‘Saturday Night Live’ presidential impersonations draw mixed reaction
In an election cycle that has spawned statues of a naked Trump without testicles and a white supremacist takeover of the Pepe the Frog meme, the most enduring artistic depiction of our two major party candidates may have come from the historically tame, generally apolitical show Saturday Night Live.
Saturday Night Live has been on air for a shocking 40-plus years, and in those four decades the sometimes hilarious, sometimes painfully stale show has created something of an alternate entertainment timeline of our nation’s politicians. Certain impersonations, such as Will Ferrell’s depiction of George Bush, Tina Fey’s impersonation of Sarah Palin and Dan Akroyd’s impression of Jimmy Carter, have been permanently burned into our collective conscious. We can now add Kate McKinnon and Alec Baldwin to that list of enduring comedic impressions.
SNL viewers have been treated to McKinnon’s version of Clinton; an unashamedly power hungry, visibly desperate to appear relatable, and far more outwardly emotive than the real Clinton, since early 2015, when the former Secretary of State first announced her candidacy.
Baldwin’s appearance, coinciding with the opener of the 42nd season came as a pleasant surprise, as he was able to capture Trump’s aggressively nonchalant racism and sexism (etc…) far more successfully than either Darrell Hammond or Taran Killam, the show’s previous Trump spoofers.
The reaction to SNL’s take on the debates (and their other, less amusing sketches concerning the candidates) has been decidedly mixed. Trump, in keeping with his steady attack on the 1st amendment any time it’s been used to criticize him tweeted, “Watched SNL hit job on me. Time to retire the boring and unfunny show. Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks. Media rigging the election!” Nevermind that Trump happily hosted the show for the second time in late 2015.
While the Republican candidate thought the show was “a hit job” on him, Time Magazine’s entertainment critic, Daniel D’Addario, felt the show was more unfairly critical of Clinton than her opponent. D’Addario argued that in becoming “addicted to trying to hear out both sides,” SNL’s fictitious debates were “not just between candidates, but between ideas of comedy, one that tended to impugn the real Clinton more than the real Trump.” Baldwin’s Trump is “a figure only degrees removed from the one we saw at the debate,” whereas McKinnon’s Clinton is delivered “in big, slashing brushstrokes” far removed from her actual character.
I would argue that SNL’s approach to the debates, fair or not, is much more of a reflection of the two candidates and America’s interpretation of them than of the show itself. The discomfiting humor of Trump all comes from his public persona, how he acts, speaks and looks “on the surface.” Baldwin’s impression was successful because he largely stuck to this surface level interpretation of Trump, while starkly displaying the real misogyny, xenophobia and racism behind Trump’s words that he and his supporters have been tasked with ignoring or explaining away all year.
America’s discomfort with Clinton on the other hand seems to mostly derive from a fear of what lies beneath her sterile outward demeanor. There exists a fear that beneath the well rehearsed one liners and clutching waves is a lying, pivoting, cold blooded inhuman monster who will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. McKinnon’s portrayal of Clinton’s inner essence made public offers us a mirror into our own Clinton paranoia, a mistrust often heavily tinged by the sexual double standard she’s placed under as a female politician.
Clinton’s own view of the SNL sketches was entirely positive. In an interview with Extra, she called Alec Baldwin’s impression “perfect” pointing to “his look, his scowling, his staring down then muttering his response, he was perfect.” As for her own portrayal, Clinton (who has starred in a sketch alongside McKinnon) thought McKinnon “was amazing. I wish I could do the jumps, the splits, the somersault.”
The greatest success of the SNL debates is best summed up by Lester Holt’s (as played by Michael Che) summation of the first sketch: “Just to remind everyone at home, this was the presidential debate.” By largely sticking to the debates real life scripts, Saturday Night Live humorously forced us to once again consider how far our political process has devolved in this race for the 45th presidency. SNL’s other attempts to imagine scenarios between the two candidates (including last nights) have largely fallen flat, perhaps because comedy can no longer keep up with the real life absurdity of the 2016 election.