Donald Trump’s presidential run has been very funny, except when it’s been racist, so the expectation was that he would bring said funniness to the humor program Saturday Night Live when he hosted it. It is funny, in retrospect, that anyone thought that. Trump isn’t funny with scripts. And he’s especially not funny when the scripts he’s working with are poor, which they had to be.
Trump didn’t even appear in the cold open. Larry David did, though, doing another turn as Sen. Bernie Sanders screeching old-people things. It was the best moment of the night. As soon as Trump appeared for his monologue, the writing went flat. He seemed to read off of cards—probably something that he’ll spin to his advantage, saying that he’s too busy winning the presidency to bother with rehearsals and memorization. (Indeed, this was the purported humorous foundation of one of the evening’s most painful sketches—that he was too busy to participate in the skit, so he would just tweet about it. Pop Up Video–style tweets of him insulting cast members appeared. It was seriously not funny.)
The first skit was a look into the future of the Trump presidency, when everything was going just as ridiculously fantastic as he’s promised. It was flat. Elsewhere, Trump wore a funny robe and pretended to play a “laser harp.” Didn’t work. In one skit he basically just came on at the end in a leather jacket and smiled. Trump’s best performance of the evening, by far, was the handful of seconds when he danced in a parody of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” music video.
Trump just doesn’t do set pieces. He needs to improvise in unconventional settings. He is funny when, say, he is supposed to be delivering a stump speech at some fried-butter barn in Iowa and instead regales hundreds of Midwestern moms about various feuds he’s having with unknown television executives over contract stipulations. Or when he’s making fun of Jeb Bush, a blue blood who’s raised more than $100 million but isn’t very good at politics. Trump is right there, literally standing next to him on debate stages, laughing at and beating the most establishment candidate there ever was. It is perfect. It is perfect that he says things like, “I will be so good at the military, your head will spin,” and a not-insignificant portion—a “plurality,” is the term—of the electorate he’s targeting doesn’t simply let it slide but finds it reassuring. It’s not the same with a script. It’s so much more … scripted.
About those scripts. Do we really want to be so hard on the poor writers here? What a raw deal. Some awful executives at NBC got Trump to host the program in order to get high ratings and lots of advertising revenue. It was up to the writers, and the cast, to then come up with skits that couldn’t be totally flattering—you don’t want to come across as total cop-out weenies, bending to the every whim of this obnoxious boor—but also couldn’t be entirely rude to their chummy guest of honor. The skits also had to abide by Trump’s presidential prerogatives to get him to cooperate, which meant nothing that might offend likely Republican caucus-goers in Iowa. Throw all of these irritating strictures in a blender and what you get is the mush that aired on NBC from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., live, on Saturday night.
If there was a single moment of extended value on this hopefully forgettable night, it was cast member Bobby Moynihan securing a solid “Weekend Update” bloc to make fun of the stereotypical Trump fan via his Drunk Uncle character. “I don't just like him, Colin. I love him. He's going to make America grapes again,” he slurred. “I mean, he's got it all, Colin. He's got everything. Money, women, TV shows, Miss America, orange hair. He's perfect. He's like a big old beautiful Monopoly man.” Here we have a moment that didn’t involve a workman-like Donald Trump reading cards. Instead we saw a supposedly satirical character saying precisely what real warm-blooded Americans who support Trump for president think. It made the rest of the program look like what it was: Trump himself, like a hall monitor, preventing any good jokes about Trump from being made.