Opinion: The reason why ‘SNL’ is so hilarious again? Less Trump

Since then I have seen most of the episodes. Not all of them, of course, because like most “SNL” viewers, I’ve found some periods in the most spectacular history more appealing (as in, funnier) than others.

I’ve never held back against the show’s fallow periods, because the show’s creative maestro, Lorne Michaels, somehow always manages to find its way back to relevance and inspired comedy. (You won’t stay in the air for nearly 50 years if you can’t.)

So I feel pretty well equipped to say: The current season, which has reached its holiday hiatus, can legitimately be ranked with past examples (season 26 in 2000 when Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon collaborated on Weekend Update; season 21 in 1995 when Will Ferrell and others joined the cast) as a true comeback story.
I am not alone. Reviews for this season are mostly positive. A typical comment, this one from USA Today’s Kelly Lawler: “‘SNL’ this season so far has been unexpectedly hilarious, delightful and exciting.”

That’s not a rating that “SNL” routinely received in recent years, when the show was criticized for having come to a creative screeching halt.

So what has changed?

The most obvious answer: We are not in the middle of a presidential race. “SNL” has always thrived on political satire; parodies of debates and other campaign moments have spawned some of the most memorable sketches and slogans: “Strategery” by Will Ferrell as George Bush in 2000; “I can see Russia from my house!” of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin in 2008; ‘Who am I? Why am I here?’ of Phil Hartman as Admiral James Stockdale in 1992.

And when Donald Trump emerged as candidate and then president, the show received a jolt of positive attention from Alec Baldwin’s extremely broad Trump impression.

Bowen Yang as the iceberg that sank the Titanic, departed and anchored Colin Jost during Weekend Update on "Saturday Night Live"  in New York on April 10, 2021.

But as has happened with “SNL” in the past, the expectations that the show has to jump on every huge event coming out of Washington sometimes lead to creative decisions. In Trump’s case, there were a whole host of such events, many of them so closely resembling the theater of the absurd that they were nearly impossible to parody (drinking bleach; redrawing weather maps; Mexico pays for the wall).

In the last few years of Trump-focused news, “SNL” seemed to exhaust itself in search of a new comedic take, something other than how ridiculous or menacing Trump could be.

It didn’t help that the whole nighttime world was equally drenched in Trump folly, because of comedic imperatives and the belief that his actions should be mocked.

This season, Trump has brought sustained calm for the first time in seven years. The character has appeared, but sparsely, and the impression, performed by new cast member James Austin Johnson, is more character than caricature. Johnson captures Trump’s voice and mannerisms as they really are, not as a cartoonish performance. (Baldwin, to be fair, was very funny in many sketches in the early Trump years.)
Notably, the show has also given little substance to Joe Biden, although Johnson has a skilled take on him as well. Jim Carrey was an exceptional piece of star casting, but he didn’t knock out the critics.

Perhaps because of the massive focus on politics, or because the cast wasn’t the most memorable, Michaels has done a lot of that stunt casting in recent years, mostly bringing back cast favorites. But the best seasons of “SNL” were all about the regular cast.

Late night television may never be the same
And that’s what happened this year. Some relatively newer cast members come to the fore. Bowen Yang proves to be extremely versatile; and Pete Davidson, who previously relied heavily on his stand-up skills, has impressed with shapely sketch characters (his Andrew Cuomo is amazing) and in music videos. (The “Walking in States” parody of “Walking in Memphis” is a highlight of this season.)
But there were other highlights, some generated by hosts, many of whom have excelled this season. Perhaps most surprising was Kim Kardashian, who defied expectations by shining in her looks. (A line from her monologue: “I’m just so much more than that reference photo my sisters showed to their plastic surgeons.”) Kieran Culkin and Simu Liu were also very busy with their stints, a sign that the writers were real comedy chops. saws. So was Billie Eilish, who had a commercial alongside two dazzling musical performances.
Still, with near universal agreement, the season’s standout performance was brought in by longtime cast member Cecily Strong, with a passionate Weekend Update segment as Goober the Clown, a scorchingly funny commentary about abortion rights.
Weekend Update also seems to be renewed. After several seasons where the jokes felt flat, they were sharp and more often laughed out loud: “An 83-year-old man has become the oldest person to ever hike the Appalachian Trail. The man dedicated the hike to his wife.. … who died a few miles ago.”
All in all it suffices to conclude, with the heavy lift of a presidential election year behind us, something very interesting is happening again at “SNL”. To put a spin on Chevy Chase’s now-famous words from his early days on the show: Unlike Generalissimo Francisco Franco, “SNL” is still alive!


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