In a cold open this weekend, Saturday Night Live parodied the first presidential debate with Kate McKinnon as Hillary, Alec Baldwin playing Trump, and Michael Che as moderator Lester Holt.
Lester Holt opens the sketch by reminding the debate audience, “There is no cheering, no clapping, and to the Trump supporters: no shirt, no shoes, no service.” Hillary then walks onstage with a cane and coughing, but before falling to the ground, she performs a somersault a la Willy Wonka and declares, “I’m better than ever, let’s do this,” with a smile on her face. This entrance, which acknowledged rumors about the candidate’s health problems before dismissing them, was the hardest-hitting Hillary knock of the segment.
Trump enters the scene as Holt declares, “He’s the man to blame for the lower half of all his kids’ faces, Donald Trump.” Baldwin’s portrayal ranks among the better Trump impressions of the cycle, but while SNL pulls no punches on the GOP nominee, it refuses to even swing at Hillary.
Six times the writers hit Hillary Clinton with anything that might be construed as a jab, but on closer inspection, each joke really constitutes a neutral observation or compliment. After the Gene Wilder/Willy Wonka bit, SNL mocks Hillary for being scripted (because she’s so prepared), unrelatable (because she’s so accomplished), unsubtle in her political attacks (which are, unlike Trump’s, legitimate), unlikeable (thanks only to her ‘face and voice’ rather than her lies, fraud, and corruption), and overt in her desire to be president. While Hillary’s three decades in public life offer several avenues to caricature her personality, including pathological lying, deception, greed, fraud, corruption, ambition, and incompetence, the jokes all basically boil down to one premise–she’s just too perfect.
The sketch takes 15 shots at Trump, all of which are considerably less complimentary. SNL dings him, in order, for having classless supporters, ugliness, vulgarity, racism, cowardly lies, tax evasion, racism, homosexuality, ugliness again, racism again, and again, sexism, stupidity, sexism again, and immaturity. The sketch’s treatment of Trump and Hillary differs not merely in quantity of jokes–it hurls more than twice as many at Trump as at Hillary–but in the nature of the jabs: vicious toward Trump, fawning toward Hillary.
The writers did not hit Lester Holt, the NBC Nightly News anchor and debate moderator who inaccurately “fact-checked” Donald Trump during the debate, with a single barb throughout the sketch. While some might conclude that SNL let Holt off the hook because he anchors their network’s nightly news program, the logic fails to hold up given Trump’s 14 hit seasons in primetime on that same network.
The writers at Saturday Night Live have shown their comedic blindspot before. In the SNL history Live From New York, longtime writer Jim Downey–whom Horatio Sanz called “the Karl Rove of SNL” for his willingness to occasionally mock a Democrat–describes the impossibility of mocking Barack Obama. The self-described “standard-issue, Harvard-graduate commie” Downey considers it so difficult to joke about the self-adoring, coke-snorting community organizer who wrote his first of two memoirs and ate a dog by age 33 because “there’s not a single thing to grab onto–certainly not a flaw or hook that you can caricature.”