SNL returns in full election mode

David Zurawik says SNL is in full-on election mode, but the material this election isn't as funny as 2008.

“Saturday Night Live” returned for a new season in full election mode this week, and while it had some very smart and funny political moments, I could not help but wonder at times whether there was something about the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton that defied even the savviest satire.

The big promotional push by NBC was for Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump. The show opened with Baldwin and the astonishingly talented Kate McKinnon parodying last week’s debate between Trump and Clinton.

Baldwin’s Trump didn’t have the mad comic energy that Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin did in 2008, but it was good stuff. From the makeup to the writing and the performance, SNL captured a large chunk of Trump’s petulant, paranoid, (let’s-just-say-it) weird and seemingly troubled personality.

“She’s the one with the bad temperament,” Baldwin’s Trump whined at one especially pouty moment. “She’s always screaming. She’s constantly lying. And her hair is crazy. Her face is completely orange, except around the eyes where it’s white.”

Just as she did in a parody last year depicting Clinton making the video used to announce her campaign, McKinnon hit comedic pay dirt Saturday night when she poked at Clinton’s awkward and duplicitous efforts to sound like she is in touch with everyday Americans. It strikes at one of her core problems: the inability to connect in a meaningful way with voters.

Here it came in McKinnon mimicking what Clinton said about her father as a small businessman followed by the make-believe Clinton making it into an empty claim that she is “relatable.”

She called her father a “laborer,” as opposed to a fat cat like Trump, saying: “my own human father, who made, I guess, drapes, or printed drapes or sold drapes, something with drapes anyway. He was relatable and I am also relatable.”

But despite the satiric bite of such moments, I wasn’t laughing so hard that I had to put down the notepad and just let myself go with the performance as I did in 2008.

I suspect, though, that the difference has more to do with Trump and the way the media has changed in 2016 than Baldwin or SNL.

In 2008, SNL and other late-night satirists were saying what mainstream journalists felt they couldn’t: that Palin was one of the loopiest, dopiest candidates in the history of American presidential politics. And, by the way, she would be a downright danger and disgrace to the nation as vice president

This year, the gloves are off, and everyone from editorial-page writers to campaign trail reporters are saying it almost every day about Trump. New media standards.

Some of the evening’s best political satire came in the “Weekend Update” segment with Michael Che and Colin Jost sparing neither side in depicting the presidential election as a choice between two distasteful choices.

Che made the comparison to waking up hungry in the middle of the night and looking into an almost empty refrigerator to see only Tang and prunes — and then going back 20 minutes later, and looking again. At a deeper level, that is what watching the real debate felt like to me.

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