There is no silver lining to a Trump presidency—it doesn’t make comedy better; it is just an ongoing tragedy that, if only by sheer dint of the fact that we have to continue living through it, we are forced to find the humor in. This need for humor has revitalized Saturday Night Live, which, by bringing in guest stars Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy and riding our cultural terror, has seen the show’s best ratings in some 23 years.
The Hollywood Reporter has an illuminating new article featuring interviews with all of the show’s major cast members, producers, and many of its most prominent guests, forming something of an oral history of the show’s wildly successful past six months. It doubles as a trip through our cultural reactions to the Trump administration’s various embarrassments, aggressions, and controversies.
Among the many other interesting anecdotes is Baldwin digging in on his Trump impersonation, which he claims has even netted praise from a cabinet member (though he refuses to disclose which one). About his impersonation’s style, he says:
They give you all the resources you need to watch and look at Trump in different tableaux: Trump somewhat off the record, Trump caught by a camera, not just Trump making a speech. But I watch and watch and I still don’t know what I’m going to do. Then I get out and all I remember is, “Just try to make him unhappy.” There are many people who do Trump now, and they have different Trumps. They have kind of a “balls-of-his-feet-light Trump” or what I like to call “Gene Kelly Trump.” But my Trump is “Miserable Trump.” No matter what. He wins, he loses, he’s miserable.
Many members on the cast discuss how, like the rest of America, everybody on staff thought Trump would lose. This was part of why the Baldwin impersonation made sense at first: It was a limited engagement. The article details the night of the election and the first couple days afterward, leading up to Dave Chappelle’s monologue. But first, according to Colin Jost, Lorne Michaels gave the team a rousing pep talk:
He’ll talk to us as a group every week in some way, but usually it’s a very short: “Go out there and get them.” He was just reassuring people on a broader historical level that America had been through things like this, that the show had been through things like this. It was also really good having Chappelle there that week because he’s so comedy-minded that his perspective was, “Why wouldn’t you want to use this opportunity for comedy? Isn’t that why we are doing comedy?”
As for McCarthy’s epochal Sean Spicer impression, we have Kristen Stewart to thank. The two sat next to each other on a plane out to New York before Stewart hosted, which also happened to be the week of Spicer’s first round of totally batshit press conferences. While McCarthy had originally been pitching Stewart on a monologue idea, that got her name in the writers room, which quickly lead to the Spicer casting. That appearance helped spike a newfound mass interest in the show—as well as Rosie O’Donnell’s attempt to play Steve Bannon, which producer Lindsay Shookus says is just one of many attempts by very famous people to be a part of the show’s revitalized success.
Of course, that success has come at a cost—that is, our national dignity—which the show has been criticized of capitalizing upon, particularly by letting Trump himself host the show while still on the campaign trail. Jost at first defends the show for that decision, saying, “When he hosted last season, the worry was, ‘Would he have burned out by the time he even came to host?’” But later he speaks a bit more eloquently about how, and why, the show has found such singular success in the Trump era:
It’s been harder in the past couple of years at SNL because the culture’s so fragmented. If you do a parody even of a huge show like Game of Thrones, it doesn’t have the full cultural resonance of a Cheers or Friends. Whereas politics right now is probably the closest we’ve come to a full-blown national phenomenon as anything in a long time, and anytime people are paying more attention to politics, it’s good for our show. But you almost feel like a war profiteer at times because we’ve benefited from a situation that’s so tough.
The whole article goes into much more depth, including the details behind the Hillary Clinton cold open after the election and exactly how long Baldwin plans to keep showing up as Trump.