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'Saturday Night Live' Is Trying To Make Us Laugh At An Election That Isn't Funny

One could see the return of Saturday Night Live this weekend as the perfect remedy after our summer of discontent. After birtherism, and deplorables, and tax returns and emails, and rumors of affairs and videos and body doubles, we could all use a laugh.

As such, expectations were high for the show Saturday night, after being away for months, and returning only a few days after the most-viewed presidential debate in modern history.

But it became clear, quickly, that any parody could not top the strange of the original act.

SNL's cold open was a comedic take on this week's debate, with SNL veteran Kate McKinnon playing Hillary Clinton and longtime friend of the show Alec Baldwin playing Trump.

Even after McKinnon entered the stage coughing and wobbling with a cane (referencing the real candidate's recent bout of pneumonia) and after Alec Baldwin's Trump complained of a broken mic and left the stage in a huff after the first question, nothing seemed to compare to the real fireworks from earlier this week.

Later attempts at presidential election comedy were a bit better throughout the episode. A Family Feud skit led by Kenan Thompson (playing host Steve Harvey) featured a competition between the Clinton and Trump families. On the Trump side, host Margot Robbie played Ivanka Trump, complete with a wind fan blowing her hair. Other cast members played Chris Christie and a shirtless Vladimr Putin. Kate McKinnon, just moments after her turn as Hillary Clinton in the cold open, played Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway.

For Team Clinton, alum Darryl Hammond made an appearance as Bill Clinton, seductively wooing Ivanka to his team's side by the end of the episode.

SNL's attempt to make light of an election that has seemed equal parts frivolous and gravely serious all at the same time comes as some question the role comedians should play in challenging politicians this election year.

Jimmy Fallon was widely ridiculed for a recent interview with Donald Trump on The Tonight Show when, instead of harshly questioning the candidate over some controversial views (as many liberal viewers would have liked), Fallon palled around with Trump, even tousling his hair.

Comedian Samantha Bee, who hosts a weekly comedy show, was recently ridiculed by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in an essay. He argued that her line of comedy, which is harshly critical of Trump and his rise, represents "the rapid colonization of new cultural territory by an ascendant social liberalism" and the creation of an "overtly left-wing party line" in arenas Douthat said used to be apolitical.

If it seems no one can quite get the comedy right in this election (or least not make everybody happy) comedians alone might not be to blame. With candidates and issues that, almost daily, rub up against some of the most contentious issues in American life — race, gender, and class, to name a few — it's a heavy lift to make anyone laugh about any of this it all.

But you can't hate SNL for trying. And still they have until November to get it right. Though the words of Kate McKinnon in Saturday night's cold open may have been the most accurate representation of the electorate we've seen in comedy this year. Playing Clinton in the cold open debate scene, she said to moderator Lester Holt (played by Michael Che), "Can America vote right now?"

Her character's probably not the only one that wants to get this whole thing over with.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sam worked at Vermont Public Radio from October 1978 to September 2017 in various capacities – almost always involving audio engineering. He excels at sound engineering for live performances.
Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.
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