOT.’ ” He puts on his best polite voice. “Thank you! THANK YOU, SUZIE.” He’s quiet for a moment, and then he’s back to playing the imaginary Suzie. “Here’s a picture of you … WHEN YOU LOOKED GOOD.”
His hair is soon rinsed and gelled to perfection. He shifts into the makeup chair. The cooling pads are removed, and they have done admirable work. Then his face is touched with makeup, special attention paid to the spots on his nose. They vanish like the bags under his eyes. A guy from costumes wanders in to see what kind of outfit Baldwin wants for Hamlet, and he asks for something “flouncy.” The costume guy nods and heads out the door, flouncy coming right up. Baldwin calls after him: “In extra large!”
More and more makeup is applied, and in between the layers, Baldwin plays four more parts. For a long stretch in the chair, he’s Tony Bennett. His Bennett is the anti-Trump, a hilarious, joyous, occasionally oblivious force for good. Baldwin remembers a sketch in which he played Bennett interviewing David Gest, Liza Minnelli’s then-husband (portrayed by Chris Kattan). “David, I hear you’re gay,” Baldwin-as-Bennett says. “David, I gotta ask you, if you like bananas, why are you rooting around in the strawberry patch?”
Baldwin answers as Gest: “I beg your pardon?”
“DON’T YOU MISS HAVING SEX WITH OTHER MEN?”
Gest again: “Now, that I do miss. That I do miss.”
Then Baldwin does his Robert De Niro impression. More specifically, he does Robert De Niro complimenting Alec Baldwin on his Robert De Niro impression. “Very good, Alec.” He nods. “Very good.”
Lastly, Baldwin rips into his version of Al Pacino, doing a screen test for Top Gun. “I got a need. FOR SPEED.”
Baldwin’s ear is so good, he can do three phases of Pacino: early, middle, and late. It is a breathless, almost vaudevillian routine, performed entirely while seated. It is also desperately funny. In 20 minutes, Baldwin has inhabited seven different characters. Of all the parts, Trump is his least favorite to play. “It’s not easy,” he says. “It’s not easy.”
Playing Trump is physically demanding—watching footage of his longer performances, Baldwin can sometimes see his mouth begin to droop, his Trump face requiring a combination of contractions that can be hard to sustain—but it’s a psychic challenge, too. Jokes are supposed to provide an escape, for the listener and the teller. Instead Baldwin lives in a state of constant reminder. His country is so far from his hopes for it, and now people won’t stop asking this liberal New Yorker to portray the primary vessel of his disappointments. Baldwin sometimes wishes that Trump would appear next to him on SNL, the way Tony Bennett did years ago, reclaiming his own voice and in the process maybe helping Baldwin do the same.
“If he was smart, he’d show up this week,” Baldwin says. “It would probably be over. He could end it. If he showed up.”
Trump will not show up, and nobody has any idea how this might end, least of all Baldwin. (He doesn’t even know whether he’ll continue to play Trump after this season concludes in May.) He harbors many suspicions, one of which is that the Republican apparatus will force Trump to resign behind closed doors as soon as May or June, citing health concerns as the public excuse. “He looks like he couldn’t run a block,” Baldwin says. Or maybe the bar for Trump is so low that if he changes his behavior even a little bit—witness the reception to his first address to a joint session of Congress—he might be allowed to play out his useful-idiot string for four or eight more years. “Oh God,” Baldwin says, shivering at the thought.
He rises from his chair and changes into his extra-large flouncy shirt, and he lifts that bewigged skull into the air and looks at it with a surprising melancholy.
Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols?
For the next shot he pulls on an ill-fitting suit and too-long tie, and he watches as that same wig is placed on his enormous, groomed head, and he mangles his eyes and pushes out his lips, this tired man made beautiful made ugly. It’s an unsettling transformation to watch. It’s almost as though Alec Baldwin, before he can become Donald Trump, must first become the best version of Alec Baldwin, and then ruin him.
This was never part of Baldwin’s plan. It was Tina Fey, the former SNL stalwart and the creator of 30 Rock, who told Lorne Michaels, SNL’s iconic chief of everything, that if he was looking for a Trump, Baldwin would make a good one. Fey knows something about political satire; she garnered wide acclaim for her uncanny portrayal of Sarah Palin on the show in 2008. It was so cutting, one study found, that watching it made young Republicans and independents less likely to vote for John McCain, Palin’s star-crossed running mate. “The difference for Tina,” Baldwin says, “is that Palin lost.”
