NBC

To protest Donald Trump’s appearance on Saturday Night Live this week, the group DeportRacism.com offered $5,000—in cash—to anyone on set or in the audience who would disrupt Trump in his hosting role. And who would do that, specifically, by calling him a racist.

Trump was, in the end, called a racist on live TV. But the interrupting slur didn’t come from the audience or from SNL’s crew; it came from Trump’s co-cast member, Larry David, who was on-hand on Saturday to play Bernie Sanders during the show’s cold open.

“Trump’s a racist!” David announced, as Trump delivered his monologue. The audience gasped. It was impossible to tell whether the shock was real. It was also impossible to tell whether David’s accusation was sincere. Until, that is, Larry David went full Larry David: He explained that his interruption was in response not to Trump, but to DeportRacism.com’s offer. “I heard if I yelled that, they’d give me $5,000,” David said, deadpanning.

To which Trump replied, “As a businessman, I can fully respect that.”

SNL then tweeted the exchange, noting cheerily that “Larry David couldn’t miss this opportunity.”

This—heckling, threatened and pre-empted and converted into PR—perfectly set the tone for the show itself, which vacillated between pandering to Trump and passive-aggressively mocking him. And which was also, both despite and because of all that, extremely unfunny.

Perhaps that was because SNL’s writers weren’t sure how to write for a politician who is also a front-running presidential candidate. (As PBS put it, “Despite a 40-year history of lampooning politicians while inviting some to mock themselves as on-air guests, booking a presidential candidate to host the NBC sketch-comedy show is almost unprecedented.”) Perhaps they weren’t eager to write good sketches for the man who once equated Mexican immigrants with rapists and with whom NBC had previously severed ties. Perhaps they felt, like the many protestors that picketed SNL’s studios on Saturday with “DUMP TRUMP” signs, that the network was selling out in providing Trump with yet another platform for free media. (Fox News’s headline before the show: “Trump hosts Saturday Night Live, with surrounding controversy expected to bring big ratings.”)

Whatever the cause, though, the show couldn’t seem to figure out what to make of Trump, or what to do with his second turn as SNL host (he’d done it once before, in 2004, shortly after the debut of The Apprentice). The candidate’s monologue, Larry David’s heckle-for-hire aside, was essentially a stump speech freed of obligations to policy and positioning and politics in general. (“People think I’m controversial,” Trump confided. “But the truth is, I’m a nice guy.” Later, he’d add that “part of the reason I’m here is that I know how to take a joke.”)

The show’s first Trump-starring sketch was set in the White House in 2018, and it consisted of Trump’s staff informing him how wonderfully the country was doing under the Trump Administration. A representative bit of dialogue:

Staffer: Well, Mr. President, you did it.
Trump: Just like I promised, right?
Staffer: Halfway into your first term, and prosperity is at an all-time high. In two years, you really made America great again.
Melania: See, I told you, it’s more than just words and a silly hat.
Trump: First Lady Melania is 100 percent correct.

Later, Trump asked a general, “How are we doing in Syria?”

The general’s reply: “Well, ISIS is completely eliminated, sir. The whole country’s at peace. All the refugees have returned, and they have great jobs as blackjack dealers in the Trump Hotel & Casino in Damascus.”

Pause for LOLs, etc. The sketch went on in this way, with mentions of Putin “withdrawing from Ukraine” after Trump called him a loser (“he cried for hours!”), and with a lengthy discussion of the single biggest problem facing Americans under the leadership of President Trump: “They’re just sick of winning!” a staffer explained. “They’re winning so much! It’s just too great, sir!”

The whole thing was ostensibly meant to poke fun at Trump’s sweeping, swashbuckling assurances of his unique ability to Make America Great Again; it was, in other words, meant to be a joke about Trump that was uttered by Trump itself. Which would have been quite a coup! But what this litany of President Trumpian accomplishments ended up doing, on the contrary, was simply to give Trump another chance to talk about how great he is. And to add to his long list of reasons for his greatness one more item: the fact that he can totally take a joke.

During the sketch’s Oval Office lovefest, a staffer admitted, breathlessly, “I have no idea how you did it, sir!”

Trump replied:

Well, you know what, I don’t have to get specific. With me, it just works. You know? It’s just magic. It’s always been that way my whole life.

