SNL’s Political Predicament

Ever since it began, politics has been a prevalent part of Saturday Night Live. Chevy Chase as then-President Gerald Ford was the show's first prominent example of lampooning a political figure, and it became a well-known and loved impersonation. Political impressions like Sarah Palin, Hillary and Bill Clinton and the Bushes became well-known even among those that weren't regular SNL viewers. Lately, though, SNL's centering on politics has not been a good thing, and the extra focus on this topical topic has led to shows that feel short, disjointed, and all around, not that interesting.

In the Trump era, SNL has always found a way to do a political sketch, usually bloated ones featuring people that aren't even in the cast. Bringing people in for cameo appearances isn't bad, but with such a large cast, it reduces the time we see the actual cast members on-screen. Gone seem to be the days where you could watch SNL and start things off without being reminded of politics. Most of these political openings have been centered around President Donald Trump and the various members of his administration, and they've been pretty formulaic. We had about three years of these cold opens, and they rarely deviated from the typical formula, which doesn't make for interesting TV. The cold opens felt like something you sat through while waiting to get to the actual show.

SNL's sketches centering on the Democratic primary were pretty refreshing at first. They featured the returns of funny, popular impressions of frontrunners Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, takes on some of the more... unique candidates like Marianne Williamson and brought back old cast members Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch for impressions of Senators Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, respectively. It was nice to see political cold opens that weren't always about the Trump administration's scandal of the week, giving us a break from Alec Baldwin's impression of President Trump. These sketches felt like something different, a deviation from what we've been getting for years now from SNL. As they went on, of course, they felt more familiar, but still, these sketches didn't feel so overused that you dreaded them. I even enjoyed them.

Recent debate sketches and political sketches from SNL haven't been nearly as good. Just about the only thing from these sketches that has worked is Maya Rudolph's Kamala Harris. Her Emmy-winning impression has been a bright spot in the sketches and is the only impression that's even close to accurate among the three most prominent players in the cold opens. Beck Bennett's Mike Pence is pretty accurate and well-done, but Pence himself doesn't really lend himself to much humor, so he's never given a spotlight. However, it's no coincidence that the best SNL cold open of the three this season was the second, centering on the VP debate (not counting the fly business, which derailed the entire thing). Those impressions actually work and, when given prominent roles, elevate the sketches they're in.

Alec Baldwin's Donald Trump has long overstayed its welcome. I like Baldwin, but his Trump impression has no bite to it. It goes after the lowest-hanging fruit and doesn't dig any deeper besides the most basic Trump jokes that we've already seen on Twitter days before you see it on SNL. Plus, Baldwin doesn't make much of an effort to sound or look like Trump. He sounds like Trump impersonations done by late-night talk show hosts, which don't exactly purport to be accurate impressions. There are funny Trump moments on SNL, but for the most part, he's overused and not that funny anymore.

Jim Carrey's Joe Biden simply isn't working. Carrey is a tremendous comedic talent, but he doesn't match Joe Biden's energy in any way. Biden is typically a calm, laid-back politician and Carrey is known for his frantic characters. They're not a natural fit. Carrey looks the part for sure, more than Baldwin looks like Trump, but that's the only thing that works. He doesn't really sound like him, and none of what SNL's Biden is doing reflects reality. It's like the SNL writers stopped watching clips of Joe Biden entirely. It feels like we're watching Jim Carrey on that stage and not Biden, and that is never a positive feature in an impression. There are moments where Carrey fits the role a bit better than other times, ones where he really seems to be trying to be accurate, but those are far and few between. Woody Harrelson and Jason Sudeikis were both able to successfully take on Biden earlier in the campaign, showing that it can be done, even if Biden isn't quite as easy to make funny as Trump is. This current impersonation simply isn't working.

I don't know how SNL moves forward in lampooning politics, but they need to do something to make these cold opens tolerable again. They're too long, for starters. We don't need any twelve-minute-long sketches on SNL, let alone a twelve-minute political cold open. It's too much time dedicated to politics right from the start, especially since there's often at least one sketch later on in the show that deals with politics in some way, as well. With so much of the show's runtime centering on one single sketch, it leaves the rest of the show feeling pretty short and leaves us without many original sketches. It also reduces the host's role in the show, and it doesn't feel like the SNL we're used to seeing. The show just feels off lately, and shortening those cold opens might get it back on track.

Luckily for SNL, Trump or Biden will lose in November and they'll only need to worry about fine-tuning one of them. Whichever wins, I would suggest that SNL either find someone new to play them or find some new writers to write these sketches. Maybe both. Nothing is really going right in these season 46 cold opens, but they can try to make something better. New writers could breathe fresh life into the sketches, as the writing's been pretty lazy lately, while a new performer for either Trump or Biden could get things back on track just by virtue of having a more accurate portrayal on the show that's different from what we've seen. Perhaps, even, they could let someone from the cast play the president. That would be an idea!

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