He remembers Michaels floating the idea in August. Baldwin’s initial response: “Please don’t ask me that.” But Baldwin and Michaels have enjoyed a long, special relationship. Baldwin first hosted SNL in 1990 and is supposedly one of just two people, along with the actor Christopher Walken, who have a standing invitation to host whenever they want. “You have to be willing to pull your pants down,” Baldwin says. “Once I did that, they just kept asking me to come back.” He remembers one sketch in which he played a queasy cop vomiting all over the place at a crime scene, gallons of pea soup pumping out of a hose hidden up his sleeve. Being Trump wouldn’t be so different. Besides, he’d have to do it only until November.
The first time he walked into the SNL studio dressed as Trump—American-flag pin on his lapel, later to be switched out for a Russian one—he was poised for his opening debate with Kate McKinnon’s spry, pantsuit-wearing Hillary Clinton. Studio 8H is a chaotic place, almost like a movie set of a set. The backdrops for two or three different sketches might be hammered up at once, each a puzzle of temporary walls and props, the tight spaces between them filled with cables and rigs and sweating carpenters. The set for the presidential debate was right in the middle of the studio, surrounded by darkness. Baldwin was literally led by the hand to his mark, and he waited outside the glare of the lights for his surprise introduction.
He hadn’t rehearsed much. He had watched Trump on TV with the sound off, hunting for tics and physical cues (Baldwin still does this, recently adding Trump’s habitual neck stretch to his repertoire), but mostly he’d just hoped lightning would strike. Now he stood in the shadows, terrified that he didn’t have it—he worried out loud that he didn’t have it—trying to remind himself that, if nothing else, he needed to look as though he were “trying to suck the wallpaper off the wall.” That “nasty scar” of a mouth was Baldwin’s only certainty: “a puckering butthole,” he calls it, dropping into his Trump voice to describe his vision of it. Then he heard Michael Che, playing debate moderator Lester Holt, summon him to the stage: “He’s the man to blame for the bottom half of all his kids’ faces. It’s Republican nominee Donald Trump.”
Baldwin walked out onto the stage and, as if by dark magic, there he was: not Trump, exactly, but some nightmarish goof on Trump, a distillation of everything gross about him, boiled clean of any remnant that could be mistaken for competence or redemption. Unlike Fey’s pitch-perfect echo of Palin, Baldwin’s Trump isn’t an impersonation. He saves his more accurate work for Tony Bennett, for Robert De Niro, for Al Pacino—for men he loves and admires. Those are mischiefs, born of appreciation. His Trump is mimicry, born of disgust. Even after so many successful appearances—even after his and Trump’s visages have become so closely associated that a newspaper in the Dominican Republic ran a photograph of his Trump instead of the real one—Baldwin can still seem as though he doesn’t have the stomach to inhabit Trump fully. “Push, push, push,” he says in his makeup chair, his lips once again threatening to burst from his distorted face. “It’s exhausting. I’m hoping I can come up with someone else I can imitate. Pence?” In the meantime, he will keep his Trump at a remove, almost like an abstract painting, not of Trump the man but of Trump’s withered soul.
“Good evening, America,” Baldwin said on that first jittery Saturday. “I am going to be so good tonight.”
There was no way to predict what happened next. The crowd packed into the balcony above him laughed and cheered with an elusive abandon. Steve Higgins, a longtime producer at SNL, remembers the feeling in the room. “It was like a shot of electricity went through the studio. It was like a punch to the face. It was undeniable.” Baldwin gives himself less credit. “You just catch people in the mood,” he says.
This is SNL’s most-watched season since 1993, when Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, and Mike Myers were in full swing. In December, Trump tweeted about Baldwin’s performances, thumbing that they “just can’t get any worse.” Then Baldwin tweeted back, saying he’d stop if Trump released his tax returns. Then Trump didn’t release his tax returns, and Baldwin didn’t stop.
Then Trump became president.
