It’s a Broadway thing. At 234 West 44th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue in the Theater District, there’s Sardi’s – with the hundreds of caricatures of celebrities on the walls and the awful food. Zagat has described what they serve there as “a culinary laughing stock” and one reviewer called Sardi’s food “the longest running gag on Broadway” – but the place has been there since 1927, the place where, after the curtain falls on opening night, the new show’s director and stars go and drink heavily and read the hot-off-the-press initial reviews. There’s elation. There’s heartbreak.
At least that’s the myth. The “Sardi’s scene” was a staple of half of the Hollywood movies made in the thirties, which all seemed to be set on Broadway – “42nd Street” and “Broadway Melody of 1933” or 1938 or whatever. It’s hard to keep them all straight, but Hollywood was desperate. With the advent of the talkies in 1928 – “The Jazz Singer” filmed down the street here at what is now the Sunset-Bronson Studios – they needed sparkling dialog and singing and dancing and spectacle. There was none of that out here, so they set everything on Broadway – and they needed that scene where the sweet young ingénue suddenly finds that she really is a star – and all is well. The end – roll the credits.
That works. It even worked in The Muppets Take Manhattan – as a bit of a joke, or not. The Tony Awards were invented at Sardi’s in 1946 – Vincent Sardi used to announce the winners himself – but times change. Saturday Night Live is broadcast from Studio 8H at NBC’s headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Center – now the Comcast Building, which was the RCA Building from 1933 to 1988 and the GE Building from 1988 to 2015 – but everyone knows it as 30 Rock. That’s easier and that’s eight blocks north of Sardi’s, and the folks on that show don’t need to grab a cab and head for Sardi’s to sit around and wait for someone to run in with the first early edition of the New York Times to find out how they did with that week’s brand-new show. Did someone suddenly become a star? They can Google that on the way home to catch some sleep. That’s also easier. And this week the reviews are in:
Donald J. Trump, making his first appearance on “Saturday Night Live” as a presidential candidate, was satirized by two well-coiffed doppelgängers, who attempted (admirably) to outboast him in matching red ties.
“Now that I’m here, this is actually the best monologue in ‘SNL’ history,” one of them declared.
Mr. Trump was loudly and provocatively heckled by the actor Larry David, who repeatedly called him a “racist” from off stage.
And he was lavished with praise by a fictional White House aide, who told him that “everyone loves the new laws you tweeted.”
Mr. Trump, a man famed for his self-aggrandizing ways, seemed to relish the chance to show that he could take a joke…
That’s James Poniewozik in the New York Times, who doesn’t seem to think a star was born:
It was a stilted and sometimes unfunny performance, suggesting Mr. Trump is most at ease when hosting his own, seemingly never-ending TV show, rather than appearing as a guest host on somebody else’s.
Trump – who previously guest hosted in 2004 – appeared in a variety of skits, amid protests from Latino activists who had demanded that the network bar him from the show because of his controversial remarks about Mexican immigrants and his stated position that he would deport millions of undocumented residents.
Outside the show’s studio in Midtown Manhattan, at least 200 demonstrators marched with signs in English and Spanish. Carrying placards declaring “We are the people” and “Shut it down” to the beat of drums, they also brandished large papier-mâché masks depicting Mr. Trump and held aloft such other messages as “Trump: La Cara del Racismo” and “SNL: This is how you fix your diversity problem?”
“Saturday Night Live” seemed sensitive to the critique: Mr. David’s prominent, defiant cameo during the opening skit seemed designed to both acknowledge and answer the protesters.
That kind of fell flat, but it was that kind of night:
The broadcast was a family affair. Mr. Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, played herself during a sketch inside a fake Oval Office, informing her father of plans to cover the Washington Monument in casino-style gold-colored glass.
The businessman trotted out plenty of bravado. After reciting a list of his attributes – rich, funny, handsome – he answered the question on everyone’s mind:
“So why are you hosting SNL? Why? And the answer is I really have nothing better to do.”
As the show dragged on, that seemed apparent. Mr. Trump’s sketches seemed to become increasingly less compelling. In one, he appeared as a profoundly unwelcome guest – a musician crashing a family dinner and offering a wide, somewhat menacing grin as he thrust a microphone into the hand of the man at the head of the table.
