On Nov. 12, Kate McKinnon, portraying Hillary Clinton, sang a tearful rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” for Saturday Night Live’s cold open. At the end she turned toward the camera, eyes filled with tears, and said "I'm not giving up, and neither should you." It was a deathly earnest lament of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and a preemptive mourning for what’s to come under Donald Trump’s rule. USA Today called it a "tearjerker," and Vox said it would “break your heart.”
It was quite a different tune from last November, when McKinnon gleefully appeared next to Trump as he hosted SNL. The controversy and protests the show faced over Trump’s stated plans to deport millions of Mexican immigrants were met with standard sketch comedy fare. Larry David called Trump a racist on stage, but it was just a punchline. Trump hosting SNL was shameful, but the producers brushing off any responsibility for its outcome was downright insulting.
In an interview last September with The Hollywood Reporter, comedian Norm Macdonald talked about the uselessness of comedy in the face of power: “Every cartoon was against Hitler, there were comedy troupes doing sketches about Hitler being an idiot with a stupid moustache and what a stupid little idiot he was. So anyway, there goes that theory about the power of comedy. It doesn't work at all.”
But SNL didn’t even dare to go that far with Trump. Instead, they shoved him into a parody of “Hotline Bling” where he poked fun at Drake’s dancing. They put a Sia wig on his head. If daring comedy — comedy with a purpose, that serves to expose a horrific reality — does nothing to stop the rise of evil, then what does cowardly comedy do? What about bad comedy?
Besides Trump, only three presidential candidates have ever hosted SNL: Ralph Nader, Al Sharpton, and Steve Forbes. None of these people were anywhere near securing a party nomination. SNL likes to envision itself as a politically neutral vessel with a liberal wink, putting politicians like Sarah Palin in cameos where they can laugh at themselves, separate from any introspection. To SNL, Trump was a joke candidate whose racist declarations could be temporarily ignored because he would never hold real power. Saturday Night Live’s refusal to treat him as anything but a novelty act was a product of the delusion that he could never win.
Now we’re stuck with an insane reality television star as president and a cabinet of white supremacist villains. A year ago, despite Trump’s rapidly growing legion of supporters, this would have been unthinkable. But why? He was not a Sophoclean inevitability. SNL contributed to the media’s portrayal of him as a nonthreatening sideshow attraction. Everyone was well aware of his racist diatribe, his blatant sexism, his lifetime of long cons. By trotting out a parody Hillary Clinton to sing “Hallelujah” before Leonard Cohen’s body is cold, SNL would like us to forget that they actually tried their best to make Trump likeable.