Every Wednesday afternoon, on the 17th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, sometime around 4 o’clock, there occurs one of SNL’s most sacred rituals: the read-through. A signal goes out, and the show’s creative armies assemble in a conference room with a big picture window. Michaels sits with his back to the view, at the head of a large table laden with trays of sandwiches and chips. There is a bowl of edamame next to his left elbow. The week’s host sits to his right. Higgins sits past the edamame. The show’s cast members occupy the rest of the seats around the table. The writers and various assistants fill several rows of stacking chairs. The writers don’t have a table, and they don’t have any food.
Today, the gathering starts a little later than usual, around quarter to five, and the Manhattan skyline is turning gold in the setting sun. Baldwin arrives with a beverage tray containing four different drinks, because it’s going to be a long evening and it’s important to stay hydrated. Like everyone else, he has picked up the week’s “script pack,” a mountain of white paper stamped with black type. He sits down and looks at the first page, the show’s all-important cold open. Last week, it was him declaring war over the phone to various world leaders, as Steve Bannon, represented by the grim reaper, egged him on. Baldwin received SNL’s customary guest-star fee of $1,400 for that appearance. (He has a gentleman’s agreement with Michaels not to perform as Trump anywhere else, although he and Kurt Andersen, the writer and Spy-magazine co-founder, have signed a deal with Penguin to write a mock presidential memoir titled You Can’t Spell America Without Me.) Then Melissa McCarthy came on and crippled White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer with her viral, crimson performance. “We were crying,” Baldwin says. Now a little whisper goes through the room. The cold open will be hers this week. She’s coming back.
The writers have been at it for about 24 hours straight, having come to work right around the time Baldwin was staring mournfully at a skull on Tuesday afternoon. They look like nothing is funny to them anymore. They have cranked out 40 or so sketches, the way they do every week. The large majority of them will be read today and dropped to the floor, dismissed with such silent authority that they are never mentioned again. Maybe a dozen sketches will make it as far as dress rehearsal. Eight or nine will appear on the live show. The culling begins in these first fateful hours. There is no fanfare, no small talk. Everybody just begins reading their parts out loud—Michaels mumbling stage directions through his steady diet of edamame, the cast members hoping to see their names in the sketches, the writers hoping to hear even a little wheezing after their jokes.
The feeling in the room is hard to describe, an odd strain of foreboding, as though each writer and actor is Damocles, except each of them gets to wield a sword, too. Last week, Spicer had no way of knowing what was coming for him, had no inkling that by that Wednesday afternoon he was already dead. Now, with every turn of the page, the cast members see for the first time who among them will be Saturday night’s stars and who among the rest of humanity is about to be savaged.
Michaels has long vowed to keep the show politically agnostic. Whatever the leanings of its stars and hosts, Saturday Night Live is an agent of chaos, as victim-blind as a bomb. It can seem these days that the show is single-minded in its pursuit of the Trump administration, but SNL has always gone after presidents, beginning with Chevy Chase staging some remarkable pratfalls as Gerald Ford. A grinning Dan Aykroyd was the principal Jimmy Carter (“Inflation is our friend”); no fewer than seven performers took their shots at Ronald Reagan, Joe Piscopo most reliably; Dana Carvey’s George H. W. Bush (“Not gonna do it”) became synonymous with the man himself. Phil Hartman jogged into McDonald’s as Bill Clinton, and Darrell Hammond played him as a glad-handing hound. Will Ferrell made for the best George W. Bush, an innocent, distractible child. The show sometimes struggled with Obama—his single most memorable Saturday-night incarnation was arguably Dwayne Johnson’s “The Rock Obama”—but it’s hard to satirize competence.
Trump just makes comedy easy.
Unseen are the myriad times Michaels has cut a line or trimmed a sketch for going too far. In the sketch when Baldwin’s Trump was threatening world leaders, he complained to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, portrayed by McKinnon, about his treatment by the press. It was so bad, he was going to write a book called My Struggle. “What would that be in German?” he asked. In the original version, a shocked Merkel said, “Mein Kampf.” The line made it as far as dress rehearsal before Michaels decided to kill it. “They’ll get it,” he said.
