“Can SNL topple the Trump administration?”
That question was the headline at CNN.com a few days ago. CNN, if you’re reading this, here’s your answer: no.
It’s not that "Saturday Night Live" hasn’t been knocking it out of the park recently. Alec Baldwin’s President Donald Trump is pitch perfect and wickedly funny, and whoever was inspired to cast Melissa McCarthy as Trump's Press Secretary Sean Spicer deserves a huge raise. Her skits where she squirts the White House press pool with super soakers while chewing massive chunks of gum are hysterical from beginning to end, and, if reports are to be believed (politico.com), they’re very unnerving to Trump. One could be forgiven for thinking, then, that these biting bits of comedy may eventually take down their intended target.
They won’t, and here’s why.
In order for "Saturday Night Live" to topple Trump, it has to convince current Trump supporters that their president needs to go. But those people long ago learned that "Saturday Night Live" has nothing but contempt for them, and they’re probably not watching. If they are watching, they’re only tuning in to keep track of what the opposition is up to. They’re not being entertained and they’re certainly not being convinced.
I have long been baffled as to why so many entertainers have no problem alienating half of their potential audience by picking political fights. When Meryl Streep stands up in awards shows and uses her acceptance speeches to bash Trump, she doesn’t seem to realize that the 60 million people who voted for him don’t appreciate her point of view and they’re probably far less likely to buy a ticket to her next movie. Perhaps she does realize that and doesn’t much care, which is certainly her prerogative. But when you take up arms in a culture war, it’s only natural that the other side will view you as the enemy.
And more than almost any other show out there, "SNL" has definitely taken sides.
On the Saturday after election night, it opened with Kate McKinnon dressed as Hillary Clinton somberly playing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” at the piano. She was singing new lyrics written to express anguish over Clinton’s defeat. The tone of the whole thing was funereal and about as far from funny as it was possible to be. And when the song was over, she turned to the camera and said, “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”
Neither should I? Who was she talking to? Clearly, she wasn’t talking to the tens of millions of people who were celebrating Clinton’s defeat. McKinnon didn’t even try to pretend that any of them were part of the "SNL" audience. And if they’re not part of the audience, how are they going to be persuaded to change their minds about the president "SNL" is mocking?
Trump’s victory has exposed the fault lines that have fissured popular culture over the last few decades. Watching television is a very different experience for Trump voters than it is for Clinton voters. The Clinton supporters are constantly reassured that they’re more enlightened than the benighted Trump troglodytes, whereas those supposed troglodytes get tired of constantly being the butt of the joke. When Trump won, those same supporters watched the Streeps and McKinnons of the world in full meltdown mode and they loved every minute of it. I think it says something ugly about our country that so many people delight in the political misery of the other side, but that’s where we are. And that’s undoubtedly where "Saturday Night Live" is. As it keeps preaching to the choir, it shouldn't be surprised that the people it is attacking aren’t paying attention.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.