By giving Donald Trump a platform for his antics last weekend, Saturday Night Live not only exonerated him but also demonstrated a lack of integrity. In order to better understand how egregious SNL’s decision to feature Trump was, both for political and comedic reasons, it may be helpful to compare Trump to another darling of the media who peaked last month: Pizza Rat.
Pizza Rat is the subject of the 14-second viral YouTube clip “New York City Rat Taking Pizza Home on the Subway.” In the clip, a rat tries to drag a slice of cheese pizza down a flight of stairs. Donald Trump on SNL and Pizza Rat are both rooted in an inherently outrageous premise that goes nowhere and says nothing new. Just as a rat scampering down stairs with pizza on its back will intrigue people, this unfiltered Republican on SNL is likewise going to draw viewers. Each premise unfolds as you’d expect. The rat scampers, the Trump pouts. Viewers are sucked into both, although neither offers sharp humor. The difference is that Trump’s airtime is massively, dangerously consequential while Pizza Rat’s could hardly matter less. SNL, overlooking his abominable views, gives Trump a space to look endearing in front of a rapt audience of millions. Trump dances to Drake, he smiles, he gets treated like an innocent figure. More than funny, he’s even made to look fun.
Trump and Pizza Rat also both make for better TV when imitated. Some pranksters last week built a “robot Pizza Rat” to scare unsuspecting New Yorkers, according to a video produced by New York Magazine. In the video, a little mechanical rat with a slice of pizza on its back zooms around New York while people scream and leap out of its path. This robot had the same impact as the original Pizza Rat, only it touched more people and made for an even funnier, longer bit. Next to this robot rat, the original Pizza Rat looks like a one-trick pony. (Rat, rather, but you get what I mean.)
Trump, likewise, makes for better satire when imitated by his capable impersonators on SNL. In his opening monologue, when Donald Trump stands onstage alongside two Trump imitators (SNL cast members Taran Killam and Darryl Hammond), Trump is out-Trumped. On one side, Killam contorts his face into a deep frown. On the other side, Hammond gesticulates and goes “a bum bum bum.” The two impersonators wiggle in identical suits and Donald Trump, standing between them, feels redundant.
Trump’s real life actions, while scary, can provide fodder for good comedy. The mismatch between his actions and general standards of appropriate behavior is what makes him outrageous at debates. But it’s not funny when he’s in on the joke.
In his opening monologue, Trump barely even tells jokes. He delivers lines about his feud with Rosie O’Donnell that we’ve been sick of hearing about since 2006. Then he talks about being rich, which is not something he wouldn’t openly say in real life. Larry David (who has just finished playing a spot-on Bernie Sanders in the opening sketch) heckles Trump from the sidelines. David calls Trump a racist in a scripted interjection. This is the only real commentary, and also the most pressing truth in the set. Trump laughs it off, and David holds back laughter, too. I wasn’t laughing.
SNL nails political commentary when it is calling out candidates for things they wouldn’t admit about themselves. This goes both for liberals and conservatives. The genius of Tina Fey’s legendary Palin, for example, is that it highlighted aspects of Palin that she herself wanted to keep under wraps. And in the Larry David as Bernie Sanders bit last Saturday, Sanders’ disconnect with black voters is called out. A joke about Sanders choosing to kayak across rivers instead of driving on the bridges of the capitalistic infrastructure shines a light on Sanders’ eccentric brand of liberalism. These cut to the cores that other candidates try to cover up. But, with Trump, we see that it’s tough to satirize someone who is shameless.
The whole episode is a safe approach to a politician that is anything but safe. Using worn-out jokes, easy parody premises, and clips from “Hotline Bling,” the show treats Trump like any other host. But Trump is not any other host, and to treat him as such reveals a lack of conscience and creative energy on the part of SNL. This episode makes Trump look good. The cast pokes fun at his quirks instead of looking at any of the very real and threatening issues he represents.
People watch SNL, and its content sways public opinion. But, with this episode, the show proves it is apathetic toward the damage it is causing. Unlike Pizza Rat, which can scamper back into its creepy damp little Subway home, Trump is live beyond Saturday Night. And that is not funny.