When former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton appeared on “Saturday Night Live” (NBC) recently, she wasn’t the only person on camera who seemed a little stiff. Cast member Kate McKinnon—whose brilliant caricature of Clinton had, to that point, both targeted the pol’s unbridled ambition and displayed a warm appreciation for her vulnerabilities (video below)—was effective, sure, but with the subject of her performance standing on the other side of the bar, McKinnon avoided sticking the knife in too deep.
An extended “cameo” thus began to feel more like a stump speech, with Clinton reading crowd-pleasing lines about the Keystone XL pipeline and gay marriage from cue cards beyond the frame. It was a celebration of the candidate rather than a send-up, one that illustrates the venerable sketch comedy’s looming politician problem. Along with the news that Donald Trump is set to host the show on Nov. 7, Clinton’s extended, friendly chat might be seen as a warning: in chasing ratings by cuddling up to presidential aspirants, “SNL” may also end up losing its teeth.
While “SNL” has a long history of guest spots by the very politicians it so mercilessly parodies, these had, until recently, been largely removed from the comic or electoral fray. President Gerald Ford taped his 1976 appearance in advance, while former Senator Bob Dole confronted satirical doppelganger Norm MacDonald and former Vice President Al Gore agreed to host only after they had lost their bids for presidency.
With the 2008 campaign, the rules of the game began to change. Thanks to Tina Fey’s tremendous impression of then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Clinton impersonator Amy Poehler, “SNL” became must-see political TV for the first time in ages, and candidates (or their handlers) took note. With the exception of Senator John McCain assuming hosting duties shortly before the 2008 election, however—a last-ditch effort in the service of a lost cause—these highly stage-managed turns remained relatively brief, and in fact highlighted how successfully the show lampooned inside-the-Beltway absurdities. The politicians needed “SNL” more than “SNL” needed them.
With the show’s recent struggles, from questions about its lack of on- and off-screen diversity—which prompted the hiring of current cast members Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones—to the slow but steady decline, since 2008-2009, in its total number of Live+7 viewers, the tables have turned. Appearances by popular candidates now generate more buzz than nearly any other skit, monologues by well-known and well-practiced comedians like Louis C.K. and Amy Schumer (video below) possibly excepted, leaving “SNL” in an uncomfortable position. In order to secure the participation of candidates, the show tacitly agrees not to embarrass them on national television. Otherwise, no politician in his or her right mind would come on “SNL” again.
The problem is that the intersection of this new power dynamic and ever-longer election-season “cameos” means that “SNL” is now serving political candidates as much as it’s satirizing them, a betrayal of the adversarial relationship that political comedy—like political journalism—must cultivate in order to work. Beyond the issues Trump’s appearance as host may raise for NBC with regard to the FCC’s “equal time” rule, allowing a grandstanding racist and misogynist the “SNL” monologue, one of the most iconic platforms in American television, is disappointing beyond measure.
At a time of immense challenges for the broadcast networks, especially in terms of viewership, comedy, like politics, may necessarily make for strange bedfellows. But when it comes to “SNL,” clearinghouse for trenchant, hilarious political commentary for four decades, this increasingly cozy relationship with presidential candidates feels more and more like sleeping with the enemy.