On January 21st, a day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump and hours after the largest demonstration in American history converged in protest of his policy, Saturday Night Live led with a cold open centering not Trump, but Vladimir Putin. Trump’s presence was absent. With a few weeks before their next scheduled outing, Saturday Night Live has an opportunity to ponder a question: does he need to be there at all?
I first floated this question in the days following Trump’s election, where Kate McKinnon’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” replaced any mentions of the newly crowned President-Elect. The choice to center Hillary (by way of McKinnon)’s mourning through the recently departed Cohen’s music overshadowed the triumph of a new President’s win- a marked departure from SNL’s typical treatment of its post-election episodes. But then again, none of this is typical. And that’s why considering a Trump omission is so appealing.
Ever since Chevy Chase’s intentionally bumbling portrayal of then-President Gerald Ford, a lampooning by SNL has been an expected part of the Presidency. It’s the same tradition that yielded sketches like Bill Clinton jogging to McDonald’s, the “strategery”-laced debate between Al Gore and George W. Bush, and even the appearance of a soon-to-be-history-making Barack Obama at a Democratic Halloween party. To an extent, these sorts of outings are normal. And no matter your feelings on the politics of these candidates, the stakes were low; the idea of showing the silly side of these candidates posed no real threat. But, as with before- we’ve passed typical.
The omission of Trump as a character, leaving his policies and remarks to be covered by Weekend Update, would do a few things. Critics have blasted the show for its role in normalizing the candidacy and quirks of our now-President, most notably his appearance as host in November, 2015. While hosting turns for political candidates aren’t unprecedented for the show (see also: Steve Forbes, or don’t- it’s not great), Trump had already proved exceptional with his dangerously polarizing positions. Many argued that such hate didn’t need an additional platform, but SNL nonetheless provided the airtime. While omitting Trump now wouldn’t absolve them of previous perceived missteps, it would demonstrate a powerful stance against the administration and its proposed policies- both to audiences and to its own cast and crew.
One of the clarion calls that has sounded since the election: we can’t normalize what isn’t normal. If that’s true, then that may include how we approach Trump through a comedic lens. Most jokes to date have concentrated on his appearance, cadence of speech, and cluelessness about the position he ill-advisedly gunned for. But now that he’s taken office? These jokes feel inadequate, inappropriately small compared to the scale of danger his role represents. To report his movements as news, without mining them for laughs, feels like a small, but significant way to contextualize his term of office for what it is: atypical in its threat to our safety and well-being.
And yet, for all the good reasons there are to leave Trump out of the Presidential tradition of an SNL persona, I can’t help but want to indulge a purely petty one: he would hate it. Trump has time and again demonstrated that he cares deeply about ratings and the appearance of power. His attacks on SNL’s portrayal of him read as annoyed and frustrated, but he also clearly recognizes that these shouts draw more attention to him. To rob him of that opportunity, one that actively feeds his desire for stardom and renown, hits him where he would hurt most: on a show that has previously embraced him, through a rite of passage afforded to all that preceded him, based in a city that he claims to “own” and on a network that he still has a vested stake in. Easy shot here: it’d make him “sad!”
SNL returns to Studio 8H on February 4th. Lorne Michaels, the writers, and cast of the show have an opportunity here. They have an opportunity to respond to a Presidency that breaks from tradition, with a break of their own. In a climate where we’re being encouraged to resist, refusing to let Trump in on the joke (and the accompanying publicity) feels like one of the most powerful ways to do precisely that.