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Saturday, December 16, 2017

The biggest question going into Saturday Night Live this week was whether the show would address Donald Trump’s history of racist and sexist comments – most notably the remarks about Mexicans being “rapists” and “bringing drugs,” with which he launched his presidential run. Protesters marched from the Trump towers to outside 30 Rock to boycott the show, feeling NBC – which severed ties with the Trump-connected Miss Universe pageant and also a corporate sibling of the Spanish-language network Telemundo – was hypocritical in giving a racist demagogue and opportunist a platform. But if any of the cast or crew members had an issue with Trump hosting the show, they didn’t say anything.

The protests were mentioned, if obliquely, in Trump’s monologue, which featured Taran Killam and Darrell Hammond, both of whom have played Trump on the show, dressed as him. It was more amusing to see the differences in the wigs placed on Killam and Hammond – and the shades of gold between the three – than to hear the jokes, which were old and irrelevant and garnered few chuckles. Larry David, who had shown up to play Bernie Sanders in the opening sketch on Friday’s Democratic Forum with Rachel Maddow (“the debate no one watches”), shouted out “You’re a racist” at the end of the monologue – but any actual danger in doing so was diffused by David shrugging his shoulders and saying that he only shouted it because he heard he could get $5,000 for doing so. Apparently, he is getting the money – an anti-Trump group known as Deport Racism was offering the bounty to anyone who dared to say it. But the whole thing was staged: SNL punted, for rather than courting real controversy – or making a strong statement – they went for an easy laugh.

Anyone expecting a harsh indictment of Trump or his rhetoric was disappointed. In fact, Trump barely spoke at all, letting the show speak for him. A skit structured entirely around Trump tweeting nasty words about the performers – Killam, Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, Kenan Thompson, and Leslie Jones – didn’t even have him in it; he opened the sketch by saying he just didn’t have the time to rehearse. The tweets just appeared onscreen. (Trump himself was not tweeting during this sketch, but did hint on Twitter earlier in the evening that there was going to be a sketch based around him doing just that.) The highlight of the episode also barely featured him, a spoof on Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” a video that will never fail to be gif-able, and one that works no matter the performer.

Unlike some recent episodes of South Park or even some of SNL’s most memorable sketches skewering Trump, there wasn’t much sharp satire in evidence. When Amy Schumer hosted in October, the episode was filled with biting jokes about guns and gun culture. But in a skit featuring Trump two years into his presidency – instead of South Park’s version, where division and suspicion of others is rampant – the scene was infused with sunshine and nonstop winning, from the president of Mexico handing over a check to pay for Trump’s wall to ISIS being neutralized because they are all working as blackjack dealers at the Trump Hotel & Casino in Damascus. I kept waiting for a Charlie Sheen-style “WINNING” to be shouted, to reveal the obvious dystopian nightmare hidden behind the gold façade. But it came off as merely an ad to promote Melania Trump as First Lady.

A lot has changed since Trump last hosted in 2004. Two of the show’s star female performers have completed successful runs of sitcoms they starred in and produced (Tina Fey and Amy Poehler), and two former male cast members currently have their own late night shows (Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers). SNL now leans more towards true ensemble work and sharper cultural and political humor. Presidential candidate Trump stands out in this world, a blunt man who doesn’t really tell jokes or appreciate nuance. At the time of Trump’s first hosting gig, SNL seemingly had a Trump skit every episode, and the joke was that this smug baron, obsessed with The Apprentice and Rosie O’Donnell, couldn’t pronounce things properly. But that joke just isn’t funny anymore, as Trump’s doofus persona has lately curdled into something truly frightening: He’s a real candidate who is parlaying anger and xenophobia into a credible presidential campaign.

It’s fitting that it would be Larry David, an angry, cranky comedian now channeling another angry, cranky politician, that would interrupt Trump – and that it was he who had the chutzpah to call The Donald a racist — but only as a joke. They’re both rich old white men, with prestige and access – and nothing to lose.

Photo: “Part of the reason I’m here is I know how to take a joke,” said Donald Trump in his opening monologue. He wasn’t really in on the joke nor the butt of it at SNL, but merely a prop that the episode revolved around, as in this sketch with Kate McKinnon, left, and Kenan Thompson, which revolved around Trump tweeting nasty remarks about the cast members. He only appeared in the sketch to explain that he wouldn’t be in it. Screenshot via NBC

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