Saturday Night Live is in the midst of a ratings bonanza, and it’s all thanks to Donald Trump. This season is bringing in SNL’s highest viewership in almost 20 years, and sketches featuring Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy are social media pandemics with tens of millions of online views.
For a president with an obsession with ratings, numbers, and the general yugeness of things, the success of SNL is a slap in the face. He does little to hide it, regularly tweeting to let the world know that SNL is the “worst of NBC.”
Other shows have profited too. Late Night with Stephen Colbert, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and The Daily Show have all enjoyed an increase in ratings, particularly among younger audiences. Trump’s extreme unpopularity and scandal-prone presidency are breathing life into political satire.
The Trump administration’s indictment of the media as liars and “the opposition party” has brought political comedy back to an almost bygone era. In a time where comedians are used to getting away with breaking almost every social norm, this new, thin-skinned White House is making presidential impersonation a national sport.
Mocking the president to get laughs is only a few decades old.
For the majority of U.S. history, pretending to be the president was seen as insulting to the office and the public. When humorist Will Rogers impersonated president Calvin Coolidge in a 1928 radio broadcast, the backlash was massive. He issued an apology to the president and the offended public, and in 1930 the White House’s issued an official stance against mimicking the president on air “” not the most effective tactic against political parody.
Fast forward to 1962, when Vaughn Meader published a light-hearted comedy album impersonating John F. Kennedy and his family. “The First Family” was the fastest-selling pre-Beatles album, won Album of the Year at the Grammy’s, and made it all the way to J.F.K. himself. The accuracy, audacity and subversive nature of the album made it feel fresh, and absolutely daring as a televised comedic product.
Although the Kennedy assassination made political impersonation run cold for a couple of years, the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s impeachment soiled the highest office in the land, swinging the door wide open for comedians to make fun of powerful men.
By the time SNL came on the air in 1975, blatantly mocking elected officials was not just permissible, but a popular hobby. Soon, the political sketch as the cold open became a staple of SNL, and often the most talked-about part of the night. At their best, impressions like Chevy Chase’s bumbling Gerald Ford or Dana Carvey’s womanizing Bill Clinton would blend with our idea of the politician himself, and become cemented in our cultural imagination.
This ability to sway public perception is known as “the SNL effect.” Sarah Palin’s poll numbers plunged after Tina Fey’s perfect mimicry, and some have pointed to Will Ferrell’s take on Bush as a lovable idiot as memorable enough to help Bush’s run against Gore.
For the most part, the excitement for SNL’s political humor has been chiefly reserved for election years. When the public’s opinions are still malleable, and the stakes feel real, a poignant take on a candidate can cut through the noise and deliver a truthful, rousing message. But for the most part, the normalizing effect of widespread political humor has diminished the perceived risk and cheekiness of the performances, making them commonplace “” rather than celebrations of free speech.
Enter President Trump.
His administration’s blatant adversarialism towards the media is creating the exact environment that SNL and other humorists need to thrive. There is real danger, real subversion, now that the White House gets red-faced whenever the cast nails an impression. And all that Trump’s tiny tweeting thumbs do is kindle the flame he fears so.
Nobody knows how the SNL effect will affect the president in the next four years, but one thing is certain: whatever campaign promises he keeps or breaks, Trump definitely made SNL great again.