Saturday’s live show is the result of decades of collective experience and reflection. Wednesday’s script pack, however, is the product of 24 hours of individual madness, and each gathering around this table offers a glimpse of so many possible futures. Baldwin’s 17th turn at it opens with Beck Bennett reading as Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer, and there is wordless agreement that the poor sap is doomed. Then comes Baldwin’s proposed monologue, when he will stand next to Pete Davidson, SNL’s 23-year-old kid star, and trade barbs about age and youth. Maybe the biggest laugh of the entire read comes when Baldwin says that Davidson looks like Steve Buscemi’s lesbian sister. Davidson, sitting directly across the table from Baldwin, tries to shake off the blow. “That’s a little too real,” he says over the hysterics. There are sketches involving a gay crab-boat captain, a love-starved romance expert, an actor who can’t remember his lines, a gassy high-school student doing sit-ups, and a drill sergeant who loves his soldier son a little too much. And there are no fewer than four Trump-related sketches in the running, not including “Weekend Update,” which these days essentially writes itself: Look at this guy over here.
One of them is an infomercial. The White House is advertised as an ideal place to stash your doddering, self-harming relatives, an old-age home where they get to pretend they’re the president. Melania Trump, played by Cecily Strong, decides it’s perfect for her senile husband. The big joke is that Donald Trump is scared of walking on stairs, a wink at his rumored request to hold British Prime Minister Theresa May’s hand down an incline during her official visit the previous month.
Another possible sketch doesn’t star Baldwin but Leslie Jones, who, even during her table read, puts on her own Trump wig. In it, she’s trying to convince Michaels that she can play Trump, because McCarthy played Spicer. Women can play all the parts, especially if they’re going to make Trump as mad as the Spicer sketch reportedly did. Baldwin watches Jones from across the room when her onscreen love interest, played by Kyle Mooney, tells her she sounds less like Trump and more like “someone from Trinidad.” Baldwin erupts.
Yet another is a digital short, a Fatal Attraction spoof starring McKinnon as Kellyanne Conway, needy and deranged, breaking into Jake Tapper’s apartment and holding a knife to his throat to get him to put her on the news. In real life, CNN had just declined the White House’s offer of her services. In the sketch, Tapper acquiesces before Conway falls from a 20-story window, splatters on the sidewalk, and reanimates like a zombie, telling Tapper that he needs to be more careful next time: She has only four lives left.
The read-through takes hours. Michaels gives no immediate indication as to which of the sketches he likes best or even likes at all—he doesn’t laugh once—but everyone is aware of the possibility that none of these sketches will see air no matter what Michaels thinks of them.
“Between now and Friday is an eternity in the news cycle,” Baldwin says later. “The next thing you know, Trump is going to call the head of some country a whore. ‘GET THAT WHORE OUT OF HERE.’ We’ll have laid out all the stuff and finished setting the table and it will be like, ‘Okay, reset the table. Get the whore sketch ready.’ ”
On they soldier into the night, city lights flickering to life over their hunched shoulders, the Empire State Building now a great beam of white. The sketch about the gassy high-school student doing sit-ups reads pretty funny. Mikey Day will play the kid, Baldwin his gym coach. Who doesn’t like a fart joke?
The role of satire in troubled times is a debatable one. Historically, the evidence suggests that laughter is the best medicine only if what ails you isn’t very serious. Frederick the Great’s attitude toward the mockery directed his way was telling: After struggling to read a poster that made fun of him, he is said to have remarked that it would have been more effective had it been hung lower. Nazi Germany saw its share of subversive humor, but of course it was bombs delivered by pilots, not comedians, that finally dismantled Adolf Hitler’s regime. The jokes might have even helped him hold on to power, providing ordinary Germans with both catharsis and a distraction from the fact that he was as monstrous as he was.
The Soviet Union saw satire as a societal release valve, worth opening whenever internal pressure began to build. The country’s most prominent satirical publication, Krokodil, was published by the Communist Party itself. A government that could laugh at itself couldn’t be that bad.
In modern America, where we have long taken for granted the idea that our leaders should be able to laugh at themselves, some consumers of satire have become more cynical and perhaps less likely to engage in meaningful action. A 2006 paper called this sense of comedy-fueled apathy the “Daily Show Effect.”
Baldwin himself sometimes wonders about the efficacy of his work. He has never before won the sidewalk gratitude that his Trump turn has given him. He receives warm hands on his shoulders when he walks the streets of Greenwich Village; strangers nod and mouth their thanks to him from across restaurants. No less an authority than David Letterman has said he should be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, although that seems unlikely. “There’s really been nothing in my life like this,” he says. “It’s all day long.” Once, he had dreams of such celebrity, of being a serious actor who commanded serious roles. He peaked with seven incredible, unforgettable minutes of gravitas, shouting invectives at salesmen played by his idols in Glengarry Glen Ross, but there will always remain a gap between his fantasy and his actual self. When asked why he’s been such a good fit at SNL, he says, “Let’s face facts: They don’t ask me to come back because my movies are such blockbusters lately.” It’s taken the role of his nightmares to make him feel the most like a star.
