“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
Ten years from now, we’ll look back on this line from Darrell Hammond’s Saturday Night Live version of Donald Trump the same way we look at Tina Fey’s now-iconic, “I can see Russia from my house.” And the way Hammond delivered the line was perfect. With that smushed face and cocksure smile, Hammond provided such great comedic timing, the studio audience inside 8H broke into applause. It works because it’s an outlandish version of the real Trump. Trump might think he could “shoot somebody” in Midtown Manhattan and not lose votes, but he certainly would never say it.
Only none of that is true. Donald Trump really did say that and we all kind of think it’s normal now – and how in the world is SNL supposed to parody that?
Thank goodness for Larry David’s Bernie Sanders, Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton, and Jay Pharoah’s Ben Carson – the saving graces of SNL’s political humor this season. (And, thankfully, David will be hosting this week.) The Democratic primary is kind of, sort of working like most political primaries work. Ergo, Saturday Night Live has found good humor on the normal side of the aisle, because the show has done this sort of thing for 41 years and is pretty darn good at it.
The problem is, it’s the Republican side that’s getting most of the attention and SNL’s satire has been, frankly, pretty bad. Though, to be fair, it’s not really their fault because, again, how do you parody this?
This has been, quietly, a really good season of Saturday Night Live. I say “quietly” for a couple of reasons: Letting Trump host earlier this season led to a backlash against the show that wasn’t at all fair to the performers and writers. They have nothing to do with the talent bookings and just have to do the best with the hand they’ve been given. The other is that, yes, the political sketches – the bread and butter of the show every four years – have been (apart from Sanders, Clinton and Carson) in complete disarray.
The problem might not be as bad if we didn’t sense the show was panicking, but the musical chairs this season surrounding who is playing whom is not helping.
SNL made a big deal before the season started when they announced Taran Killam would be playing Donald Trump. SNL wanted this to be news. From what I understand, this was a hotly contested role and after tryouts, Killam narrowly edged out Beck Bennett. Killam wasn’t given much of a shot, as his first time was a poorly conceived cold open on the season premiere and his second appearance was up against Hammond’s Trump and the real Trump … which pretty much negated Killam’s Trump from the start. (Putting Killam next to the real Trump, in only Killam’s second ever time as Trump, was a huge mistake and was really unfair to Killam.)
By the time Tina Fey and Amy Poehler hosted the last SNL of 2015, Killam had been reassigned as Ted Cruz (we’ll get to this in a bit) and (in what kind of seems like a desperate move), Darrell Hammond was brought back as Trump full time. (There’s a little more to this story: Jimmy Fallon had been tapped to guest as Trump during this show, but that fell through and Hammond stepped in. Regardless, Hammond has been playing Trump ever since with mixed results.)
What a mess.
It was Killam who originated the role of Marco Rubio and he’s really good at Rubio, but after losing Trump, Killam is now playing Ted Cruz. And it goes without saying that Taran Killam looks absolutely nothing like Ted Cruz… to the point that a lot of people still just assume Killam is playing Rubio. And he seems a little lost as Cruz, and who can really blame him? It’s almost as if the line of thinking was, “Well, Ted Cruz is kinda nuts like Trump, so he might be fun to play. What do you say, Taran? Not a bad consolation prize, right?” Killam is legitimately great as Rubio. It makes no sense that, already working at a disadvantage with material that’s so hard to parody, they wouldn’t be putting cast members where they all fit best.
But the problem is, it’s Rubio who made the biggest impression on the Republican side Monday night in Iowa and may now may be well-positioned to become the frontrunner. Killam should play Rubio again. No offense to Pete Davidson, but he just kind of seems to be playing Rubio because no one else is left to play him. That’s not really a good reason to do anything.
Look, we all love Bobby Moynihan’s Chris Christie, but Christie is becoming less and less a factor in this race, so if we movie Killam back to Rubio, then let’s move Moynihan in as Cruz. And Moynihan has played Cruz before and he’s really good at it! Very little of what’s happening right now on the show makes any sense!
The good news is, that it’s this fall when these characters need to be sharp, but they all should be honing their performances now. If you look back at Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush in the early part of 1988 or Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush in the early part of 2000, they look very little like the impressions that became iconic. But they both had time to cultivate them into great caricatures. So let’s get the performers where they need to be: Hammond can stay as Trump, Killam should be Rubio, and Moynihan should be Cruz. (I almost hope Jeb! Bush starts doing better just so we see more of Bennett’s version, which has been solid in the few times we’ve seen it.)
Now that (in our little dream world here) we’ve got who’s playing each candidate figured out, the rest is tough: How does SNL parody something that is already a parody? How can SNL’s Trump say something more asinine than a line about shooting someone on the street and not losing votes? I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for this. There are a lot of really smart people over at SNL and I still think they’ll figure this out. But right now, it’s all a big mess. We live in a very weird reality right now. The real-life Republican party has broken SNL’s usually cutting political satire… and I really hope SNL can fix it.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.