This didn’t go well:
The show concluded with a tawdry touch. Two women said to be former prostitutes stood on the stage, promoting “clown-themed political pornos.”
Mr. Trump appeared at the end of the skit, vowing that he did not in any way endorse the message.
Then he turned knowingly to one of the women.
“Didn’t you used to be a brunette?”
“Yeah,” she replied.
“That’s what I thought,” Mr. Trump said.
What was the point of that? Everyone already knows he’s an unapologetic sexist sleaze, and Poniewozik adds this:
No one’s heart seemed to be in anything. SNL is not obligated to take sides in the election – or not to take sides – but as a topical comedy show, it needs to have some point of view, an animating idea.
Instead, the show used Mr. Trump, or the idea of Mr. Trump, in predictable ways, as in a sketch he introduced that mocked a limp restaurant gag with mean tweets. His most specifically political bit was the first full-length sketch, which imagined Mr. Trump in the Oval Office in 2018 after having defeated ISIS, gotten Mexico to pay for a border wall and made the Russian leader, Vladimir V. Putin, cry by insulting him.
In theory, it was a sharp idea: just as Tina Fey lampooned Sarah Palin in 2008 using variations on her own words, the sketch presented Mr. Trump’s own grand, vaguely sketched campaign promises – “You will be bored of winning” – as their own parody. But the segment fell lifeless and mostly laughless on the Oval Office carpet. Even a surprise cameo by Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka left the audience quiet.
There is, it turns out, something worse than heckling: silence. The crowd seemed to check out early, creating an energy-sucking vicious cycle.
It’s a good thing no one read that aloud at Sardi’s to him and the rest of the cast, or what Amy Davidson said in the New Yorker:
Comedy has to find a way to strip Trump bare. A mastery of mannerisms can help to achieve that, as Tina Fey did with Sarah Palin, Will Ferrell did with George W. Bush, and Hartman did as the mastermind Reagan. Sometimes, though, the portrayal just fluffs the hair a bit more.
Hank Stuever in the Washington Post sees more than that:
The ratings were high – SNL’s best in years – but they come with a heavy tax on the show’s integrity. Once upon a time, not so long ago, there might have been a lesson to learn from Saturday’s boring and misspent episode – but that world no longer exists, certainly not where politics and TV intersect. Everything is turned upside down. Bring back the old America, I say, the one where our preeminent vehicle for topical satire would have ably skewered a hateful, nonsensical, vainglorious presidential candidate rather than invite him into the club and give him more of the empty-calorie media attention he seeks.
And there was this:
Having Trump host SNL is a tacit nod of approval – of his message, his antics and, yes, his campaign to be the Republican presidential nominee. Worst of all, it provided Trump with more dubious evidence of his own preeminence. Overnight ratings touted by NBC on Sunday morning showed a 6.6 household rating – the show’s best in nearly four years.
He’ll love that, but that’s the problem:
Traditionally, Saturday Night Live was meant to be a place where people holding or running for office are imitated, mocked and even skewered by the show’s actors and writers. Occasional cameo appearances by the actual politicians lend both SNL and individual campaign efforts a topical frisson, especially in election cycles. Yet, ever since Tina Fey’s sensational run as 2008 vice presidential hopeful Sarah Palin, SNL has come to lean too heavily on its role as a place for political satire – even as far better political satire venues (led by Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart”) stole the show’s thunder in that department.
It’s entirely possible that the current crew at SNL – onstage and in the writers’ room – just isn’t cut out for the heavy comedic lifting that the 2016 election will require. The stakes are higher than they used to be when it comes to political comedy. This gang occasionally excels at making fun of celebrities (and themselves) and inventing strange characters, but they just aren’t ready for an election cycle that has so far proved to be more bizarre than past SNL casts ever had to handle.
That weakness can easily express itself as desperation – and desperation may be the reason SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels invited Trump to host a full show, rather than use him in a more traditional cameo.
That was the core miscalculation:
Instead of garnering great buzz from this stunt, SNL offended many, including all of the protesters outside 30 Rockefeller Center, who have legitimate complaints about what Trump has said about undocumented immigrants. On air, it seemed that no one was able to rightfully claim one protest group’s offer of $5,000 to anyone who could infiltrate Studio 8H and heckle Trump by calling him racist. Instead, the show had Larry David, now out of his Sanders costume, do it. “Trump’s a racist,” David yelled. For all appearances, it seemed genuine enough.
