Critic's Notebook: Donald Trump's 'Saturday Night Live' Is Toothless and Uncomfortable

Trump was rarely funny, but the writers didn't give him much to work with.
Dana Edelson/NBC
Donald Trump on 'Saturday Night Live'

After 40 seasons, you can't blame Saturday Night Live and Lorne Michaels for thinking it might be fun to give itself new challenges.

Perhaps that's why on Saturday (Nov. 7) night, the venerable sketch series attempted to fill 90 minutes with an inanimate object as host, one guaranteed to exhibit range comparable to a potato, only with the inevitability of much higher ratings.

Read more Larry David Returns to 'SNL' as Bernie Sanders: "I Hate Everyone"

Perhaps this will open the door for an eventual hosting appearance by American Pharoah, who would also guarantee a big audience, but probably wouldn't have veto power over scripts.

Having a politician in the midst of an active presidential campaign was always a dismal idea for Saturday Night Live, particularly a candidate with as much negative baggage as Donald Trump, but even with expectations lowered to bargain-basement level, this week's show was a dumpster fire. And make no mistake: As lifeless as Trump was for the majority of the show, the writers deserve every bit as much of the onus for entirely failing to work around Trump's limitations or finding amusing things to do with the lump in the middle. Yes, there have been reports that Trump vetoed skits for being too "risque," but the problem with this episode wasn't a failure to push boundaries, but rather a failure to craft skits with punchlines. Of course, why waste your A-material in an episode destined for season high ratings completely by default?

The problems were inherent, and the solutions were lackluster.

What do you do about that whole "equal time" problem and not wanting to make it seem like you're turning your periodically respected comedy show into a nonstop commercial for a man who can already afford to buy as much ad time as he could ever want?


The first in-show skit flashed forward to 2018 and featured a string of officials and cabinet members celebrating what a glorious thing Trump's presidency had been so far. ISIS? Gone. Putin? Out of Ukraine. Mexico? Graciously paying Trump back for that wall he built. Omarosa? secretary of state, or something. The skit was three minutes of Trump sitting in a chair and nodding about his fictional goodness and nodding approvingly at the cameo by daughter Ivanka. Sketchy, right? Unsettling if you're not a Trump supporter, right? Not funny under any circumstances, right? The kicker? The skit was "paid for" by the Melania for First Lady Foundation. See? No need for concern. It's not pro-Trump at all, if you keep repeating that to yourself.

Then the show ended with a faux advocacy ad featuring the former porn stars played by Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong. As recurring end-of-show wheel spinning characters go, it happens that I'm extremely partial to the former porn stars, and this skit produced more laughs than I got out of anything else in the show, though it also made me wonder if Trump had decided he might as well surrender on one "risque" skit or however you'd describe a skit in which a politically excited character slurs, "One time I thought I banged Teddy Roosevelt, but it was just Teddy Ruxpin. Sorry, kid's birthday." But the skit, making frequently references to "Donald Tramp," ended with Trump lurching onstage and announcing he didn't endorse this message. There was still a "Trump 2016" banner at the beginning of the skit, so it's probably a win.

The Trump 2016 banner also appeared during the closest thing to a stink-eye the show gave its host. Capping a joke about Republicans claiming Obama was never properly vetted, Weekend Update co-host Michael Che said that the vetting was so complete people demanded Obama show ID to even enter the White House. "And I'm talking about the guy hosting the show," Che whispered as "Trump 2016" appeared on the screen behind him.

That was as close as Weekend Update came to joking about the show's host in a prolonged segment that didn't quite advocate in Trump's favor, but definitely began with two belittling Jeb Bush jokes followed by four derisive Ben Carson jokes. Bobby Moynihan's Drunk Uncle showed up calling himself Donald Trump's No.1 fan, and you briefly expected a little satire explaining why Donald Trump is the favorite hopeful for drunk uncles everywhere, but that appearance was mostly Drunk Uncle singing and shattering a glass out of hatred for Hillary Clinton.

With Dump Trump protesters out in the street and a group offering $5,000 to anybody who called Trump a racist on-air, Saturday Night Live diffused the tension by having Larry David, making his second appearance as Bernie Sanders, doing the catcalling at the end of Trump's nearly nonexistent monologue. Maybe having the second or third richest white guy in the room belittling concerns that many consider legitimate wasn't the most graceful way of handling things? Or maybe the angered Hispanic activists need look no further than the necessity of having Beck Bennett playing The President of Mexico to realize how little Saturday Night Live was likely to care. Either way, the Latino group, Deport Racism, said over social media it intended to play David the five grand for making the remark. 

Remember that time Nora Dunn protested against Andrew Dice Clay hosting and refused to appear? Not only does that seem mighty quaint these days, but that's a level of rebellion nobody in this cast had any interest in. The rebellion, I guess, was just in the writers room, because no matter how temping it is to place all of the blame for this debacle on Trump, what exactly was he given to work with?

Appearing at either the very beginning or very end of at least three or four skits, plus a monologue that has to have been rushed through at a record pace, Trump hardly had any time to flail or succeed. Trump's funniest moment, and the only moment in which he attempted to move, came as he danced for 10 seconds in a parody of Drake's "Hotline Bling" video. It wasn't bad! Other nonpolitical skits found Trump pretending to tweet mean things about the castmembers participating in a not-funny skit, stumbling in as an opportunistic record producer in an already-dead family dinner dud and complaining that he didn't have enough time for his laser harp solos in a sketch in which he stumbled over his few lines, which wouldn't have worked anyway. 

Oh, and then there was the introduction to musical guest Sia's second song, in which Kenan Thompson barged in as the frontman of Toots and the May-Tones, the musical act the last time Trump hosted. Toots begged to be Trump's running mate, but before he got too persistent, Trump threatened to shoot him. End skit.


The real lesson of this Trump fiasco wasn't really about Donald Trump, of course. I'm not a bitter liberal demanding the real Bernie Sanders show up next week with a topless Martin O'Malley as musical guest. That would be a bad idea as well, though I'm not saying it would be a worse idea. Any candidate should be welcome for whatever one-off cameos they want to make, but it seemed coming in that there was no way to walk this Trump tightrope cleverly, and the creative result bore that out as well.

And as for the ratings? They're sure to be hu… Massive.

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