But Trump still won, and Baldwin has been told he deserves some of the blame for that, for having made Trump seem more benign than he is, a buffoon rather than a would-be autocrat. “The way this played out is just unbelievable,” he says, and he says it the way Hamlet would say it. When so few of our former facts seem to hold true anymore, Baldwin knows that the most Faustian of them all still does: This wave of late-career love will wash over him only as long as Trump’s heavy breath is on the back of his neck. One exists only because of the other. “This lives on a parallel track with something very regrettable” is how he puts it.
Baldwin has searched for ways to soothe himself, finding relief and comfort in a pair of ideas. The first is larger, a macro consolation over which he has no real control: that the Trump presidency, as historically awful as it might be, will prove a necessary disruption, the cataclysm that leads to corrections long overdue and a renewed sense of civic engagement. “I never really thought we’d have to go this far,” Baldwin says, “but we do have to have these periodic shocks to the system to remind people again about their role in the process.”
He doesn’t see Trump as a singular enemy. Trump just happens to be the part that he’s been given to play. He saves his purest contempt for FBI Director James Comey. (“Comey is a partisan piece of shit and a disgrace to the Department of Justice, a disgrace to the FBI, and a disgrace to law enforcement.”) Baldwin looks at him, he looks at Reince Priebus and others, and he sees the worst cravenness that Americans have come to expect from their government. But Baldwin hopes that we’re nearing the rock bottom we need to hit before we can begin recovery.
Baldwin’s second wish is smaller, more immediate, and maybe up to him. He hopes that, because Trump and his team seem so vulnerable to televised criticism, the constant belittlement might sting them into submission. Trump isn’t a conventional politician. His presidency exists only because of TV, because of his fame and ratings and flair for glib spectacle. And perhaps it exists only because of jokes on TV, today’s unthinkable present having begun the instant Barack Obama humiliated the guy who hosted Celebrity Apprentice at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in 2011. “Obviously we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience,” Obama said, while Trump rocked back and forth in his chair. “You fired Gary Busey. And these are the kind of decisions that would keep me up at night.”
Why shouldn’t President Trump’s behavior continue to be manipulated—and the nation’s history altered—by jokes on TV?
So much of Trump’s popularity hinges on his image as a self-made miracle, a winner, a strong and successful man who is the best at everything and always gets his way. Baldwin has become our deflator in chief, a weekly pinprick in Trump’s balloon. Every time Trump tweets a wounded Sunday-morning response, every time Spicer laughs off McCarthy’s portrayal but then tries a little harder to bury his rage, every time Conway shows up on TV looking a little more challenged and broken, Baldwin can tell himself that SNL is not just making laughs but effecting change.
“Any administration wants the opposite of what Trump is getting now: They want to be saluted for what they’re doing,” he says. “They want to do their job and have people blow trumpets and worship them and throw confetti. They’re like movie stars in that way.” Trump lashes out at Hollywood, but it’s his dream to belong there. “I think that the comedy is effective—I believe that it’s absolutely, 100 percent effective—in that it’s achieving the opposite results,” Baldwin says.
Or maybe a slightly different reality is unfolding here.
Baldwin has lived a famously flawed life; like Trump, his temper has too often beaten his sense of reason to the surface. He endured a difficult divorce from the actress Kim Basinger, and—at a low point during the custody battle—left their 11-year-old daughter an irate voicemail that was leaked to TMZ. He has also punched more people, especially people aiming cameras at him and his family, than a man at peace ever might. “Do you realize what this show could have done to me, if Lorne didn’t want to be kind?” he says. “Can you imagine?” He contemplated running for office but is aware that what he’s now doing to Trump would have easily been done to him. Maybe Trump, who has hosted SNL, would have even done it himself.
