Since 1975, the late-night comedy television show, Saturday Night Live (SNL), has evolved to address America’s popular culture and politics. During Donald Trump’s presidency, SNL has taken a significant step in expressing its political standpoint. This year’s 46th season plays a role in how America’s TV viewers might have approached the presidential election.
The Emmy Award-winning series is produced at NBC’s headquarters in New York City’s iconic 30 Rockefeller Plaza and broadcasts live every Saturday for about eight months each year. Over the decades, SNL has righted itself as one of the longest-running television programs in the United States, gaining millions of viewers in the process. By 2017, the show had obtained such an immense following that it was prompted to air from coast-to-coast, further broadening its outreach to American households.
Every episode, SNL invites on a different celebrity host and musical guest that perform with the recurring cast of actors in skits and musical performances. Each episode begins with a cold open that ends with an actor breaking character to announce, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” The show’s live aspect includes a band and an attending audience that provides a background track of applause and laughter. During the rest of the episode, multiple other sketches are performed, touching on topics that range from a commercial parody about menstrual hygiene to a Christmas gift wrapping gone wrong.
Many actors that start on the show advance to successful performance careers. Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Will Ferrell, and Eddie Murphy are but a few who began their careers at SNL. The show has been known for its many memorable characters that it creates, including the “Coneheads,” “Target Lady,” “Debbie Downer,” and “Stefon Meyers.” SNL has also been noted for its depictions and impersonations of important political figures in America’s history.
The 46th season of SNL premiered this year on October 3, with the cast officially returning to the studio after the show went virtual in April for the last three episodes of the 45th season. The cold open was a spoof of the first presidential debate that took place on September 29 between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, who were moderated by American journalist Chris Wallace.
Cast member Beck Bennett — impersonating Chris Wallace — opened by announcing how well he was going to do that night. Viewers that had watched the official debate knew full well that the debate had been chaotic, with Trump consistently interrupting Biden and Wallace failing to quiet the president. After a burst of laughter from the audience, Bennett continued to lay out the rules of the debate before Trump — played by Alec Baldwin — interrupted him, drawling, “Boring.”
Right off the bat, the sketch’s use of satire is plainly apparent. The script quickly establishes the setting and the characters who explore it by clearly defining the prominent personalities of the participants. Conventionally, Trump’s persistent disposition has consisted of rude outbursts and disrespectful retorts against people questioning him. By painting him in a childish light, the sketch stresses Trump’s usual nature and creates an unlikeable character.
Meanwhile, Biden — played by Jim Carrey — walks onto the set in sunglasses and is loudly cheered on by the audience as he strikes power poses. Biden has frequently appeared at rallies and for speeches in sunglasses, which the skit exercises to accentuate his “cool” qualities. As opposed to Trump’s unprofessional appearance in the skit, Biden’s character is revealed as heroic and confident. This humorous overemphasis is a hallmark of SNL’s skits.
Historically, the effects SNL has had on its viewers have impacted presidential elections. According to a national opinion survey executed by FleishmanHillard Public Affairs, during the 2008 presidential campaign, two-thirds of voters had seen the show, with 10 percent of them claiming that the show affected their voting decision. Barack Obama received the benefit of these ratings, becoming the 43rd president of the United States in 2009.
After Trump’s election, the SNL writers’ left-leaning views were magnified immensely in showing its opposition to the current president through relentless satirical put-downs. Starting in 2016, the year Trump was elected president, Baldwin guest starred and became the fifth SNL actor to play Trump in a parodied debate between him and Kate McKinnon, who played Hillary Clinton. SNL’s versions of presidential debates are among the most well-liked parodies that the show produces. Since his first portrayal in 1988, Trump’s character has become a favorite among SNL viewers. The show makes fun of Trump’s changing viewpoints and his many unlikeable characteristics. In the 46th season’s first episode, Trump declares that there should be no exceptions to facing the consequences that follow after someone “breaks the rules.” When Wallace asks Trump about his taxes, Trump then twists around and argues that the terms of law and order are “very vague” and that “rules are meant to be broken.” Historically, SNL has impersonated every president in office after President Jimmy Carter. However, no president has been so outrightly mocked through the show’s writing.
This season so far has highlighted the urgency and importance for Americans to elect Biden through championing Biden’s qualities and consistently accentuating Trump’s flaws, whose fluctuating messages the country can no longer support. SNL’s daring expression of where it stands in this matter sets an admirable example of how the media can harness its influence and impact the nation’s path.