“Saturday Night Live’s” ability to remain a relevant source of comedy and satire over 40 years is an understandable source of pride. Yet the determination to skate along that edge occasionally means skidding over it, as the NBC late-night staple has done with this weekend’s booking of Donald Trump as guest host.
Trump, who has invited no shortage of controversies, can hardly be blamed for this one, taking advantage of such a high-profile platform while mounting a presidential campaign. Politicians – and especially conservative ones – have long used late-night TV to show off their lighter sides, proving they can have a sense of humor about themselves.
No, for all Trump’s talk about the U.S. becoming Greece, the hubris here belongs with “SNL” and its patriarch, Lorne Michaels, having opened a Pandora’s box from a public relations and simple fairness standpoint that won’t be offset by ratings, however huge they might be. The myopia goes beyond Trump’s immigration stance – which has angered many in the Latino community and prompted protests – to the question of showcasing him this way in the thick of a hotly contested primary race.
Featuring the Republican front-runner in many polls as host is more problematic than Hillary Clinton’s recent cameo, or even allowing Al Sharpton to host when he was running for president in 2003. Both can be second-guessed, but Clinton’s turn was relatively brief, and Sharpton had little chance of becoming the nominee — a case of “SNL” using him at least as much as the other way around. In more pragmatic terms, that dozen-year gap – in the context of the real-time furor that can be unleashed via social media – almost feels like a lifetime ago.
The pitfalls associated with tapping Trump, by contrast, have surfaced early and often, from questions about whether his appearance triggers equal-time rules for other candidates to the matter of why NBC Entertainment would publicly sever ties with him on “The Apprentice” and Miss Universe/Miss USA pageants during the summer, only to hop back into bed with him. Then there was this week’s flare-up over a video clip in which he mocked Ben Carson, previewing the problems associated with Trump potential using his perch to ridicule rivals, even in jest.
It’s simply hard to imagine the show’s brain trust being so out of touch as to not recognize the can of worms they were opening — and not incidentally, flinging at the feet of “SNL” and NBC’s beleaguered PR staff. And the time to debate the propriety of that would have been before Trump was booked, since dropping him afterward would have rightly looked (to Trump supporters in particular, and conservatives eager to find signs of media bias in general) like a craven act of caving in to criticism.
The irony is that when “SNL” books someone like Trump – who isn’t formally an entertainer – his or her footprint within the show is usually somewhat mitigated. It’s not like they can comfortably work him into as many sketches as they would someone with established comedy and/or acting chops, like Amy Schumer or Alec Baldwin.
As noted, the hullabaloo that surrounds all things Trump, coupled with morbid curiosity, will likely yield a significant ratings boost. Yet while the temptation will be to bask in the glory of those numbers, NBC and “SNL” come away from this misguided affair looking like the biggest losers.