NEW YORK – There’s a certain look a cast member gets that longtime viewers of comedy show “Saturday Night Live” can instantly recognize. In many ways, it’s this look, and the performer’s mastery of it, that separates the truly great “SNL” performers from your run-of-the-mill hacks. You know this look: It’s the “this is bombing, isn’t it?” look.
Different performers handled it different ways. Will Ferrell would barrel onward, as if trying to physically bully the material into being funny. Phil Hartman would never break, treating every sketch like it was Scripture no matter how hammy. Jimmy Fallon would famously just start giggling. But the look is as undeniable as it is terrifying: There are millions of people watching me not be funny right now, and there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s as close as you can come to being completely naked on network television.
That look of discomfort, that “it’s gotta be getting close to 1 a.m., right?” that the entire cast of “Saturday Night Live” had during the Donald Trump-hosted show was impossible to miss, and all told, even Trump himself sort of had it. What might have seemed like a good idea initially — rather than have Trump do a walk-on, why not just have him host the whole show? What could go wrong? — was a disaster in practice, with both the host and the cast doing what they could to undermine the material and act like they were anywhere else but on stage.
Some of the best “Saturday Night Live” sketches of the last decade have involved actual political figures having fun lightly skewering their personal foibles and exaggerating their weaknesses, including the infamous QVC sketch a few days before the 2008 election in which Tina Fey mocked Sarah Palin just a few feet away from John McCain, who happily played along. But no one had the energy for that this time. They all looked like they’d rather be anywhere else.
The whole cast was clearly off its game. “Weekend Update” hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che flubbed their intro and didn’t even feel particularly compelled to correct it. A musical sketch late in the show featuring Trump playing a “laser harp” somehow seemed simultaneously to never start yet never quite end. Trump’s monologue relied on two separate Trump impersonators. The “political” sketch was a thinly written, poorly (deliberately?) performed imagined 2018 Trump Oval Office, with lame jokes like the President of Mexico delivering Trump a check for his wall and Trump making Vladimir Putin cry. (It also featured a “surprise” cameo by Trump’s daughter made all the more painful by the audience having no reaction to her.) This hasn’t been a great season for “Saturday Night Live” so far, but I swear, it’s not usually this bad. No one’s heart was in it.
As you might suspect, Trump wasn’t required to work too hard. Worries about equal time laws aside, Trump showed up in several sketches by was never required to do much more than make some Trump grousing faces, with the possible exception of him doing a “Hotline Bling” dance in a sketch that might have been funnier if there hadn’t been roughly 90 billion Hotline Bling remixes on the Internet in the last 10 days.
The sketch that seemed to sum up the cast’s view on Trump’s appearance was one in which Trump announced that he would live Tweet. He didn’t actually Tweet the sketch — though I, like surely millions of others, went to check anyway — but instead fake Trump Tweets insulting the cast popped up as the cast members slowly checked out of the screen and ultimately began trying to crawl out of the shot. By the end of the sketch, after fake Trump joked about “the blacks,” cast member Leslie Jones pretended to rush the camera in rage, and the feed went out.
Like Larry David — once again, the funniest part of the show as Bernie Sanders, in a cold-open political sketch that, oddly, didn’t even mention Trump — pretending to yell “you’re a racist!” at Trump during his monologue, it was a winking meta-nod to the controversy of Trump hosting that allowed “SNL” to have its cake and eat it too. It could pretend it was above having Trump around solely to goose the show’s ratings while, you know, not being above it at all.
There was a time when cast members openly revolted against hosts they didn’t want to be associated with, as in the famous week that Nora Dunn refused to be on set with Andrew Dice Clay. But tonight was far more passive aggressive than that. There wasn’t a cast member who didn’t consciously shrink.
Did Trump do himself any good with his appearance? It’s tough to see how. He wasn’t particularly funny — it’s always good to remember that being a showman in the realm of politics and a showman in the realm of entertainment are two far different things — and he didn’t look comfortable either. (Also: His suit was too big on him.) He gave the show a ratings boost — thought ratings weren’t anything to brag about beforehand — and he’s likely to happily boast about the fact, but in a way that probably doesn’t benefit him or the show: He looks more like a huckster — the show actually made him look a little small, though again, maybe that was the suit — and the show got a lot more eyeballs to watch one of the worst episodes of the last several seasons. There was no breakout, instantly memorable moment, which ultimately seems to be by design. It was a night that everyone involved with wanted to move past as quickly as possible and hope no one ever discusses it again. It shouldn’t make much of a dent in the news cycle, but the oral history written five years from now, with the cast members talking about that lost, dead look they all had in their eyes the week Trump hosted … now that’ll be a must-read.