Pete Davidson, who was in hot water over a joke about Navy SEAL Dan Crenshaw’s eye patch, got a chance for in-person redemption on SNL.
Saturday night isn’t so lively these days.
“Saturday Night Live,” NBC’s 44-year-old sketch comedy institution, has been riding high on the coattails of President Donald Trump since fall 2016, but it appears the honeymoon is over. Six episodes in, the new season has been a bit of a disaster, plagued by dumb controversy, bad Trump jokes and one very bad celebrity breakup.
For about a year and a half, the always-topical show – which returns Saturday (11:30 EST/PST) for the final three episodes of 2018 – was doing exceptionally well. “SNL” was boosted by the absurdity of the presidential election, the delights of frequent guest-star Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of then-candidate Trump and Kate McKinnon’s dead-on version of Hillary Clinton, and a nation eager for someone, somewhere to make sense of the circus-like news, which seemed tailor-made for an “SNL” sketch.
After Trump was inaugurated in 2017, the appetite for political comedy only grew, as evidenced by surging ratings for both “SNL” and CBS’ “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Colbert surpassed his late-night rival Jimmy Fallon’s
“The Tonight Show” thanks to his more adept political humor.
“SNL” found a relevancy and a point of view that garnered it the 2017 Emmy Award for outstanding variety sketch series, its first win in a comparable category since 1993. It won that award again this year. The series fed fans’ hunger for political humor by airing the show live on the West Coast. It began parading in A-list guest stars to pinch-hit as members of the Trump administration, from Baldwin’s slack-jawed Trump to Melissa McCarthy’s lauded turn as former press secretary Sean Spicer.
But nearly two years into the Trump presidency, “SNL” feels less like vital political comedy and more like a weary checklist of weekly scandals. Oh, Sessions is out? I guess McKinnon’s impression of him isn’t good enough, so they needed Robert De Niro to help out as Justiice Department special counsel Robert Mueller. Fox News did something questionable? Slap a wig on McKinnon to do a quick Laura Ingraham impression. The tumultuous Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh? Just call Matt Damon to slam his fist into a table.
But the political humor that once seemed so sharp and so hilarious peaked, and now the constant onslaught of Trump jokes is just exhausting. “SNL” isn’t the only show to fall victim to this – watching mostly political humor/anger shows such as “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” is tough these days – but when you pull back Baldwin’s yellow Trump wig in Studio 8H, you find there isn’t much underneath.
Perhaps the best example of the weakness this season lies with one of its most controversial cast members: Pete Davidson. The show’s resident “young person,” Davidson, 25, has appeared on “SNL” since 2014 and carved a quiet niche for himself as a frank millennial voice, excelling in “Weekend Update” segments in which he mostly made fun of himself.
But Davidson’s profile has exploded after he began a very public relationship with pop singer Ariana Grande. Davidson quickly climbed the celebrity index, to the point where he is among the most famous current cast members, alongside McKinnon. But his talents as a comedian never rose in tandem with his fame. And Davidson’s loud engagement and subsequent split with Grande – fueled by subtweets and a breakup single – has made his presence on the show awkward and at times cringe-worthy.
Given his newfound stature, it would be foolish for writers to sideline him, but his material hasn’t always been great. When he made a stilted statement about his breakup with Grande on the show, it felt like a press conference. And Davidson’s insensitive joke about congressional candidate Dan Crenshaw, who lost his eye serving in Afghanistan, mired the show in controversy. After an outcry, Davidson was forced to apologize on air, and the show invited Crenshaw to make fun of Davidson. It all felt forced and uncomfortable.
In addition to poorly capitalizing on Davidson’s fame, “SNL” has been extra-hungry for big guest stars this season. The show’s reliance on famous actors and comedians has morphed from an occasional treat into an annoying crutch, an admission that its regular cast isn’t good or well-known enough to play the likes of Kavanaugh and Mueller.
Calling on celebrity-cameo lifelines also allows writers to construct rather lazy sketches in which the humor comes solely from an A-lister nailing halfway-decent impressions of political figures, rather than making any kind of broader joke or point. Was there any part of the Kavanaugh sketch that wasn’t hopelessly predictable? Is Baldwin’s Trump impersonation (seen only once this season) even that funny anymore?
Every few years, critics declare that “SNL” is dead, but right now I think it’s merely hurting, not flatlining. There have been high points such as the “House Hunters” sketch on Liev Schreiber’s episode, in which Schreiber and Leslie Jones played a couple on the HGTV show picking a house from a series of increasingly bizarre options, including one where the toilet is on the ceiling. Another, “GP Yass,” was an apt commentary about appropriation of drag culture.
One of the best things about “SNL” is that it still remains a haven for weirdly wonderful humor. The nonpolitical sketches have been the best this year, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. The show desperately needs a shakeup. Its Trump humor is boring, so it’s time to try something new. It needs fewer guest stars and more room to create stars from its cast. It needs new “Weekend Update” anchors and new head writers. It should maybe stop booking Kanye West and keep PR damage control off the air. And the writers should stop trying to write what people expect and instead have a little more fun.
I’d watch the cast try to use a toilet on the ceiling over Baldwin’s Trump any day.