Maybe it was, or maybe Larry David was mocking every Hispanic in America who is offended by Donald Trump – trying to make them look like whiners. After all, for many months, long before this Trump business, Saturday Night Live had been hammered for never having, ever, a Latino cast member, or on never having Latino writer, ever. People had been calling it SNL- Still No Latinos. Stuever suggests that Lorne Michaels just made that much worse:
The “Update” segment also made good use of Bobby Moynihan’s “Drunk Uncle” character – turns out he’s the ideal demographic for the Trump message. “Finally someone is saying the things that I have been thinking – as well as saying,” Drunk Uncle muttered. “It’s like I’m running for president.”
In that one little riff, there was a reminder of what SNL is really for – to make fun of people running for president, not to buddy up to them.
Sonia Saraiya, Salon’s television critic, is even harsher:
Saturday Night Live’s writing team did not know how to skewer Trump, so they settled for the uncomfortable compromise of skewering the controversy around the candidate. But because the controversy around the candidate isn’t overblown – if anything, it’s notably restrained – the comedy had the effect of minimizing very legitimate concerns. This was most on display in the opening monologue, when a man heckled Trump, yelling “You’re a racist!” It was a plant – Larry David, who had been in the cold open, reprising his role as Bernie Sanders – but the punchline, if there was one, went nowhere. Trump was unflappable, because he knew the “heckle” was coming, and David’s “character” immediately admitted he’d taken cash to yell at Trump. In a few moments of adroit comic shuffling, the show introduced racism, let Trump defuse it, and then revealed it as insincere. That’s a set of actions with profound commentary for what it means to allege racism in this media climate; naturally, then, no performers of color were on stage. To include them would have meant underscoring how messed-up the bit was, and Saturday Night Live was not interested in critical thinking last night.
That’s unfortunate, because that’s what satire is good for.
They didn’t get it:
At its best, political humor highlights what isn’t said. Kate McKinnon once again brought her Hillary Clinton in the cold open, and her impression of the candidate is constantly finding new angles to needle her with. In an inspired bit of physical comedy, McKinnon “relaxed” in her chair by stretching out both of her heeled, pantsuited legs, straight into the air, and then crossing one over the other and resting an elbow on her knee in a move that would not have been out of place in an acrobatics exhibition. Oscar Wilde, a satirist himself, wrote in The Importance of Being Earnest – “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.” McKinnon has been taking notes.
And yet with Trump the entire apparatus of “Saturday Night Live” fell apart. I think partly that’s because the threat is too real: Trump is a xenophobic, rabble-rousing racist who panders to an angry conservative base, and he is currently leading the New Hampshire primary polls by 13.7 points. Bobby Moynihan played a rabid Trump supporter – “drunk uncle” – and though it was perhaps the hardest hitting satire of the evening, it was also the most anger-provoking. Moynihan’s character said a lot of really awful things, under the guise of irony and distance, and with Trump as a guest, it didn’t really feel like those sentiments were being mocked.
That’s because they weren’t being mocked. They were just there, and Saraiya finds that troubling, along with Trump’s opening statement:
Hello everyone, I hate to break it to you guys, but I’m not going to be in the next sketch. It was too busy, and I was too busy, and I just didn’t want to rehearse, but you know what, it’s still going to be great. And since I can’t do it and be in it, I’ll do the next best thing – I’ll live-tweet it. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the sketch. And enjoy my tweets.
To me, what was so off-putting about Trump directly addressing the camera is that it hewed the closest to presidential behavior than anything else in the evening – including the sketch that took place in Trump’s White House, in 2018. Because in that moment, Trump was addressing the audience – “my fellow Americans” could have easily rolled off his tongue – and attempting some level of sincere conversation. This is the man that would speak to the nation during times of tragedy, or in the State of the Union address. And he can’t even do it, sitting in that velveteen studio prop, when talking about the upcoming sketch; he makes excuses, he quibbles, he fumbles through lines. Trump was more convincing as an aviator-wearing skeezy music producer, or the scenery-chewing laser-harp soloist, than he was in the even slightly presidential capacity the show allowed him. If there was a single funny moment in the evening, it was when Trump, pretending to be the president in 2018, accepted a check from “Enrique” – cast member Beck Bennett playing the president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto. Here was an enactment of the scene Trump has promised and campaigned on, dozens if not hundreds of times – that a wall would be built between the U.S. and Mexico, and Mexico would pay for it. It was entirely absurd to see it occur, even if Bennett’s lines were thin and Trump’s performance was maddeningly entitled. The audience was looking for something more to be said on Trump, but Saturday Night Live and the candidate were engaged in the business of massaging each other’s numbers, in advance of both November sweeps and the Iowa caucuses.