Instead, Baldwin wakes up beside Hilaria, his fun and generous wife—“What she’s doing with me, I’ll never know,” he says—and has three beautiful young children who look at him without preconceptions. He has a new memoir coming out this spring, and a role in the next Mission: Impossible movie, filming this summer, and before that whatever might remain of this unexpected, triumphant season when millions of Americans are planning their weekends around his every turn under the lights and forgetting everything else he’s ever done, the bad things most of all.
Maybe it’s not that he has to ruin the best Alec Baldwin to play Donald Trump. Maybe inhabiting Trump reminds him of the ugly man he is capable of being and the man he would prefer to be. Maybe by playing a person who yearns so deeply for a chorus of praise he will never receive, Baldwin has found the resolve to be his best.
“I wonder if this is the guy we need to see ourselves clearly,” he says.
Or maybe it’s all just one long fart joke.
On Thursday, endless rounds of rehearsals begin, and special attention is about to be paid to the gassy-gym-student sketch. Baldwin has already had a busy day. He’s just finished shooting the show’s promos with Ed Sheeran, the week’s musical guest, his tangled mop of ginger hair the antithesis of Baldwin’s now-immaculate head. He’s somehow gaining energy as the week goes on, his body looking fit and alive in his perfectly tailored suit. In one of the clips, Sheeran is meant to do his own Trump impersonation, and he seems uncertain that it’s a good idea. “Are you sure this is funny for an Englishman to do?”
“It better be,” Baldwin says.
Once the Sheeran bits are shot, Baldwin disappears for a moment. When he reappears, he’s still in his suit pants and dress shoes, but with only a black T-shirt on top. He wanders over to the make-believe gym that the carpenters have knocked together in a corner of the studio, a single black mat on the floor. Alex Moffat is already in position, ready to do sit-ups—he will fail to break the school record. That part is easy. Then Moffat will get up and be replaced by an eager Mikey Day. The gag—literally, the entire gag—is that every time Day does a sit-up, he farts, good for a cacophony of maybe two dozen fart sounds over the course of the sketch. They will be provided by Steve Higgins, standing nearby with a microphone, using his fingers to stretch out his cheeks so that his mouth has the necessary robustness.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the Eric Clapton of fart sounds,” Baldwin says.
Everyone works through the sketch with an endearing attention to detail, trying to get the rhythm of the sit-ups and the lines (Baldwin’s encouragements, Day’s protests) and the fart sounds tonally and thematically right. It is their only focus. Within the walls of the ersatz gym, Trump ceases to exist, at least for a little while. Maybe that’s all we can really ask of our entertainers: Please give us a dumb laugh, and better yet a dumb, universal laugh, our bottomless reserves of scorn redirected, if only for an instant, at those mirthless few who don’t find farts funny. “I don’t want anything you do or I do to mask the fart sounds,” Baldwin says to Day, who, prone on his back, looks up and nods at Baldwin as though he were a sensei. They run through the sketch again (“Ladies and gentlemen, the Jimi Hendrix of fart sounds,” Baldwin says) and again (“Ladies and gentlemen, the Kenny G of fart sounds”).
Day needs a break at one point, and he starts laughing while he’s on his knees, holding his stomach and gasping for air. “So many people right now are like, ‘I bet they’re working on some insane political shit,’ ” he says.
Baldwin, in the meantime, is conferring with Higgins. “I think the last fart sound has to be long,” he says.
Three time zones away, in San Francisco, Trump’s Muslim travel ban is about to be struck down by three federal judges at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. “SEE YOU IN COURT,” the president will tweet in response. The distraction was nice while it lasted. Back upstairs, it’s time to reset the table.
“He is the head writer of everything we do,” Baldwin says.
The rest of Thursday and Friday and most of Saturday are lost in a blur of rehearsals and the shooting of digital shorts. Leslie Jones as Trump and Kellyanne Conway as a knife-wielding psycho both make the cut; in the final version, Conway has only three lives left, not four. In fact, she will disappear from her usual TV rounds not long after this week’s show. There will be rumors that she has been benched because she fumbled the news of National-Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s resignation. It might not have helped that she’s made herself such a soft target on Saturday nights.
Sets continue to be built. Costumes are fitted. Camera shots are blocked. Stacks of cue cards are written. Baldwin navigates his way through the mounting demands with patience and care. Every now and then he retreats to the quiet of his dressing room for a big slug of coffee and a handful of yogurt-covered pretzels, his equivalent of a water break during a marathon. He drops onto his couch and begins to talk. He likes to talk. He is a man who thinks out loud.
