Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

'Saturday Night Live' rises to Trump challenge

The election of Donald Trump has lifted a lot of media boats — from the New York Times, with its 300,000-plus surge in digital subscriptions since Nov. 8, to MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who last week led her channel to its first primetime win in news demographics since 2009.

Add NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” which has attracted its largest audience in 23 years, to that list of media enjoying a big Trump bump.

“SNL” ends its 42nd season Saturday night, and while the ratings surge is impressive, what matters even more is the way this venerable TV institution has used sketch comedy and satiric writing to critique the Trump presidency.

Alec Baldwin and Melissa McCarthy have been widely praised for their depictions of Trump and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, respectively. But what has not been as critically appreciated is the way they and others at “SNL” have combated the disinformation, confusion and lies Team Trump pumps into our information ecosystem on what seems to be a daily basis. In this regard, they are doing more than just comedy. They are doing the work of democracy.

Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” gave voice on-air Tuesday to the frustration some in the media feel in trying to deal with the Trump administration.

“Who is it in the White House that can be trusted?” she asked. “Who can be trusted to give a statement, to explain where we stand in this administration, to explain that the presidency isn’t falling down on a house of cards with lies written on them? This is a bad situation, and the people in the White House are making it worse by being Trump’s stooges.”

A democracy needs accurate, reliable information if it is to function properly. And no government source of information is more important nationally than the White House. The press room, with its podium and presidential seal, is the media symbol of that relationship between the government and citizens.

All administrations spin and lie, and some have done it excessively, like those of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. But Trump’s White House is without precedent in the way information is purposely muddled, regularly contradicted and often shown to be flat-out false within hours. The intent often seems to be more about creating confusion than anything else.

How do you communicate to a mass audience the dangerous relationship to the truth suggested by presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway’s assertion that the administration was providing “alternative facts”? She was referring to the White House claim that the president had the largest audience for an inauguration ever.

It is such an Orwellian notion that satire — with its capacity for the absurd and surreal — seems better suited than traditional journalism and commentary.

This season, McCarthy’s portrayal of Spicer regularly captured that disregard for the truth and attempt to confuse the conversation.

In a press conference skit that premiered Feb. 4, cast member Bobby Moynihan, playing New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush, was called on by McCarthy’s Spicer.

“I want to ask about the travel ban on Muslims,” Moynihan began, referring to the presidential order that restricted immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

“Yeah, it’s not a ban,” McCarthy snapped.

“I’m sorry?” Moynihan replied, sounding confused.

“It’s not a ban,” McCarthy barked back. “The travel ban is not a ban, which makes it not a ban.”

“But you just called it a ban,” Moynihan said.

“Yeah, because I’m using your words. You said ban. You said ban, and now I’m saying it back to you.”

“The president tweeted, and I quote,” Moynihan persisted, raising his voice, “‘If the ban were announced with a one week notice ...’”

“Yeah, exactly,” McCarthy yelled, cutting him off again. “You just said that. He’s quoting you. It’s your word. When you use the word and he uses it back, it’s a circular using of the word. And that’s from you. Next.”

The confusion sown by the language is reminiscent of the famed “Who’s on First?” routine by the comedy team of Abbott and Costello. But the deeper critique is the way Spicer crazily contests the origin of the word in an attempt to obscure the fact that Trump’s executive order largely affected Muslims.

McCarthy’s aggression and contempt in that exchange further capture the general attitude of the administration toward the press — one that goes well beyond the adversarial-but-civil tone that had been the norm.

By the end of the next exchange, McCarthy was picking up the podium, storming into the pool of reporters and repeatedly slamming it against a startled questioner as he called her a “dork.”

Talk about the bully pulpit. The decision to give McCarthy a motorized version of the podium, which she used to physically assault the press as the season went on, made for brilliant physical comedy. But, again, it is the work “SNL” did with the language of the Trump administration that was most impressive.

“Weekend Update,” with Colin Jost and Michael Che, was razor sharp in taking apart Trump’s tweets and White House releases.

On the May 13 episode, Jost zeroed in on a bit of language in a letter from Trump’s attorney, saying that after reviewing 10 years of the president’s tax returns, he found no evidence of Trump receiving money from Russia for any of his businesses — “with a few exceptions.”

Jost nailed the way the “few exceptions” language gutted any sense of comfort the review might have offered: “It’s like hearing, ‘Don’t worry, all the kids came back from the field trip — with a few exceptions,’” he said.

In the same segment, Che poked fun at a tweet from Trump saying fired FBI Director James Comey “better hope there are no ‘tapes’” of their discussions if he decides to start “leaking to the press.”

Che focused on the quotation marks around “tapes,” and Trump’s use of that punctuation to suggest something ominous.

“It’s the difference between, Grandma is sleeping, and, Grandma is ‘sleeping,’” Che said, making air quotes.

Che had another fine moment in the opening sketch on May 13 when he played NBC anchorman Lester Holt interviewing Baldwin’s Trump. It went satirically straight to one of the deeper fears many in the media and government have harbored in the wake of Trump’s election.

When Che’s Holt pressed the president on why he fired Comey, Baldwin replied, “I fired him because of Russia. I thought, ‘He’s investigating Russia. I don’t like that. I should fire him.’”

“But that’s obstruction of justice,” Che said looking stunned at the admission.

“Sure, OK,” Baldwin's Trump replied casually.

“So, wait, did I get him? Is this all over?” Che asked, pressing his earpiece to let viewers know he was talking to his producer, asking if he just got a damning admission of guilt from Trump.

“No, I didn’t?" he said after a moment. “Nothing matters? Absolutely nothing matters anymore?”

Given Trump’s ability to survive developments like the “Access Hollywood” tape in which he made vulgar comments about women, Che’s Holt was not the first member of the media to wonder if anything matters anymore when it comes Trump.

As politically rich as such moments were, “SNL” was not without sin this season. Its critique of Trump would have been even more powerful had conservatives not been able to dismiss it as partisan, given the show’s kid-glove treatment of Hillary Clinton.

During the 40th season, Kate McKinnon did a brilliant takedown of Clinton’s sense of entitlement on the eve of the candidate’s campaign launch.

But once Trump became the GOP candidate, all punches were pulled in favor of Clinton. The coverage went from soft to shameless on Nov. 11 after Clinton’s loss and the death of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, when the show opened with McKinnon as Clinton at the piano singing Cohen’s anthemlike “Hallelujah.”

“I’m not giving up, and neither should you,” McKinnon’s Clinton said to the camera after the song ended.

Despite such misguided moments, it was a great season of satire. I can live with the double-standard given the overriding great work “SNL” did week in and out, taking on White House disinformation and lies.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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