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SNL Wants It Both Ways: Election Relief With Zero Culpability

Around this time last year, Donald Trump hosted Saturday Night Live. Does that preclude the show from appearing mournful that he won?

SNL Wants It Both Ways: Election Relief With Zero Culpability

On the first post-election episode of Saturday Night Live, one meta-sketch had the show answering for its mistakes. They were the wrong mistakes, though.

We begin in a pub called Jheri's Place, where much of the waitstaff has dripping wet, ramen-brittle Jheri curls. It's a suspiciously dated and not particularly funny premise, and the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Leslie Jones, a perennial standout, keeps messing up her line reads, but everyone here seems a little off. What is even happening? Soon enough, there's an explanation. A Monday Night Football-style title card that reads "Inside SNL" flashes across the screen and out comes Beck Bennett in John Madden mode to do a postmortem on the sketch, mid-sketch. The performers are now seated at a table like a press conference, fielding questions about where they went wrong. Considering current events, though, this fourth wall-breaking self-interrogation is deeply unsatisfying. It's almost a parody of what many would actually like to see happen: SNL finding a way to atone and answer for having Donald Trump host the show just a year ago.

Instead, what we got was a mixed bag that left some comedy fans cold. Lorne Michaels apparently wants to have it both ways: he wants a show that strikes a mournful tone for the Clinton presidency that never was, without acknowledging his complicity in normalizing the unprecedentedly unfit candidate who defeated her.

The episode opens with Kate McKinnon's Emmy-clinching portrayal of Hillary Clinton yet again, but in a departure from protocol, she abandons the sketch form entirely. Instead, McKinnon is seated at a piano playing a joke-free cover of "Hallelujah," by Leonard Cohen—who passed away two days earlier. (According to Decider, a different opening may have been planned but Alec Baldwin, who has played Trump this season, was a no-show at dress rehearsal.) For liberals people who contributed to winning the popular vote, and were also fans of the beloved morose singer-songwriter, there could seemingly be no deeper gut-punch. But the impact instantly softened for anyone who thought too hard about the show's role in this election.

When [it will never not feel surreal to say this] president-elect Trump hosted SNL last year, the Access Hollywood tape had yet to emerge, nor had he bragged about avoiding taxes for up to 18 years, threatened to not accept the election results, or told countless easily disprovable lies to millions of people as though facts no longer matter. At that time, though, he had already mocked a disabled reporter, denied John McCain's war hero status, displayed disgusting misogyny on-camera and, you know, championed the birther movement for years. (The list of his other indefensible actions is Proustian.)

Although there is no doubt that Trump the entertainer has the chops to host an episode of SNL, Trump the presidential candidate should not have been allowed anywhere near studio 8H, no matter how much of a ratings boost it guaranteed. (Indeed, the ratings were stellar; the reviews were not.) Allowing a political candidate with such demonstrably ugly attitudes toward other people so much free publicity is a tacit endorsement of his humanity. If SNL can tolerate these beliefs, so can the rest of the country.

After giving Trump a platform, SNL spent the year leading up to last week's election mocking him. In a show of fairness, both candidates were the butt of many jokes—Trump with his endless glaring lies, flaws, and liabilities, and Clinton with her email non-scandal, corruption accusations, and perceived unlikability. Toward the end of the race, the jokes gravitated toward how Clinton seemed to definitely have this one in the bag, perhaps encouraging complacency among disenfranchised voters.

Occasionally, the show has managed to pull out some sharp satire, like the Black Jeopardy sketch where Tom Hanks demonstrated what the average Trump supporter might have in common with the average person of color. But now that the election is over, it will be difficult for some aggrieved viewers to watch the show's topical material without remembering its uneasy embracing of the president-elect. Even the host of last weekend's episode, Dave Chappelle, seemed to want it both ways, as well. He delivered a brilliant monologue that touched on Trump's status as an Internet troll and self-described pussy-grabber, but ended it by pleading with America to give Trump a chance. Many will find the first half of that sentiment is incompatible with the second.

SNL can never not have had Donald Trump as a host. It happened. That toothpaste is not going back in the tube. While some former fans may never return for this very reason, though, the most recent episode shows signs that it will be worthwhile to stick around. The sketch about election night, for instance, was a brutal excoriation of liberal-leaning New Yorkers caught off guard the moment their bubble burst. It's a funny, illuminating sketch, aided in no small part by a grinning cameo from Chris Rock. The clueless crew at the center of the scene, though, is clearly intended to be a surrogate for a big chunk of SNL's audience. If the writers and performers can take their viewers to task, surely they can do the same for themselves—and not merely over some fictional Jheri curl sketch.

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