Here's how 'Saturday Night Live' can parody a farcical administration
Some of the most durable “Saturday Night Live” sketches are game show parodies. It’s not hard to understand why – the genre runs on the universal appeal of gambling, with many offering a shot at fast money mixed with puzzle or trivia games of skill and elements of chance. But the classics test the players’ intelligence more than their luck, making their outcome less predictable.
Hence, people love Alex Trebek’s “Jeopardy” and Darnell Hayes’ “Black Jeopardy” on “SNL.” Minus a few champions who enjoy insane winning streaks on the former, we can’t predict who will win; even contestants with a genius I.Q. can be defeated by someone with bulletproof strategy.
“Black Jeopardy,” on the other hand, lands its jokes by fooling the audience into thinking it knows how the contestant Kenan Thompson’s Darnell sets up as the stooge will perform, then quickly turns that assumption on its ear. Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa from "Black Panther," for example, was entirely out of his depth when called upon to answer questions about American black culture.
So was Elizabeth Banks’ Allison, playing a white woman (“I don’t see color, so it’s just Jeopardy to me!”) and Tom Hanks’ Doug, who shows up to "Black Jeopardy" wearing a MAGA hat. Only after Allison realizes that she can’t win regardless of what she does can she get points on the board —“That is the blackest thing you said all day, Allison!” Darnell tells her.
Doug, meanwhile, kills it on “Black Jeopardy” and seems to prove that Doug is on the same page as Darnell and fellow contestants Keeley and Shanice…until they get to the sketch-ending category “Lives That Matter.” We don’t see how Doug answers, but since he refers to Darnell and his competition as “you people” earlier in the sketch, the viewer makes up her own conclusions.
“SNL” opens the post-monologue section of its most recent episode, hosted by Emmy winner Phoebe Waller-Bridge, with an obvious game show called “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” that does not approach the level of sharpness as those “Black Jeopardy” episodes.
But as another unofficial TV competition sketch that runs later in the episode proves, the flatness of “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” can’t be chalked up to a lack of brand recognition. Rather, its weakness is because the joke lacked a point and barbs beyond its contestants being too stupid to see the plain-as-day errors in the pictures, such as a saw inside of a refrigerator.
Much more effective was the midday local newscast that degenerated into a contest pitting the two black anchors against the two white anchors, with each reading headlines about violent crimes and non-violent crimes, guessing the racial identity of the perpetrators and keeping a tally of black offenders versus white ones.
Even the weatherman gets in on it, announcing the upgrade of a tropical storm to a hurricane. “We’re calling this one Hurricane Chet, and that’s a white man’s name if I’ve ever heard one.” At the risk of draining the funny out of the sketch’s humor by explaining the joke, it works on several levels (ugh, I know) as a commentary on racial prejudice, internalized assumptions about minorities and crime, and the media’s role in perpetrating those assumptions via news coverage.
So this was ostensibly supposed to be a sketch about the news, that really became a game show/sporting event with race relations as the stakes.
Equally as obliquely, I suppose, will we slide into the reason for bringing all of this up in the first place: this point may provide a clue as to why the first two politically themed cold opens of the NBC sketch variety program’s 45th season have fallen flat. Nearly every tidbit of news yielded by the impeachment inquiry, including the event that kicked it off, has transformed an already ridiculous administration into a complete parody of itself.
Therefore any impersonation of the weeks’ events cannot match the twisted humor of what actually is occurring. An administration headed by a man who proposed fortifying our 1,954 mile southern border with a moat filled with alligators and snakes, and meant it, is already a fully realized farce. And how does one successfully and directly parody a farce? There must be a way, but “Saturday Night Live” hasn’t stumbled upon it.
Thus Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of Trump in the season premiere feels more like an reenactment with marionettes than a comic interpretation of what’s happening inside Trump’s head. Similarly, the star of this week’s opener is not Matthew Broderick, making an unexpected cameo as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but the Parseltongue-speaking puppet snake representing Trump advisor Stephen Miller.
Beck Bennett’s imitation of Vice President Mike Pence and Kate McKinnon’s lizard-like Rudy Giuliani are the same as they ever were, and like Baldwin’s Trump, they capture the essence of the actual people they’re representing. The news of the past few weeks defeats their role as a release valve.
Granted, that role has been decreasing in value for some time now. “SNL” and Baldwin’s impressions of Trump the Candidate used to make its politically topical skits must-watch late night television for the laughs.
Post-inauguration versions have varied in pointedness, becoming increasingly dependent on A-lister cameos of administration officials to make a mark, starting with Melissa McCarthy’s impersonation of Sean Spicer. These appearances and the unforgettable imitations of officials from administrations and campaigns past work because they parody isolated moments of unadulterated lunacy within a political administration running like a typical, normal circus.
It’s the reason Matt Damon killed as a pre-Supreme Court confirmation Brett Kavanaugh by throwing in a few quotes from his Senate Judiciary Committee appearance, screaming at the top of his lungs and gulping down water like the Earth was drying up. The Kavanaugh confirmation was a farce with terrible, depressing consequences. Damon’s impersonation gives the viewer the very limited comfort at shaming the devil by laughing at him.
