Since the election, Alec Baldwin has regularly been on the media circuit, talking about Donald Trump. But recently, his tone seemed to change. Compare his Jimmy Kimmel interview from earlier this month to his subsequent James Corden one: In the former, he’s joking around, faux-humbly accepting praise; in the other, he seems resigned, surprised that Trump still takes himself so seriously. Then there was his interview with Extra, where Baldwin again focused on how the president “overwhelmingly lacks any kind of sportsmanship.” “That’s why I’m not going to do it much longer,” he told Mario Lopez. “I don’t [know] how much more people can take it.” Baldwin is serving as SNL’s de facto mouthpiece these days, and his recent comments align with what I’ve heard from people with knowledge of the inner workings of show: More people might be paying attention to SNL than ever, but working on it has not been fun.
A quick refresher on how we got here: A history of politician-defining impressions, and an air of giving it equally to both sides, has made many see SNL as a home of political comedy. Now, it can be, and has been, debated whether it was right or wrong or very wrong for SNL to have Donald Trump host back when he was running to be the Republican nominee. But it seems clear that doing so made Trump see the show as a friend, giving rise to his obsession with how the show portrays him and his staff. Trump began tweeting about the show the morning after it aired because he thought Alec Baldwin’s impression was bad and/or too mean, first in October, and again in December and January. Then there were rumblings that Trump was severely bothered by Melissa McCarthy’s instant-classic impression of Sean Spicer, largely because his press secretary was played by a woman. The next thing you know, SNL was being lauded as a leader of a resistance. And just like that, the show’s ratings shot through the roof, with the Alec Baldwin–hosted episode beating almost everything on TV.
The problem is, the show wasn’t built for this. Generally, but especially over the last 20 years, political sketches have been relegated to one sketch per night (usually the cold open), except for during an election year, when the show ramps up for and rides the wave of increased attention, only to coast back down to shore after inauguration. That appeared to be happening this fall, as well, and then Trump won. Though Will Ferrell still did his Bush impression a bunch of times after the 2000 election, the expectation was not the same, as Bush was generally being a fairly normal president in his first year. When I spoke with co-head writers Bryan Tucker, Sarah Schneider, and Chris Kelly at the beginning of the season, they found it exciting when they had to scrap an already finished cold open after the Access Hollywood audio came out, but to have stay tied to the news cycle, and do that every week (with no end in sight), has to be tiring. Indeed, some with knowledge of the situation have noted a fog has settled in. Adding to this exhaustion is the decision to air 30 percent fewer commercials during SNL, which means a significant increase in pre-taped sketches. Famously, SNL cast and writers stay up all night on Tuesdays to write, but because so many of these filmed pieces also shoot late at night, you are keeping the staff up late for much of the week. SNL has always been defined by a certain degree of high pressure (and a certain degree of exhaustion always sets in around this point in the season), so it’s not that there’s just more of it. It’s that there isn’t the same relief.
And then there’s the increased fervor over the show’s celebrity guests. I didn’t mind the casting of Baldwin at the beginning of the year, and I don’t want to imply that the cast members are jealous or annoyed that they aren’t playing Trump or Spicer, but it must be frustrating when a cast member doesn’t get that win. The cast likes it when great things happen on the show, but they also want to see each other shine. Add to that the media and Twitter’s incessant desire to try to dream-cast celebrities in roles — it can’t feel great to spend your whole life working to be a sketch actor, only for people to suggest an actor who vaguely looks like someone would do just as good of a job. (A fact the show played with in the sketch where Leslie Jones wants to play Trump.) Not to mention the episodes without Baldwin or McCarthy or the like now have a whiff of disappointment that’s hard to get around.
Because Trump is an all-consuming eater of galaxies, there is also less time and much less attention given to nonpolitical sketches. There was one great sketch from a recent show — “Youngblood” — but it got lost in the shuffle the next day. Or look at “Pizza Town” — a sketch that seemingly was meant to be the triumphant continuation of the David Pumpkins, Kevin Roberts, Space Pants universe — that died on the silliness vine. Though many of the writers and cast members believe in speaking truth to power, for the most part, that is not why they got into comedy. Schneider and Kelly, two of the head writers who are writing much of the political material, do truly believe in and enjoy writing pointed satire, but they are also the people who wrote “Dongs All Over the World.”
This isn’t meant to be a pity party for the SNL cast and crew. I bring it up because it does seem to be affecting the product. While the first half of this season was the best the show has been since Kristen Wiig left, the second half has felt flat. The Baldwin episode was especially lacking in spite of, if not because of, all the buildup. And the recent Octavia Spencer episode was one of the messiest I can remember. There were notable missed production cues, sketches that were weirdly short because they lacked the second and third beats expected in sketch writing, and stilted performances.
But SNL’s unevenness didn’t come into focus for me until a recent Saturday night, four hours before the show. I was at the Theatre for New Audiences’ fantastic production of Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize–winning tragicomedy The Skin of Our Teeth. Written in 1942, as the United States was just entering WWII, it’s a deeply absurd play about human perseverance. The show is a commentary on many of the issues of its day, but it’s also a commentary on its own ability to make a point or difference. Like the episode of SNL I watched later that night, there were production flubs — lights went out, a screen fell — but they were intentional. In the first act, the protagonist, Mr. Antrobus, invites many displaced people to stay in his home, and his maid, Sabina, breaks character and talks directly to the audience: “Oh, I see what this part of the play means now! This means refugees. Oh, I don’t like it. I don’t like it.” The consistent monitoring makes sure the play doesn’t get too didactic or try-hard, resulting in the comedy and message hitting throughout the production, without either feeling forced. SNL right now feels like exactly the opposite — the comedy is struggling as the show tries to meet the expectations put upon it to get a message across. And comedy doesn’t benefit from high expectations.
Comedy does, of course, benefit from an air of tension — Melissa McCarthy’s Spicer is a rare example of when a performance can match the buildup — but, unlike The Skin of Our Teeth, SNL hasn’t been able to release that tension enough. SNL is my favorite show to watch and follow, but these days it feels like catching up on your homework before school on Monday. It’s an inflating balloon, and it needs to pop itself.
The good thing is SNL has a history of doing just that. It has always been irreverently self-referential, while also taking what it does seriously. Take the 40th anniversary special two years ago, which was mostly spent roasting the show down memory lane. Right now, there are a lot of big, serious things that are absurd about the Trump administration, but one small one is that some journalists expected SNL to do their job for them, and that has to be made fun of, too.