The story making the rounds today is that President Trump was upset about Melissa McCarthy’s portrayal of White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live last weekend. According to a piece in Politico, “it was Spicer’s portrayal by a woman that was most problematic in the president’s eyes, according to sources close to him. … ‘Trump doesn’t like his people to look weak,’ added a top Trump donor.”
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The notion that our president finds a woman playing a man inherently “weak” merits a session or two on a therapist’s couch that, alas, Trump will never warm. And I don’t buy Politico’s theory that “Trump’s uncharacteristic Twitter silence over the weekend about the Saturday Night Live sketch was seen internally as a sign of how uncomfortable it made the White House feel.” Wait: Silence is the new way of measuring Trump’s displeasure? Sorry, I still believe that ferocity-of-tweeting, along with the use of the caps-lock, remains the true measure of Donald’s ire.
I think McCarthy’s SNL appearance was significant in a different way. Let’s get the compliments out of the way first: It was an excellent performance, a fine example of the way McCarthy can rev up both verbal and physical humor to create a tornado effect. The use of the podium as a lion-tamer’s chair was clever indeed.
But I think the McCarthy sketch was a vivid example of the way SNL (along with the cable news channels) are now directing their satire directly at our TV-obsessed president. We, the viewers, have become almost incidental bystanders. That’s one reason the Alec-Baldwin-as-Trump sketches have been falling flat: They’re so stuffed with quotations from Trump emanating from Baldwin’s orange puff-pastry face that writing jokes for the audience to laugh at seems to be a minor concern or abandoned entirely. Just as Baldwin trolls Trump on Twitter, baiting him for attention, so do the SNL sketches yearningly seek Trump’s tweet-censure.
This is a break with SNL history. From Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford to Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, the guiding notion was to make us laugh by exaggerating qualities — the flaws, the foolishness — that an audience appreciated in a comic context. Fey was able to discredit Palin in the minds of millions by repeating slightly stretched versions of Palin’s actual words, with an added spin of uncanny impression — Fey captured the nasal twang in Palin’s voice, the way Palin dropped final “g”s in words to appear folksy.
Fey shamed Palin for her ignorance of current events, geography, and political history; in turn, the ridicule helped America see how unfit Palin was to hold office. No such luck for Baldwin, who is impersonating a man who cannot be shamed, and who many of his supporters — both inside and outside the White House — know perfectly well is unfit to hold office, but they prefer to back him for the pursuit of their own agendas.
In a way, Trump — if he was indeed upset by the McCarthy/Spicer performance — should realize that the instant pervasiveness of the sketch, repeated endlessly on cable news, actually helps normalize his team — and by extension, him. When you get Spicer being interviewed by the celebrity fluff-machine Extra, as he was Monday night, he’s well on his way to becoming a fake-news celebrity himself. Next thing you know, Spicer will be sharing a trailer with Mario Lopez making merry, off-the-record comments about the grab-potential of various guests. Oh, wait — that probably would anger Trump; that’s an invasion of his territory.
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