“I honestly think you can mock all of these people, Democrat or Republican. It doesn’t matter who is in that office; they all open themselves up—some more than others, and in a different way than others,” he says. “But because of who he is, and what he brings and doesn’t bring in all ways to that job, Trump has opened himself up to a heretofore unseen level of this. He is being mocked on a level that just exceeds anything you’ve ever seen. In a way, and I say this very sincerely, I really feel sorry for him. Because here’s a man—you look at anybody in life, where you see someone set out to do something, and he will achieve the exact opposite. He will have achieved the exact opposite of what he believed he was going to achieve when he set out to do this in the first place.”
Then Baldwin walks back out into the studio that has become his second home, fussing over the smallest details of this week’s job: making Americans laugh, at the American president hardest of all.
“I love Alec,” Higgins says. Asked why he thinks Baldwin’s Trump has captured imaginations the way it has, he takes a few seconds to answer. “It makes you feel like everything’s going to be okay,” he says. That Baldwin is on TV and not on trial for the part he’s playing means that Trump’s power still has its limits. All is not lost.
At 8 p.m., a big crowd, vibrating with energy, fills every seat in the balcony to watch the dress rehearsal. The show will be performed in its entirety—full makeup, full sets, on camera—and Lorne Michaels will walk the floor, listening to the crowd’s reactions, consulting his own ear, making his final few decisions. The action begins when the set for the White House press room is hastily assembled in the middle of the studio, and already the crowd is cheering, because they know what those blue curtains mean. Melissa McCarthy is led by her hand to her mark. “Thirty seconds!” someone yells. “Twenty seconds!” McCarthy comes out to rapturous applause, people rising out of their seats, and she proceeds to burn the place to the ground. She tears into a giant piece of gum, hurls insults, fires up a leaf blower, her face turning purple with a barely contained fury. Kate McKinnon makes a brief cameo as Jeff Sessions, because women really can play all the parts.
Then Baldwin does his monologue with Davidson, the applause raining down on him when he first appears. He says that Davidson looks like Steve Buscemi’s lesbian sister. Then the cast bursts into sketch after sketch, sprinting from mark to mark. Baldwin first plays an ad executive making an overwrought pitch to Cheetos. Then he’s Beyoncé’s gynecologist (“I haven’t had a hit baby since Suri Cruise”). Then he’s Trump, facing off on The People’s Court against the three federal judges who rejected his initial travel ban. Cecily Strong, playing the celebrity judge Marilyn Milian, says, “I want one day without a CNN alert that scares the hell out of me.” The crowd explodes into cheers. Baldwin’s Trump starts talking about crime in Chicago; he points to Kenan Thompson’s bailiff and says, “He knows what I’m talking about.” Michaels decides to cut that line.
The rehearsal rolls seamlessly on, a frenetic ballet, with Baldwin playing the gay crab-boat captain, and a husband fighting with his wife on their first anniversary, and the drill sergeant, and the gym teacher, and a photographer for sexy calendars. Michaels watches and listens, and he rearranges the sketches in his head, fitting and refitting the blocks together like puzzle pieces. The crab boat isn’t going to make it. Neither is the sexy calendar or the anniversary. The live show is going to end on the gym class. More specifically, it’s going to end with the sound of a long fart.
Maybe 30 minutes after the end of the rehearsal, the studio welcomes a new crowd. The audience members watch a giant clock hanging from the ceiling and wait for 11:30 p.m. the way kids wait for the end of the school day. McCarthy sits in her chair in makeup and has her Spicer wig reapplied. Baldwin gathers himself in the sanctuary of his dressing room. He puts on his suit, no tie. He looks great. He is led to his mark near the door behind the SNL house band, the musicians’ fingers ready on their instruments, poised to blow out the show’s theme.
Baldwin stands in the dark and waits for his cue. His stomach begins to turn. His makeup is touched up. He goes over his lines in his head. He watches the action on the other side of the door on a monitor. The White House press-room set is rolled out for the second time tonight, and a deep, low rumble of anticipation runs through the building. His nerves start to crackle. McCarthy slays; somewhere, Sean Spicer is curling up into a ball. “LIVE FROM NEW YORK, IT’S SATURDAY NIGHT!” she screams.
The door opens for Alec Baldwin. All he can hear is applause and trumpets.