Tuesday 25 July 2017

Could a stand-up comedy show bring down a president?

As Alec Baldwin continues to don his wispy blonde Donald Trump wig for 'Saturday Night Live', the word is the TV show is beginning to get under the president's skin. Siobhán Brett reports from New York

Open season: Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump
Open season: Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump
Ruffling feathers: Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer
Screen grab of the Dominican Republic's El Nacional shows comedian Alec Baldwin doing his impression of President Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live,” next to a photo of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live

Siobhán Brett

On October 2 last, the previous evening's episode of Saturday Night Live was the talk of America. Alec Baldwin made his debut as Donald Trump on the weekly NBC show, and the performance had been unusually well received. Since then, it has since been played on YouTube more than 23 million times.

"Genius," declared Bloomberg News managing editor Mark Halperin on that Sunday morning's Meet the Press. "Look, we laugh about SNL," said the host, Chuck Todd, "but when it stamps the campaign, the candidates don't shake that image."

On a giddy segment of Good Morning America, the Hillary Clinton campaign was said to be thrilled with Baldwin's wig-clad, bronzered-up impersonation. "I wonder what the Trump campaign thinks of it," one of the anchors ventured. "Well, we haven't heard from them yet," his co-anchor replied.

Since, Americans have heard quite a bit on the subject from Trump, his campaign, and now, his administration. "Time to retire the boring and unfunny show," Trump tweeted in October. "Alec Baldwin portrayal stinks."

Ruffling feathers: Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer
Ruffling feathers: Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer

In December, he offered another view: "Just tried watching Saturday Night Live - unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can't get any worse. Sad."

It was not always so. Trump has himself twice hosted SNL. He most recently hosted last year, exactly 12 months before the presidential election, where he danced in an uncool way to a parody of a Verizon ad set to Drake's 'Hotline Bling'. Trump appeared as a "tax guy", a risible character invoked in mock lyrics. He wore a grey suit, tie, and had his glasses on: goofily threading his arms in circles and bopping with parallel knees and awkward, mostly static feet.

He basked in the audience reaction and on Twitter heavily promoted the episode, in which he even allowed himself to be flanked by two now-forgotten impersonators. Trump even declared to the audience: "Part of the reason I'm here is because I know how to take a joke." It was an evergreen line from the writers' room.

It has been a banner season for SNL, which has increased its viewers by 22pc to 10.6 million, year on year, according to Nielsen - in its best ratings performance since 1995.

Screen grab of the Dominican Republic's El Nacional shows comedian Alec Baldwin doing his impression of President Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live,” next to a photo of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Screen grab of the Dominican Republic's El Nacional shows comedian Alec Baldwin doing his impression of President Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live,” next to a photo of Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

It's been a banner season, overall, for the genre of TV often just called "late-night" in the US, one populated with shows including The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Late Night with Seth Meyers, and Jimmy Kimmel Live!, all typically referred to only by the last name of their host in the tradition of recent predecessors like Jay Leno and David Letterman.

It was reported last week that for the first time in 18 months, Colbert, who is 10 years Fallon's senior and has lately made a habit of excoriating Trump in unforgiving segments, outperformed Fallon (who famously tousled Trump's hair when he appeared on his show last September).

Unprecedented political flux can lead audiences to seek out interpretation, sense-making, and perspective by new means. Humour can be a tonic, and there is a growing market for news that is broken apart and presented in one-liners, in quotes that can be texted to a friend, or clips e-mailed to a parent, or in memes or GIFs on Twitter. There may also be, as evidenced by Colbert's spike, a new appetite for uncompromising condemnation.

An outsider's take on the shape the presidency is taking can be sought out in the sketches of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, or The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, English and South African hosts, respectively. The interpretation and delivery of a woman - one woman - can be found on Monday nights during Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.

Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live
Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live

Bee, a Canadian-American alumnus of The Daily Show, will host a spoof White House Correspondents' Dinner in April, on the night of the real thing, with the expectation that an alternative event will be a more enticing prospect. The New Yorker and Vanity Fair have already said they will not attend the White House event.

Trump watched last weekend when Melissa McCarthy appeared behind a podium, barking, with the perfectly parted, vaguely receding, vaguely strawberry-blonde crop of White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer.

Politico published a report the following day detailing the president's displeasure with the sketch. As the White House bureau chief for the Washington Post put it when he shared a link on Twitter: "Politico reports Melissa McCarthy's impersonation of Sean Spicer was damaging to his standing with Trump".

It is likely Trump watched the week previous, when Kate McKinnon, whose talent for exactly nailing everybody from Justin Bieber, to Hillary Clinton, to new education secretary Betsy DeVos, played Trump's skinny blonde counsellor Kellyanne Conway in a catchy, all-singing-all-dancing sketch that borrowed from Chicago.

Baldwin, for his part, has approached the role of Trump, for which he earns $1,400 per cameo, with particular zeal - recently appearing at protests in character, complete with hand-stitched wig. "I see a guy who seems to pause and dig for the more precise and better language he wants to use, and never finds it," he told The New York Times in December, a couple of hours before taking the stage.

In the same interview, he expressed a solemn aim concerning Trump. "Wouldn't it be great to be the person who pulls the sword out of the stone? Who gets rid of this guy? Wouldn't that be thrilling?"

It's not that SNL has become more serious, it's that nobody has ever taken it as seriously or personally as the serving president, and the public sees this, and the show takes on a more important role as a result.

There was considerable clamour online last week for Ellen DeGeneres to soon appear as vice president Mike Pence. Rosie O'Donnell, spurred on by growing interest in the possibility, said on Tuesday she was prepared to play chief strategist Steve Bannon. At or around the same time, the New York Times announced the trial of a new feature, Best of Late-Night, "a rundown of the funniest and most memorable moments from the comedy shows".

The response on Twitter was almost universally enthusiastic.

"I do like to get my information from the shows," tweeted Adissu Demissie, former campaign manager for Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry, joking.

Or half-joking.

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