This is another way of saying that “Donald Trump,” the SNL character played, on Saturday, by Donald Trump, is apparently going to accomplish the Re-Greatening of America by way of miracle and magic. And the lines certainly make fun of the similarities between Trump’s campaign and a Marquezian brand of magical realism. What the lines also do, though, is to absolve Trump of the absurdities of his own claims, to excuse his declarations that he will solve problems with a series of strategic miracles. Of course that’s absurd! It’s a joke, after all!

So while Trump’s SNL episode was unfunny in the immediate sense—there were no laughs in Mudville—it was also unfunny in a broader one. The show was doing what it always does, which is to make light of current events; it was also, however, hitting extremely close to home in its light-making. It was taking things that Trump has already said in earnest and imbuing them with levity. In that Trump 2018 sketch, the president of Mexico pays a visit to the White House to give Trump a check to pay for the U.S.’s enormous border wall (and to apologize “for doubting you”). Trump adds, after the check is given and received: “And changing Telemundo to all English for me—you changed that to all English—it’s the greatest thing. I’m so proud of you.”

That is … not #toosoon, really, but #tooclose. You could see Trump actually saying something about Telemundo being converted into an English-speaking network. This is a real thing that could be talked about in the height of campaign silly season. The humor in SNL’s political sketches has traditionally come from either satire or impersonations; the Trump schtick presented itself as satire, but was in fact simply an ongoing impression. It was Donald Trump, doing a mean Donald Trump.

And so: The show’s digital short—a video that functions as a mockery of and homage to Drake’s “Hotline Bling” video—featured Trump dancing and singing (“you used to call me on my cell phone…”) in a rhythmic incarnation of a #dadjoke. Another sketch found Trump live-tweeting the performance that he is “too busy” to participate in, with his typical vitriol applied to actors. (“Who would marry @TaranKillam? He’s an over-rated clown.” / “I love SNL. SNL loves me. But everyone in this sketch is a total loser who can bite my dust.” / “An extremely credible source told me that Kenan Thompson’s birth certificate is a fraud.”)

There were also moments, however, when the show tried to get the better of Trump—mostly, by getting him to mock himself by way of extremely terrible costumes and extremely awkward sketches. A particularly unfunny sketch had Trump dressed in a shimmering cape and playing the “laser harp”; another had him playing a skeevy music producer—complete with orange shades, worn indoors—and uttering lines like, “You’re gonna be a massive star, babe.” An even worse sketch—featuring former porn stars, stumping for a man they referred to as “Donald Tramp”—ended with the real candidate stepping out to make clear, “I’m Donald Trump, and I in no way, shape or form approved of this message.”

On “Weekend Update,” the recurring “Drunk Uncle” character came on to explain to Colin Jost why, exactly, he’s supporting Trump. “I don't just like him, Colin,” Drunk Uncle said, slurrily. “I love him. He’s going to make America grapes again! I mean, he's got it all, Colin. He's got everything. He’s got money women TV shows Plaza Miss America orange hair. He’s beautiful! He’s like a big old orange-haired Monopoly man!” Later, Drunk Uncle added that he supports Trump because the candidate is “finally going to get rid of all of the every single one of them!”

“Wait, don’t say it,” Jost said.

“Crime, Colin! I was gonna say crime,” Drunk Uncle clarified. “He’s gonna get rid of crime, man.”

He paused. “Crime perpetrated by immigrants!”

“Weekend Update” made more direct objections to the show’s host, too. When Michael Che mentioned Trump’s latest book, Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again—out, naturally, this week—the “Weekend Update” co-host remarked on the title. On, specifically, that revealing “again.” “Whenever rich old white guys start bringing up the ‘good old days,’” Che said, “my Negro senses start tingling. After all those years of progress, Trump’s gonna go, ‘I think we had it right the first time.’”

Those moments of real talk were good. But they were rare. For the most part, this was Donald Trump, yet again trumping everyone else. Including, and especially, SNL’s staff. “They have 100 writers,” Trump told Bill O’Reilly on Friday. “I walk into the room, there are 100—and they’re all about 17 years old, okay? They’re all young and all up in your face.”

He added: “But they come up with many, many skits and you pick the ones you think you like.”

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