For over four years, if you tuned in to NBC on any given Saturday night, you could expect to see a cold open making fun of former President Donald Trump. Saturday Night Live (SNL) took the gift-wrapped material the former president gave them on a silver platter, and subsequently milked it for all it was worth. And they rightfully should have, as it is more or less their job to produce commentary on current events. However, SNL is no stranger to the concept of declining quality as their once-loved, successsful star-of-the-show cast members leave them for mediocre comedy movies. And for many years, Trump was this star of the show.
Comedy was forever changed when Trump became president. Not only did we get John Mulaney’s horse in a hospital anecdote, but we also got stand-up comedians making thoughtful and provoking messages directly to audiences. I think people began to tire of the usual straight white male comedy that survived living in a bubble detached from any political reality. For a minute, I heard less about how women were confusing, superficial creatures who only wanted to talk about their periods, than I did hear about men’s role in perpetuating toxic masculinity. We were already living in a time seemingly defined by locker room humor, so perhaps people began to seek something else. I have never seen less of the “I hate my wife” comedy trope during the the Trump era. While I was not expecting this shift it was certainly refreshing. We got to see some comedians use their platform to deliver a hilarious show while denouncing the toxicity that used to thrive in comedy. If you told someone before the Trump era that you cried watching a Netflix stand-up special, they would probably ask if it was Joe Rogan, followed by “it could not have been that bad.” Now, you get comedians like Hannah Gadsby, who is Australian but came into the spotlight to fill a much-needed hole in American comedy. In her “Nanette” special, she was poignant, told a story we had never heard before and was able to reach new audiences with her thoughtful and honest style of comedy.
I love SNL. I grew up watching it completely blind to its fluctuating quality. And quite frankly, I personally still find many of the criticisms that “SNL is not funny anymore” to be incorrect and simply aimed at the concern that most of America cannot recognize any cast members other than Keenan Thompson. However, the show is constantly going through growing pains with cast transitions. And for a long time, the show reveled in the consistency of Trump mockery. Now that they do not have that safety net, how do they fare?
It is my opinion that the show could not have been more hysterical under the Trump presidency. And while there certainly were high points — Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer and Kate McKinnon as everyone — I found the Alec Baldwin performances to be repetitive at a certain point. And though it would have felt wrong for current events to go unaddressed, it became formulaic. But overall the show made little effort to expand its definition of comedy beyond the tried and true techniques. Sticking Kate McKinnon in a funny wig and aged makeup does not a sketch make. Although sometimes it does; it is Kate McKinnon. However, it was this resourcefulness that helped strengthen the show.
Now that the Trump presidency has come to an end, and his Twitter account is no longer a shortcut on Colin Jost’s iPhone, the show has had to get creative and rely on its underutilized talent. While it took too long, SNL finally began utilizing Aidy Bryant and Bowen Yang, two comedians who represent a great subsect of what younger audiences find funny and topical. Bryant speaks to a female-centric experience and body positivity, while Bowen has brought more queer humor to the show, which in the past was the butt of the joke at SNL. Cast members like Ego Nwodim have also been getting roles that do not just facilitate the punchline, but rather lead the sketch. The recent “Loco” sketch was a great example. SNL is not just sticking to Kate McKinnon playing any wacky character, they are taking a closer look at the talent they have. This ultimately made the show better, and while we can still expect frequent dips back into the political hellscape, it is not the go-to that it once was.
Comedy is still the straight white male’s game. But it is getting better, slowly. After the 2016 election, I think the country got tired of seeing the same content in politics that they saw in comedy. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, all coming from the figurehead of American politics, and now comedians who used to rely on that lazy and offensive content to secure a dumb little base can no longer do so as comfortably or effectively.