A funny thing happened on the way to Donald Trump’s first 100 days as president: “Saturday Night Live” sharpened its political claws and saw a huge ratings boost.
The show went from being criticized for inviting Trump to host the prior season to drawing its biggest audience in decades by doubling down on its criticism of the president and his inner circle, with the help of two Oscar-nominated actors.
A ‘Yuge’ Casting Coup
in the season 42 premiere on Oct. 1 playing then-GOP nominee Trump against Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton to spoof the first presidential debate. In its early iteration, the “30 Rock” actor’s impression consisted mostly of impeccable mimicry: impossibly puckered lips, expressive eyebrows, calculated hand gestures, and distinctive pronunciation of words like “China” as “gina” and “huge” as “yuge.”
Already a long-time friend of the show and holding the record for most times hosting, Baldwin instantly became a staple. As he returned week after week, he appeared to become more comfortable playing in Trump’s skin and left fans clamoring for more.
Buzz around Baldwin’s portrayal grew and by his third appearance, even Trump himself was weighing in on Twitter — calling it a “hit job” against him.
Baldwin — an outspoken liberal — has said that he didn’t expect he’d be needed as Trump beyond Election Day. In the final “SNL” before voters went to the polls, both Baldwin and McKinnon broke character as Trump and Clinton to all but endorse the Democratic nominee and seemingly say goodbye to Baldwin’s regular appearances. Then something happened that many voters and pundits didn’t expect: Trump won.
When the show returned after Trump’s stunning victory, the gloves were off and the ratings skyrocketed.
A Presidential Pivot
Baldwin went on to appear regularly as President Trump, skipping only four of 13 episodes since the election. But the actor transformed his Trump into a presidential puppet at the control of others — namely an ever — shirtless Russian President Vladimir Putin and chief political strategist Steve Bannon dressed as the grim reaper. in one sketch, Baldwin’s Trump refers to himself as “a TV president.”
The hits didn’t end there. “Weekend Update” hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che make no attempt to hide their opinion of the new president while making punchlines out of his actions.
“This is one of those moments where it seems extra jarring that Donald Trump is our president,” Jost says to set up a joke after the U.S. launched missiles at Syria. “Even if you’re a Trump supporter, it’s gotta seem a little crazy that hes starting a real war with Assad while hes still in a twitter war with Schwarzenegger.”
The sketch show has thrived for decades with over-the-top portrayals of American presidents on both sides of the aisle: Chevy Chase’s clumsy Gerald Ford; Dana Carvey’s borderline-sadistic goofball George H.W. Bush; Phil Hartman’s burger-chomping good ol’ boy Bill Clinton; and Will Ferrell’s malaprop-spewing cowboy George W. Bush.
But the show has displayed outright disdain for the current administration.
“I’ve never heard a Trump voter who loves Alec Baldwin’s portrayal,” NBC News political analyst Nicolle Wallace, a former George W. Bush White House aide, said.
Wallace sees a difference in the show’s portrayal of Trump compared to past presidents in that it focuses more attention on his politics than just his mannerisms, which can also feel like the joke is on his voters.
“Many Trump voters see ‘SNL’ as just another elite media voice making fun of him and lumping his voters together, calling them stupid.”
One viewer who wasn’t deterred? The president himself, who continued to tweet about the show after the election, to announce that he found it “totally biased.”
Audiences didn’t agree. The 42-year-old comedy institution is up 22 percent in total viewers since Trump took office and has reached its strongest ratings since 1995, according to Variety.
The show also changed course in its portrayal of two key women in Trump’s campaign: senior adviser Kellyanne Conway and daughter Ivanka Trump.
During the campaign, Conway said the show’s portrayal of her as a beleaguered spokeswoman just looking to have some downtime with her family gave her a “good laugh.” But after Trump’s election, McKinnon’s Conway turned sinister, an unhinged figure desperate for media attention at any cost.
“Who says that lying’s not an art?” she sang in one sketch to the tune of “Roxie” from “Chicago.” Another had her seductively stalking Beck Bennett as CNN’s Jake Tapper, telling him: “I’m not going to be ignored, Jake” in the “Fatal Attraction” send-up, threatening and begging the anchor to keep her in the news cycle.
In a similar vein, Trump’s eldest daughter, once played as glamorously mysterious by guest hosts like Margot Robbie and Emily Blunt, was cast in a new light after the election in a sketch that labeled her as “complicit.”
“A feminist, an advocate, a champion for women. But, like, how?” the narrator of a parody perfume commercial said of the first daughter. “She’s loyal, devoted, but probably should’ve bounced after the whole ‘Access Hollywood’ bus thing.”
McKinnon took on yet another political role in an impish version of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
“President made a great speech. Folks were thrilled on the account that it was real words in a row for a whole hour,” McKinnon’s Sessions says in one sketch, portraying the former Alabama senator as Forrest Gump talking to strangers on a bench.
“But then I went to bed, I got 800 messages and phone alerts saying I was a sneaky little liar. I didn’t know what to do so my lawyer said, ‘Run, Jeffy, run.’ I started running and running.”
‘SNL’ Gets ‘Spicey’
No post-election impression made as big an impact as Melissa McCarthy’s surprise cameo as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to lampoon the spokesman’s combative press briefings in her signature brash and physically dynamic style.
The real Spicer dismissed the “Bridesmaids” actress’s impression of him as “cute,” but fans cried out for more. McCarthy returned for two more explosive cameos to attack reporters with her podium and explain the president’s policies using dolls.
“You know what? Spicey’s gonna explain it so you dumb babies can understand it,” McCarthy screams while explaining extreme vetting to the press corps. “I guess I can’t use my big words. I’m gonna have to use my dollies.”
Audiences will soon get to see if “Saturday Night Live” continues down the same political patch during Trump’s next 100 days in office. There are still three episodes left in the current season, including one hosted by McCarthy, who is bound to add some spice.