Saturday Night Live returned this week, and even in its 43rd season, the venerable late night show has an unparalleled ability to speak truth to powerful people and institutions, however painful or uncomfortable it makes things. Specifically, Alec Baldwin’s return as President Trump was as a blistering condemnation of the powerful people at Saturday Night Live, none of whom seem to have realized that the president’s incompetence, racism, narcissism, and near-biologically-impossible stupidity have gotten a lot less funny since the show’s last season ended on May 20. For reference on the national mood at the time, in re: Donald Trump, this happened the very next day:
Awwww! He just loved that evil-looking orb so much! Since then, here are a few other things that have happened:
- North Korea stepped up its missile tests, and Trump’s response was to go to the U.N., threaten genocide, and call Kim Jong-un “Rocket Man.”
- Trump embarrassed the country on the international stage with his weird handshake thing and rode around in a golf cart when no one else wanted to talk to him.
- Trump made everyone tell him what a good boy he was at his first Cabinet meeting.
- Trump cut funding to programs that fight white supremacy, then claimed Nazis marching in Charlottesville included “very fine people.”
- Even the craven millionaires originally willing to serve on Trump’s American Manufacturing Council resigned after Charlottesville, so Trump throws a temper tantrum and dissolves the council on Twitter.
- Trump banned transgender soldiers from serving in the armed forces via Twitter
- Trump gave a speech to law enforcement officers encouraging them to be more brutal.
- There was that whole thing where we had to call our senators all summer to encourage them not to take away our health care, and also Jimmy Kimmel somehow became the nation’s conscience.
- Trump ended DACA.
- Hurricane Harvey.
- Hurricane Irma.
- Hurricane Maria.
- Trump responded to biblical-scale destruction in Puerto Rico by yelling at NFL players on Twitter.
And yet Baldwin’s return was centered on the same old Trump he was playing in May, a buffoon out of his depth. It’s just not funny to build a joke around Trump not realizing Puerto Rico is an American territory while Puerto Ricans are struggling to secure drinking water. It makes him out to be a third grader who hasn’t done his geography homework, when by now we all have learned to think of him as a toddler with a gun.
The skit’s failure doesn’t stem from a lack of comedy talent: there are good jokes and performances throughout, from Aidy Bryant’s folksy “Folks listen to me because I’m no nonsense, but I’m all nonsense” to Kate McKinnon’s elven version of Jeff Sessions. But the tone is all wrong: these are May 20th jokes at best (not least because one of them was published in Slate on May 19), and the jokes about Sessions and Trump are from an earlier era still. There’s just no bite to any of it and at this late date, there needs to be, especially from Saturday Night Live.
It’s not clear that comedy can do much to help in times like these, but it can definitely hurt. Saturday Night Live’s version of the White House—a collection of oddballs and grotesques instead of the rot-brained wasp factory we’ve come to know over the summer—isn’t helping.