“Saturday Night Live” is flexing its political muscle as the 2016 presidential race heads into the homestretch.
The long-running NBC show has provided some of the most memorable skits on presidential races and debates. Writers on the show have shown an uncanny ability to zero in on the weaknesses of White House hopefuls.
This year’s season premiere featured a powerhouse lineup, with veteran “SNL” host Alec Baldwin, hunched over and glowering as Republican nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE, hurling outdated racial epithets like “jazzman” and “Coltrane” at black NBC News anchor Lester Holt, portrayed by Michael Che.
Actress Kate McKinnon has been chewing the scenery on the Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonAttorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation Durham seeking indictment of lawyer with ties to Democrats: reports Paul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book MORE beat for more than a year, portraying the Democratic nominee as a cackling, power-mad and emotionally vacant politician hell-bent on ruling from the White House at any cost.
And Larry David’s take on Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBriahna Joy Gray: Push toward major social spending amid pandemic was 'short-lived' Sanders 'disappointed' in House panel's vote on drug prices Manchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants MORE (I-Vt.) — a crank who shouts about old man problems with the same vigor as his attacks on Wall Street — has been a big hit.
The show over the weekend was its highest-rated debut since 2008.
That year, Tina Fey’s parody of Sarah Palin shot her to superstardom and helped harden the public’s view of the Republican vice presidential nominee as preternaturally self-assured in the face of insurmountable deficiencies.
Experts say the 2016 lineup could similarly cement perceptions of Trump and Clinton — who both appeared on “SNL” last year — as the nominees head into the final month of the campaign hampered by historically low favorability ratings.
“These candidates both have their flaws, and they’re about to have those reinforced in the minds of voters every Saturday night until Election Day,” said Ted Johnson, the politics reporter for Variety.
Entertainment industry insiders and political operatives interviewed by The Hill largely agreed that Trump got the worst of it in the show’s first week back from its summer hiatus.
The GOP nominee was lampooned in a nearly 10-minute-long cold open that depicted him as a racist buffoon in the throes of a debate meltdown.
“The thing about the blacks is that they’re killing each other,” Baldwin said. “All the blacks live on one street in Chicago. All on one street, I just read that this morning. It’s called Hell Street, and they’re all just killing each other, just like I am killing this debate.”
McKinnon’s hyperactively self-aware Clinton stood by, astounded by her luck of Trump’s aggressiveness, responding with the lesser-of-two-evils argument.
“Listen, America, I get it — you hate me,” McKinnon said. “You hate my voice and you hate my face. Well, here’s a tip. If you never want to see my face again, elect me president, and I swear to God I will lock myself in the Oval Office and not come out for four years. But if you don’t elect me, I will continue to run for president until the day I die. And I will never die.”
The episode also incorporated breaking news, slashing at Trump as a tax-dodger just hours after The New York Times’s bombshell report about the real estate magnate’s business taking a nearly $1 billion loss in the ’90s.
Republicans are used to getting short shrift from the entertainment industry, but those interviewed by The Hill said “SNL” went out of its way to lean into its mockery of Trump.
“It isn’t some no-name actor on staff they assigned to play Trump,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “They brought in Alec Baldwin, who is clearly relishing the role because of his political views. It looked like he spent 10 years studying for this at Juilliard, and the commentary, particularly pertaining to African-Americans, was rough.”
And political watchers say it could have an impact. The audience of “SNL” skews younger, potentially energizing millennial voters who have been cool to Clinton so far.
Clips from the show, viewed by 8.3 million people on broadcast TV, have run on streaming and video platforms such as Hulu and YouTube.
The “SNL” YouTube page had racked up 11 million hits for the opening scene alone, while a clip on the show’s Facebook page had been shared nearly a quarter of a million times.
Some viewers will be getting their only impressions about last week’s debate from “SNL,” a phenomenon that has exploded in recent years with the rise of mostly liberal political comedy programs like “The Daily Show.”
For the most part, liberals think “SNL” knocked it out of the park in going after Trump and are hopeful the show’s biting satire exposes him as a fraud.
Dean Obeidallah, a Muslim American comedian and fierce Trump critic who spent eight years working on the “SNL” production staff, said it’s the show’s responsibility to portray the celebrity businessman as dangerous and unfit for office.
He said the writers and actors met that threshold on Saturday, while using the Clinton character as a mostly harmless foil.
“They have an obligation to be funny and entertaining, and then beyond that, to inform people about how Trump is not a normal candidate,” Obeidallah said. “They did that. The cold open was exactly what I hoped for. It was very funny but also raised the issues of Trump’s treatment of women, his not paying taxes and for being a bigot.”
Still, some on the left are worried that in a race this close, the Clinton parodies could come back to haunt the Democrat.
In the “Weekend Update” portion of the show, the comedians skewered the former first lady for gloating after the debate, for not having any black friends and for seeming like she was on drugs at the debate.
“As bad as Trump is doing, Clinton is only doing barely better than him, so no matter who wins, this is going to be a rebuilding season for America,” said Che.
“It’s like choosing a phone right now,” the comedian continued. “There’s really only two options. We don’t want the iPhone 7 because it feels like it’s being forced on us. Also, it’s not necessarily an improvement. But also we don’t want the Samsung Galaxy, which could explode at any minute.”
Some Democrats raised the “false equivalency” argument that has worried liberals from the start — the idea that the media is holding Trump to a lower standard because he’s unconventional.
“Maybe the writers were trying to show that they are not biased for either candidate, but it did seem to be an exercise in false equivalency or somehow equating Trump’s egregious character flaws with Hillary Clinton,” said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga. “That’s the problem, overall, in this election.”
But Baldwin’s Trump appears to be the breakout character of the season, recalling past memorable performances, including Darrell Hammond’s condescending and boring Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreTrump's election fraud claims pose risks for GOP in midterms Don't 'misunderestimate' George W. Bush Why the pro-choice movement must go on the offensive MORE; Jon Lovitz’s egghead Michael Dukakis; and Will Ferrell’s tongue-tied but jocular George W. Bush.
Gore’s poor performance in his first debate against Bush hurt the Tennessee Democrat badly. Throughout the debate, the vice president sighed many times and employed the wonkish “lockbox” term repeatedly. At the time, The New York Times said Gore came across as “an overbearing know-it-all.”
Aides to Gore, concerned their boss would lose the two subsequent debates, urged him to watch the “SNL” skit — and learn from it.
Gore later said, “I’ve learned from the first one, I guarantee you. I think I’ll sigh a little bit less in this [next] debate.”