They may be sorry for that:
Short-term numbers do not always translate to long-term success, and Trump’s stint on SNL was not worth the protests, the awkwardness of the cast, or the dead air of an unamused audience. (It also was not worth the legal headache that could be facing local NBC affiliates.) I don’t blame Saturday Night Live for not knowing how to effectively lampoon Trump – a lot of comedians have had trouble with it, including Stephen Colbert, because Trump is such a glib, nothing-to-lose performer. Mocking the controversy is minimizing it, or worse, normalizing it – and the young, liberal, and for once, diverse cast of Saturday Night Live did not want to play along. It might have been easier – instead of tackling the distasteful task of writing comedy and playing nice with a racist oligarch – to simply not call him on the show at all.
It’s too late now, but Slate’s Jim Newell adds this:
Do we really want to be so hard on the poor writers here? What a raw deal. Some awful executives at NBC got Trump to host the program in order to get high ratings and lots of advertising revenue. It was up to the writers, and the cast, to then come up with skits that couldn’t be totally flattering – you don’t want to come across as total cop-out weenies, bending to the every whim of this obnoxious boor – but also couldn’t be entirely rude to their chummy guest of honor. The skits also had to abide by Trump’s presidential prerogatives to get him to cooperate, which meant nothing that might offend likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa. Throw all of these irritating strictures in a blender and what you get is the mush that aired on NBC from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., live, on Saturday night.
But there was something that worked:
If there was a single moment of extended value on this hopefully forgettable night, it was cast member Bobby Moynihan securing a solid “Weekend Update” bloc to make fun of the stereotypical Trump fan via his Drunk Uncle character. “I don’t just like him, Colin. I love him. He’s going to make America grapes again,” he slurred. “I mean, he’s got it all, Colin. He’s got everything. Money, women, TV shows, Miss America, orange hair. He’s perfect. He’s like a big old beautiful Monopoly man.”
Here we have a moment that didn’t involve workman-like Donald Trump reading cards. Instead we saw a supposedly satirical character saying precisely what real warm-blooded Americans who support Trump for president think. It made the rest of the program look like what it was: Trump himself, like a hall monitor, preventing any good jokes about Trump from being made.
Well, things change. On October 11, 1975, Chevy Chase, with a headset on, popped up on everyone’s television and bellowed out the first “Live from New York, its Saturday Night!” George Carlin hosted that first show and did three of his subversive monologs, and John Belushi did his first sketch. Andy Kaufman stood, silent and weird, beside a record player playing the Mighty Mouse theme song, and then would suddenly strike a heroic pose and mime the words “Here I come to save the day!” Then he’d fall silent and look embarrassed – over and over. Billy Preston ripped into his hit – Nothing from Nothing – stark existentialism meets pure funk – and Janis Ian sang her proto-feminist song At Seventeen – about the plight of an ordinary woman in an age of the required but impossible ideal woman.
The next week was even better. Paul Simon was the host and Art Garfunkel was there. They sang their hits from the previous decade and Simon sang the appropriate new song – Still Crazy After All These Years – and the even more appropriate American Tune – and Randy Newman sang his surreal slave song Sail Away – and Jerry Rubin showed up on that second show too. The whole first season was like that – and now it’s come down to kissing Donald Trump’s ass, for ratings.
That’s quite a descent, but then no one goes to Sardi’s anymore either, to wait for someone to run in with the first reviews. Still, that’s fun to imagine. What do they say? What do they say? Someone starts reading the reviews of the Donald Trump show on Saturday Night Live, aloud. Everyone falls silent. The camera pans in to a close-up of Donald Trump’s face. It’s stone. The end – roll the credits. That would be cool – but such things only happen in old movies. No one goes to Sardi’s anymore.