Donald Trump is our nation’s first president to be featured in a Comedy Central Roast. In 2011, six whole years ago, Trump sat on the dais and received jab after jab from the likes of Snoop Dogg and Jersey Shore’s “The Situation.” It was a different time. Back then, Trump could handle a bit of light-hearted jeering at his expense without sending his tweeting thumbs into carpal-tunnel-induced paralysis. Comedian Anthony Jeselnik commented in the roast, “You’ve got a great sense of humor. You’ve been so happy to embarrass yourself on ‘Saturday Night Live’…and [in] the casino business.” No one could have expected the first part of his joke to end up funnier than the last. Less funny now? Seth MacFarlane’s jab: “It’s pronounced ‘I’m fucking delusional,’ not ‘I’m running for president.’”
Six years ago, Trump was a laughing stock, but he at least seemed in on the joke. Or, at least, he was rich enough not to care. Now that he has the last laugh, he is more dour than ever, and the ball is in the jester’s court once again. During the general election, “Saturday Night Live” brought in Alec Baldwin for their Trump coverage (replacing Darrell Hammond, who had played the part throughout the primaries), enlisting Kate McKinnon for both his opponent Hillary Clinton and his campaign manager-turned-counselor Kellyanne Conway. The skits seemed to write themselves; Trump was already a caricature of a candidate. As scathing as the commentary could be, the relationship between Trump and SNL was decidedly love-hate. NBC invited Trump to host during the election cycle, knowing full well what the publicity would do to his polls, but prioritizing the anticipated ratings boost. In an age when all press is good press, Trump stood to benefit from a little ribbing, and SNL could definitely live with the free material he provided.
After he won (partly, perhaps, due to that free press he received every Saturday night), the jokes kept rolling to his increasing ire. It became a point of pride for comedians to be harassed by Trump on social media. Surely the President of the United States has something better to do than sit and yell at his TV? We elected an entertainer for president. It’s the entertainers that have chosen to speak out about it.
The 2008 election might well be defined in comedy by Tina Fey’s winking impersonation of Sarah Palin. Along with Amy Poehler’s Clinton, the late 2000s seemed like a high point for women in sketch comedy, mostly because there were more female roles to take on. This year marks a turning point best exemplified by Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impression; women don’t have to wait for roles, women can make them. Reacting to McCarthy’s portrayal, Politico reported that what bothered the POTUS most about the Spicer send-up was not the content itself, but the fact that he was played by a woman. According to their source, Trump didn’t want members of his cabinet to appear “weak.” Needless to say, McCarthy returned to SNL the following week to reprise the role, and her performance was far from weak.
Spicer’s rocky relationship with the press has been well-documented by, well, the press. His role as mouthpiece is even more important in an administration that is 90 percent mouth (with the occasional inserted foot). However, much more damning in Trump’s eyes, Spicer fails to embody the hypermasculinity allowed to run rampant in the original campaign. Behind the podium, Spicer quivers and rages like a substitute math teacher before a class of rowdy 12-year-olds. Every outburst only chips away at his credibility and control of the room. During the campaign, Trump never had to delegate; he was always most comfortable in front of the cameras when he was listening to the sound of his own voice. Voters were drawn to Trump’s booming charisma, and the press ate up every soundbite. In comparison, Spicer simply can’t hold up under pressure, and McCarthy has tapped into those insecurities. In an administration fueled by male aggrandizement, female comedians are best poised to satirize.
“Saturday Night Live” has recently poked fun at the newfound ability to make a statement not just based on what a performance entails, but also who does the performance. In a digital short, Leslie Jones stretches her acting chops to win the privilege of playing Donald Trump. Lorne Michaels tears her down, but she ends up convincing Melania Trump enough to get a ride back to the golden tower. There would be some unspoken genius in having a brazenly white male politician played by a black woman; specifically, a black woman who was repeatedly harassed by one of Trump’s most fervent supporters: Milo Yiannopoulos. Even if Trump did not take to Twitter to comment on the affront, surely his supporters would have a field day, with op-eds riddling Breitbart.
Of course, a late-night sketch comedy show cannot stand in for real activism, especially when the positions being taken are relatively safe. It’s important to remember that during the election cycle, SNL invited Trump to host, giving him credibility, likability, and most importantly, attention. In fact, Will Ferrell’s impression of George W. Bush famously increased his favor among American TV viewers because it portrayed him as nonthreatening and down-to-earth compared to the stoic Al Gore. Comedy can humanize just as much as it lampoons, and in that way much of what SNL attempts (or doesn’t attempt) to accomplish can backfire. Ultimately, television shows aren’t looking to lead the antifascist resistance. They’re here to entertain, and, most of all, make money. After all, NBC tried to get Donald back on “The Apprentice,” and suddenly there’s less to laugh about.