This fall, “Satur­day Night Live” turned elec­tion chaos into TV gold

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Elahe Izadi

The Wash­ing­ton Post

It’s an un­usual time for latenight hu­mor. Rarely has the news cy­cle been so ripe for comedic com­men­tary and the land­scape so sat­u­rated with op­tions for view­ers.

“Satur­day Night Live” has done well in that arena, air­ing a mid­sea­son fi­nale on Satur­day that con­cluded months of high rat­ings and crit­i­cal praise.

“SNL’s” abil­ity to skewer Don­ald Trump, book hotly an­tic­i­pated hosts and at­tract weeks of hate-tweets from the pres­i­dent-elect him­self have all boosted the show’s rel­e­vance. The sketch show suc­cess­fully took ad­van­tage of a bizarre po­lit­i­cal cli­mate that has brought its own record-shat­ter­ing tele­vi­sion rat­ings and, at times, has felt more like a re­al­ity show than the con­clu­sion of a cam­paign sea­son.

Pre­lim­i­nary rat­ings show that “SNL” is on track to sur­pass last year’s num­bers. That makes sense given that po­lit­i­cal hu­mor has long served as the show’s sta­ple ma­te­rial, and its most defin­ing mo­ments — Tina Fey as Sarah Palin, Will Fer­rell as Ge­orge W. Bush — have of­ten come dur­ing elec­tion years.

But this sea­son also con­trasts with last year, when “Satur­day Night Live” ended up in a mael­strom of con­tro­versy for hav­ing then-can­di­date Trump on as host. That 2015 episode brought in record rat­ings and plenty of blow­back, in­clud­ing con­cerns over whether “SNL” would break FCC rules on giv­ing po­lit­i­cal can­di­dates equal time on air. Pro­test­ers said the show’s pro­duc­ers and writ­ers helped “nor­mal­ize” Trump’s be­hav­ior dur­ing the pri­maries.

“I feel like the me­dia has al­ready nor­mal­ized his be­hav­ior,” “SNL” co-head writer Bryan Tucker said in an in­ter­view with Vul­ture a year af­ter the episode aired. “Our job is not to pro­mote one can­di­date or the other. Our job is to take what’s al­ready hap­pen­ing and make fun of it.”

In the end, many tuned in to see just what would hap­pen. Trump ap­peared on cam­era for a to­tal of 12 min­utes in an episode that earned ter­ri­ble re­views.

This sea­son started off dif­fer­ently, with Alec Bald­win de­but­ing his bit­ing Trump im­per­son­ation. About 8.3 mil­lion view­ers tuned in, and the Oct. 1 episode be­came “SNL’s” high­est-rated pre­miere since 2008.

The real-life pres­i­den­tial de­bate mocked dur­ing the pre­miere earned un­prece­dented rat­ings in its own right, draw­ing more than 84 mil­lion view­ers. “SNL” ap­par­ently un­der­stood a par­ody’s po­ten­tial for high rat­ings: The show rarely an­nounces up­com­ing cameos, but it did just that when it re­leased a trailer pro­mot­ing Bald­win’s Trump im­per­son­ation to com­ple­ment Kate McKin­non’s take on Hil­lary Clin­ton. (McKin­non won an out­stand­ing sup­port­ing ac­tress Emmy this year for her work on the show.)

“SNL” also se­cured big names as hosts this sea­son, most no­tably Dave Chap­pelle. The stand-up comic marked his re­turn to tele­vi­sion with “SNL’s” first post-elec­tion episode, which fea­tured a more than 11-minute-long mono­logue, a cameo by Chris Rock and mu­si­cal guest A Tribe Called Quest.

The Chap­pelle episode brought the high­est rat­ings among the cru­cial 18- to 49year-old de­mo­graphic since Jimmy Fal­lon hosted the 2013 Christmas episode.

Very early rat­ings from this Satur­day’s episode, which fea­tured Casey Af­fleck as host and Chance the Rap­per as mu­si­cal guest, have it on track to be the strong­est show­ing since Chap­pelle hosted, and higher than the av­er­age episode rat­ing “SNL” had in De­cem­ber 2015.

Aside from Trump par­o­dies, th­ese past few months of the late-night show have fea­tured a se­ries of no­table sketches — some in­sight­ful po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary, some down­right silly — that in­spired plenty of hot takes. Those in­clude “Black Jeop­ardy,” Tom Hanks as David S. Pump­kins and a com­mer­cial for “Wells for Boys.”

“SNL” has also man­aged to stay in the news cy­cle days af­ter an episode airs — thanks, in large part, to how real-life Trump has re­sponded to the show. He’s re­peat­edly tweeted his griev­ances, call­ing the show “un­watch­able,” “bi­ased” and not “funny at all.”

Bald­win has tweeted back in kind, say­ing he will stop if Trump re­leases his tax re­turns.

“Did you see that my friend Mr. Bald­win is in a Twit­ter feud with our pres­i­dent-elect?” “SNL” alum Tina Fey — who sug­gested to showrun­ner Lorne Michaels that Bald­win play Trump — said in an in­ter­view with David Let­ter­man for the Hol­ly­wood Re­porter.

Aside from mak­ing her sad that a Twit­ter feud is “so be­neath a pres­i­dent,” she said of Trump, “You think you’re good at be­ing a jerk on Twit­ter? You will now face the grand­mas­ter of be­ing a jerk on Twit­ter.”

Ear­lier this month, Matt Lauer asked Trump three times why he wouldn’t just stop watch­ing the show. Trump skirted the ques­tion, re­peated his gripes and fi­nally said, “Frankly, the way the show is go­ing now, and you look at the kind of work they’re do­ing, who knows how long that show is go­ing to be on? It’s a ter­ri­ble show.”

“SNL” re­turns Jan. 14 with Felic­ity Jones as host.

Will Heath, NBC

Kate McKin­non as Kellyanne Con­way and Alec Bald­win as Don­ald Trump dur­ing the Dec. 3 cold open.

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