SNL at (and on) 45: The Heat Death of Satire

Live from Flip Screen, it’s… a lazy joke.

This October marks the 45th anniversary of American television staple, Saturday Night Live, a show that has done great things for the world of comedy, spring boarding the careers of superstars such as Will Ferrell, Eddie Murphy and Tina Fey, not to mention the sandman himself, Adam Sandler. You’ve probably been seeing a few throwback sketches on your social media feeds lately – SNL best bits, all-time greatest sketches and such – but what quickly becomes apparent is that the vast majority of the show’s golden years stem from a distinctly pre-Trump world. The before times, if you will.

That seemed odd to me at first; SNL isn’t entirely political satire, but it has always been happy to take that route, and every other late-night show seems to be essentially drowning in material, the genre resurging since the president took that short escalator ride into our collective conscience in 2015.

Donald and Melania Trump descent the escalator at Trump tower in 2015, launching Trump’s Presidential campaign.
Donald and Melania Trump descend the escalator at Trump tower, kicking off Donald’s Presidential bid in 2015.
Image courtesy of DC Report.

It’s odd, then, that SNL isn’t experiencing a similar renaissance. Well, that isn’t entirely true. The 2016/17 season was one of the show’s best received in over 20 years, and the most recent season opened to its biggest audience this decade (SNL often does well in an election year) but ratings have trended downward since the turn of the millennium and there is little to indicate any long-term upticks on the horizon.

I think herein lies the issue; it’s easy to make fun of Donald Trump. Incredibly easy. When he’s stalking Hillary Clinton around a debate stage like the shark from jaws or spouting some incoherent screed to a gymnasium full of adoring fans the comedy writes itself. I’m reminded of the concept of universal heat death – the idea that eventually all energy in the universe will be equally dispersed and thus, nothing can interact, and the universe ends. In our current media climate, the jokes are everywhere. It’s all absurd, the news, our social media; forget low hanging, all the fruit is rotting on the floor. If pre-packaged jokes saturate our daily lives, how can satire continue to exist?

One issue with this is that writers lose their edge, they get lazy and unimaginative as show-ready sound bites from the president himself are fed to them through twitter like grapes to a socialite recumbent on a chaise longue. The second, and more structural issue, is how do you adapt this style of comedy for when he isn’t campaigning anymore? When he isn’t merely an entertaining dumpster fire on the fringes? What happens when he takes power and starts doing real damage?

This isn’t a failing of SNL specifically. I think pretty much every political satire of the Trump years has felt toothless and bland, but I do think SNL is amongst the most injured. Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert can hide to some extent behind the fact that their shows directly riff on the news of the day. They can cover some of the more important topics, injecting humour whilst allowing for necessary outrage, whereas SNL needs to stand alone first and foremost as sketch comedy.

Seth Meyers, pictured hosting Late Night with Seth Meyers.
Seth Meyers, host of Late Night with Seth Meyers and former SNL head writer.
Image courtesy of Time Magazine.

This ultimately leads to the big stuff flying well under SNL’s radar. If you search for sketches on the Trump administration, you’ll find ample coverage of how he says words wrong, or how he stands weird, and we can all agree that it is extremely funny that time he tweeted “Covfefe” (sigh) but you’ll find precious little on child detention centres, his stoking of white nationalist violence or his open authoritarianism. Now that isn’t an enviable position to be in, don’t get me wrong. It’s very difficult to make jokes around topics like that but I’m disappointed that SNL has abdicated its duty to do so entirely.

SNL is often thought of as a frontline of resistance, Trump’s biggest adversary in the media next to liberal mood board stalwarts Jake Tapper of CNN and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC. To its credit, Alec Baldwin’s impressions do seem to get under the President’s tangerine peel (get it? He’s orange) more than any other source of derision, so its arguable that if you measure the success of a satire in the direct annoyance of its target, then SNL may be top of the pile. I would argue otherwise. Satire is not for the leaders; it is for the people.

I’m a huge fan of political satire and the main appeal to me is in its ability to connect with people in a way that traditional news coverage simply cannot. Satirists, much like the public, have a very low tolerance for nonsense. Satire (good satire) tells you “you’re right, what’s happening is absurd, these people in charge are unlike us and do not share our interests” whereas legacy news outlets essentially gaslight you with even-keeled banality.

Satire demystifies the people and processes that make up our governments. It can humanise – not in the sense that you would become simpatico to those in power, more in the sense that their actions, good or bad, become recognisably human. I think of Armando Iannucci as the master at this. His characters are weaselly, spineless, arrogant and cruel, but in ways we recognise from people in our own lives. We have a frame of reference.

Darrell Hammond bites his lip and sticks up a thumb in his portrayal of then-president Bill Clinton on SNL
SNL cast member Darrell Hammond as Bill Clinton.
Image courtesy of

In keeping with SNL’s long-running tactics however, Presidents and politicians are made into caricatures; pantomime heroes and villains to be booed or cheered. Bill Clinton, alleged rapist, becomes little more than the womaniser-in-chief. George W Bush, war criminal, is just a bumbling simpleton, and Trump is reduced to a petulant toddler. It creates an emotional distance, the idea that the world of politics does not interact with our own, that Trump is comparable to Voldemort or Darth Vader – objectionable but ultimately a character on a screen. This is a privileged vantage point far removed from the realities of those who find themselves under the boot of Trump’s administration, and a strand of criticism representative of SNL’s specific breed of performative disobedience. Kate McKinnon implores voters not to vote for Trump on the show which he hosted twice, the latter in late 2015 as a Presidential candidate.

The decline of SNL is one part of the heat death of satire as an art form. The newly revived Spitting Image fails in many of the same ways, suffering from a toothless mockery of the aesthetics of power without any incision. To stand out in such a high-absurdity environment you need to do more than shock people with a Trump puppet tweeting with his prolapsed anus. You need to do more than make fun of the orange man’s small hands. You need to challenge structures of power, and with SNL’s financial viability dependent on that very structure, they are in no position to do so.

Header image courtesy of Entertainment Weekly