If you watched Saturday Night Live this week, you know: Even the people charged with mocking the 2016 presidential election are exhausted. After weeks of getting laughs (and kudos) for their impersonations of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon finally broke character during Saturday’s cold open and begged for civility. They’d had enough. And frankly, so had the rest of us.
Every presidential cycle gets its SNL send-up. It’s tradition. But the sad, singular problem with Election 2016 is that it’s hard to tell anymore what’s process and what’s entertainment. Not only do we have a former reality TV star for a candidate, we have a 24-hour news cycle that has been fed more by scandal than by substance. When asked to name the biggest issues of the presidential election, the most likely responses are Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” Access Hollywood tape or Clinton’s much-ado-about-nothing emails. Those topics might be worthy of discussion, sure, but not centrality—neither has anything to do with actual policy.
Late-night TV jokes and Twitter reactions were just as popular during the last two election cycles, but at least most of the conversations were rooted in the candidates’ positions on diplomatic relations or climate change. We know where Clinton and Trump happen to stand on those, at least in general terms, but as that SNL cold open showed us, Trump could kiss Vladimir Putin on CNN and it would still feel like the least insane thing on TV that day.
This became even more obvious on Sunday night, when on Last Week Tonight John Oliver apologized for daring Trump to run back when he was guest-hosting The Daily Show. “This election hasn’t so much appealed to our better angels,” he lamented, “as it has groped our better angels, mocked their weight, and called them ’6s at best.’ … It is frankly hard to believe that there was a time when people thought a Trump candidacy would be funny.” The joke, for him as for so many others, is over.
It’s Everyone’s Fault
Don’t blame John Oliver, though. We all shoulder a little blame here. We’re the ones who rewarded Trump’s primary-season ad hominem attacks with a major party nominations. We’re the ones who turn the slightest gaffe (let alone actually #problematic stuff) into trending topics on Twitter. And we’re the ones who would rather find new ways to compare Trump to a Cheeto or laugh at Clinton’s pantsuits than interrogate their positions on gun control or education. (If anything, the one outlier here is Samantha Bee, who has been on a tear of telling journalists like Matt Lauer to ask tougher questions and taking Trump to task for his comments about women and speculating that he might be illiterate. But even that ultimately was surface-scratching.) I get it. Like Beyoncé, folks are just trying to make lemonade. It just sucks that these are the lemons they’ve been given.
Unbelievably, it hasn’t always been like this. Let’s go back to the halcyon days of 2012, when President Obama was up for re-election and Mitt Romney was running against him; during the RNC, Clint Eastwood talked to an empty chair as if Obama was sitting in it. Twitter, you might remember, had a field day, generating memes like “Invisible Obama” and “Eastwooding” (not as gross as it sounds). That election year was also the one that gave us Romney’s “binders full of women” gaffe. Good times! We laughed a lot in 2012, didn’t we? But while we found entertainment value in that election year, the core issues being discussed were about actual issues that faced the US—Eastwood’s issue with not-there Obama was about unemployment, Romney’s “binders” comment came during a town hall discussion of pay equity for women—and not about whether or not participating in “locker room talk” is befitting of a sitting president.
The same goes for 2008. Man, that was a good year. Then-senator Obama had all that cool confidence and folks like Jay Z were out campaigning for him. (OK, some things never change.) That was also the year that Sarah Palin was John McCain’s running mate on the Republican ticket and Tina Fey was crushing it with her Palin impersonation. But again, even as we laughed at Fey’s “I can see Russia from my house” bit, we knew that it was funny because people were genuinely concerned over—and talking about—Palin’s knowledge gaps on foreign policy issues. It was peak political piss-taking, but vastly better because because it was just the breather we took in between discussing fiscal responsibility, LGBT rights, and health care—you know, shit that matters.
Need more? Grab a Crystal Pepsi and head back to the 1990s, when a young Jim Carrey parodied Ross Perot on In Living Color and Phil Hartman took on Bill Clinton on SNL. Every election cycle has provided fodder for our entertainment. It’s just that this one has been outlandish in ways we’ve never seen before—Trump may claim Bill Clinton uses language worse than his on the golf course, but that never came up during one of his presidential runs—and it hasn’t been counterbalanced with anything of substance. It’s not feeding our entertainment; it is our entertainment.
Twitter, and the Election of 1800
None of this is to say that no previous election in history has been as entertaining as this one. Twitter probably would’ve run wild with the election of 1800 (surely Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda would agree), and if SNL had launched just a year or two earlier it would’ve gone ape on President Nixon. But this year, the entertainment that has been wrung from the election cycle is just so filled with is this really happening? pathos that it’s been hard to laugh. As the person tasked with collecting the best tweets of each debate night (oh, hey, you’re welcome), I’ve noticed this again and again. The trending hashtags aren’t #BetterSchools or #HealthCareReform, they’re people putting a satirical spin on questionable-sounding soundbites with #BadHombres and #NastyWoman.
Which brings us back to Saturday’s cold-open. Writing for the New York Times, James Poniewozik noted, rightly, that this entire election “has been a blessing and curse” for the show. The show has been graced with plenty of material to work with, but also, expected to “wring laughs out of a national nervous breakdown” and “to improve on a political reality so self-spoofing that it writes its own penis jokes.”
And that, really, is the problem. It’s not that America is trying desperately to get a laugh or two out of a particularly rough presidential election, it’s that the things we’re laughing about are just so vile. It’s an election that, again and again, has forced people to ask themselves, as Baldwin-as-Trump did Saturday night, “Don’t you guys feel gross all the time about this?”