The most recent Saturday Night Live opened with a sketch about the most recent U.S. presidential debate. As usual this season, Alec Baldwin played Donald Trump and Jim Carrey played Joe Biden. Baldwin’s Trump is now ultrafamiliar. He’s a petulant child, boasting and snippety. Carrey’s Biden is old-man affable on the exterior and, inside, a wound-up, ready-for-a-smackdown guy. In this sketch, he did a Clint Eastwood stare, circa Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
It wasn’t very funny. It felt laboured and recklessly reaching for the surreal. And that laboured quality is what has defined SNL in the first batch of episodes this season. With the exception of the Weekend Update segments, it is rarely funny and feels especially off the mark given the intense political climate in the United States and the bizarre events that unfold daily.
Here’s the thing: Baldwin quoted Trump verbatim in that sketch when he said, “I am the least racist person in this room.” It’s something Trump said twice in that debate as he dodged serious discussion about race. Maybe that’s the problem for SNL right now – you only have to repeat what Trump says to find the ridiculous. Satire is beggared by a reality so cockeyed that the ludicrous has become banal.
After all, a day after that SNL, to get a vivid picture of the times all you had to do was watch 60 Minutes. There was the real Trump, in what you could call full-Baldwin mode, all pouting petulance, storming out of an interview with Lesley Stahl. That was followed by Norah O’Donnell of CBS News asking Republican talking-point questions of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. It’s hard to satirize that; it’s already mind-boggling. Even Harris burst out laughing at one of O’Donnell’s questions.
The chilling preposterousness of the situation in the U.S. has overwhelmed SNL this season. At the time of the first new episode on Oct. 3, Trump was in hospital, apparently struck by the novel coronavirus. That seemed to spook everyone at SNL and even Chris Rock, as host and sketch-performer, struggled to find the necessary tone and timbre. He and all involved felt it necessary to remind the audience to wear masks while still aiming for satire.
Since then, many sketches have little comic impact and some have been entirely forgettable. Only Maya Rudolph’s Harris is soaring; Kate McKinnon seems underutilized and, at times, the viewer can only think back fondly to the days of Tina Fey’s uncanny and mischievous mimicry of Sarah Palin. Or to Melissa McCarthy’s maniac but accurate Sean Spicer.
Last weekend’s episode was held together by host Adele. Who could dislike the English singer and her up-for-anything attitude? But the sketches varied wildly from baffling to irritating. You could sense that the audience in the studio was thrilled to hear Adele sing, in the middle of a lame send-up of The Bachelor, but it seemed mystified by a lot of the attempted humour.
One particular sketch was definitely polarizing. In it, Adele, McKinnon and Heidi Gardner played white divorcees cooing over African men via double-entendres about “tribesmen” and “massive bamboos.” Adele seemed to find it hilarious, but it’s fair to say that sex tourism in Africa isn’t a funny subject.
There remains a huge appetite for SNL. It has stellar ratings in the U.S., is much discussed and, in Canada, it’s a huge hit. The first episode of this season had almost two million viewers in Canada, making it the second-most watched show of the week. The appetite exists because the audience needs relief from the clamour of daily events in the U.S. and also needs to feel a little wiser when those events are satirized. Four episodes into this season, though, we are neither relieved nor made wiser. This coming Saturday, John Mulaney is host and The Strokes are the musical guests. Let’s see if satire is still beggared by preposterousness.
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