Saturday Night Live, the late-night, comedy show in its 42nd season, is no stranger to political commentary or controversy. From Will Ferrell’s impersonation of an overconfident, somewhat dense President George Bush to Tina Fey’s ditzy, “I can see Russia from my house” Sarah Palin, politicians have long been the punchline to many jokes and the subjects of the show’s most popular sketches.
President Donald Trump is the latest political figure to be featured on SNL. With puckered lips, ashy hair, and skin a shade too orange, Alec Baldwin has contributed his uncanny impression of the businessman-turned-politician to the show for the past several months. Like most forms of political commentary, the Trump sketches were received with both praise and criticism, the most vocal of the latter coming from Trump himself. However, the generally non-partisan Saturday Night Live has not singled out Trump as the subject of its ridicule – Kate McKinnon took a well-received spin as a desperately-trying-to-be-relevant Hillary Clinton and Larry David made the occasional special appearance as an ornery Bernie Sanders.
The show’s political commentary has always been popular, but this season has had particularly high ratings. Viewership so far this year has been roughly 20% greater than last year, and the highest in 22 years according to NBC. More than 10.8 million people tuned in for the recent episode hosted by Alec Baldwin, the highest in six years.
This season’s higher ratings could be attributed to two causes. First, the cameos. The show is no stranger to celebrities stopping by for a sketch, but this season has seen A-list names like Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy (as a gum-chewing Sean Spicer) make more special appearances than usual. In previous years, big names returned for special episodes like the Christmas special or the final show of the season, but during the presidential campaign, stars reprised their roles weekly. Another reason may be the subject, Trump. His outlandish comments and commitment to “alternative facts” are easy pickings for SNL’s writers. Better comedy will invite more viewers.
Trump’s election may also reveal something about the nature and role of political comedy and explain its increase in popularity. The presidential election was undoubtedly a divisive event this past year. During his short time in office, Trump has nominated controversial and inexperienced figures to his cabinet, attempted to instate a Muslim ban, and greenlighted the highly-disputed Keystone and Dakota Access Pipelines, just to name a few. Trump and other politicians propose and enact laws that will have a real and sweeping impact on people’s lives, and the negative consequences for many. Politics has become a highly alienating topic.
In a time of political turmoil, an increasing number of people may be turning to comedy as an outlet. People can watch Saturday Night Live and not be reminded of the implications of various policies. Late-night comedy shows may be one of the few places where Trump’s words have little weight and come across for what they truly are – ridiculous to the point of comical. Perhaps comedy has become one of the few mediums where controversial and exhausting topics can be portrayed in a humorous and tolerable light.
Politics is a divisive issue, particularly today, and shows like Saturday Night Live raise questions about the role of comedy in politics. Should shows like SNL continue to be nonpartisan and make comedy a haven that people of opposing political opinions can appreciate? Should it be a platform where people can discuss policies put forward by the Trump administration? Or should SNL use its popularity as a platform to make a political statement?
While some may disapprove of the mocking tone, SNL provides an interesting platform for everyone to discuss politics. Though Trump and his administration have taken the spotlight most recently, SNL typically does not take real sides, making fun of politicians from both parties. In this sense, everything and everyone is passed under scrutiny, and the humorous tone allows for non-confrontational discussion. Furthermore, the expected comedy of the show attracts a lot more people than most political discussions on TV. Indeed, the stereotypes and jokes are easy to follow, even without firm knowledge of political stances or policies.
Though SNL may seem divisive at times, it in fact allows for more open conversation. The comical situation it represents also makes situations more accessible to wider audiences, despite the public’s typical lack of interest in politics.