Now that Trump’s administration has transformed from a carnival sideshow into a three-ring catastrophe, “SNL” parodies are only slightly tweaked versions of 24/7 reality, ameliorating very little. The last two cold opens gave us about as much to laugh at as an Investigation Discovery crime re-enactment.
In contrast, the edition of National Public Radio’s news quiz-as-game show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me” that aired the same weekend as the Phoebe Waller-Bridge episode of “SNL” earned solid laughs by simply, precisely mining the Trump news cycle for laughs during its Trump Dump segment, a true-or-false lighting round.
When host Peter Sagal asked panelist Tom Bodett if the New York Times’ report of Trump requesting the feasibility of a snake-and-alligator-filled moat was true, Bodett won a point.
But when Faith Salie was asked, “True or False: On Wednesday, Donald Trump responded that the idea that he, quote, wanted a moat stuffed with alligators and snakes, unquote was ‘fake news,’” and Salie answered “true,” Sagal corrected her. “No, it’s false! He said that the idea that he wanted a MOOT was fake news.” Sagal also caught the show’s third panelist Helen Hong with a similar devil-in-the-details regarding Rudy Giuliani’s text exchange with a reporter that he was considering a lawsuit against the so-called “swamp.”
It goes without saying that I am not a comedy writer, and the live audience for “Wait Wait” likely has a slightly different notion of what’s funny than the typical “SNL” viewer. However, each target viewer’s taste in laughs probably isn’t too far apart.
The bigger point is that a gentle public radio news quiz somehow managed to deliver a cleverer jab about This Week in Stupid than “SNL” did in its White House skit: so absurd is our situation that a person cannot accurately quote the substance of a news story without including a malapropism or an incorrectly typed description of legal action that a) does not exist, and b) could not exist. (How does one sue “The Swamp”? And what is a "jaw suit"?)
You'll note that this was a game show about the news, in which the only prizes are bragging rights and an audience member’s chance to have Bill Kurtis provide the voice for the outgoing message on their phone’s answering service.
This isn’t to imply that “SNL” should jam all of its political parody in a faux game show format. At this point, moving the action any place besides the White House or Capitol Hill will do.
“Weekend Update” had a field day with the developments surrounding the impeachment inquiry, but neither its headline-based zingers nor McKinnon’s Elizabeth Warren could compete with Bowen Yang’s Chinese Trade Representative Chen Biao, vamping it up as the attention-loving figure in the middle of negotiations between the U.S. and China. “I’m running tariffs, so this is my time, I’m having my moment, I’m basically the Lizzo of China right now. And it turns out I’m 100 percent that trade daddy!”
So yeah – actual fake newscast are perfect stages for parody, as are fake reality shows, fake sitcoms and fake dramas. Future “Saturday Night Live” political parodies could be more effective if they were removed from the White House and inserted in any of those other formats.
Game shows, however, have stakes and harvest tension from the factor that chance plays in each moment – the smartest player might not beat the devil, and the luckiest person can be undone by a whammy. They remind us of how unfair life is, a truth that like Trump’s moat/moot confusion, brings to mind one of the finest “SNL” sketches ever: Jesse Jackson’s “The Question Is Moot,” which aired in October 1984, a few weeks before the presidential election that resulted in Ronald Reagan’s second term in office.
Jackson’s host allows announcer Don Pardo to pose questions to contestants such as, “When is the next reappearance of Haley’s comet scheduled?” only to cut them off before they answer.
“It doesn’t matter. The question is moot. The White House is locked behind cement barricades. The President confesses he’s afraid to go to church because terrorists are after him. The nuclear holocaust machinery is moving into place. As a matter of fact, it’s moving into Brooklyn Harbor right now. They’re demonstrating down there all night long. The Battleship Iowa, carrying nuclear warheads, arrived today. So we probably won’t live to see Haley’s Comet come again. Next question: Barbara?”
Looking at the sketch now, it’s mind-boggling how relevant the issues Jackson brings up in his answers are to our world today. He talks about tax cuts for the wealthy and the expansion of the national’s poor and racial divisions before replying to another contestant’s question about whether they’ll ever have a chance to answer a question with, “The question is moot! Under the Reagan Administration, answering questions is no longer a priority. One-liners, smiles, styles, and profiles.”
He continues, “Issues like education, health care and social programs have to take a backseat to a trillion-dollar military build-up, and a $700 billion tax cut for the rich. As a matter of fact, 90,000 corporations last year made profits and paid no taxes, while people making $2000 below poverty paid taxes.”
Those “SNL” writers knew what they were doing when they placed Jackson, the third-most popular Democratic contender behind Gary Hart and eventual party nominee Walter Mondale, into this setting. All of politics is staged, and most of it scripted. Shows like “Saturday Night Live” serve to pull back the curtain and reveal the synthetic nature of the law-making and deal-forging that goes into running the country and impacting our lives. It’s all a comedy, it’s all a drama.
In this latest examination of possible law-breaking on the part of the nation’s top executive and his enablers, a head-on caricature isn’t the way to go. Efforts to game the system against the majority population have always been afoot, but now that we’re getting a sense of how brazen and ludicrous the latest examples are, perhaps the best way to take a jab that concept is a game show.
May we suggest… “Idiotest”? “The Weakest Link”? “Dirty Rotten Cheater”? The possibilities are endless, although “Jeopardy” works too.
Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision.