Criticism — From the October 2017 issue

Who’s Laughing Now?

The tragicomedy of Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live

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In so many ways they were made for each other, as if a casting director considered Donald Trump and Saturday Night Live side by side and said, Yes, I can work with this. Few people have been impersonated on the show more often, or by more actors — six, at last count. He is the rare novelty guest to have hosted twice: once in 2004, to promote The Apprentice, his reality television show, and again in late 2015, to soften perceptions of a presidential campaign widely seen as alarming. After the second appearance, some on the left accused SNL of helping to “normalize” Trump, which (the theory proceeds) partly cleared the way for his election, though his having been a celebrity for three decades may also have had something to do with it. Many on the right, meanwhile, consider SNL to be one of the many cultural bacteria poisoning America’s view of conservatism. Either way, each time Trump has done the show, the ratings have been boffo. But who used whom, exactly, and for what?

1 Curtin’s quote, like many about SNL throughout this piece, comes from Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s oral history Live from New York (2002).

Like Trump, SNL has had rises, falls, and unlikely comebacks. Like Trump, it has had woman problems. John Belushi wouldn’t perform sketches written by women; his castmate Jane Curtin later recalled, “He told me women were not funny.” 1 Like Trump, SNL has struggled with race: Garrett Morris, the only black member of the original cast, was underused throughout his years on the show, and even an incandescent young Eddie Murphy initially languished as a featured player. With Weekend Update, which was unlike anything before it became like everything, SNL also shares Trump’s pioneering interest in fake news.

Photograph of Amy Poehler, Kenan Thompson, Donald Trump, Seth Meyers, and Maya Rudolph during Saturday Night Live’s “Donald Trump’s House of Wings” sketch, April 3, 2004. © Mary Ellen Matthews/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images

SNL premiered in 1975, a year before Trump was first profiled by the New York Times. A Queens kid who began his career wanting to be an entertainment-industry mogul — Trump once described his “ultimate job” as “running MGM in the Thirties and Forties” — he instead fell back on the family business, real estate. To the Times, Trump claimed that he was worth $200 million when his taxable income was $2,200 a week. He claimed that his heritage was Swedish when it was actually German — a habitual ethnic elision; Fred, his father, rented to many Brooklyn Jews. He claimed that he had graduated at the top of his class at the Wharton School when he received no honors. Three lies, none challenged. And off we go.

Thanks to guile and chutzpah, by the time Trump was thirty he’d pulled off a few brilliant development deals in Manhattan — most of them distressed properties scooped up on the relative cheap and technically controlled by Fred. He’d also been involved in his father’s litigation against the Nixon Administration, which alleged that the Trumps were engaging in discriminatory practices against hopeful black renters. Their lawyer, Roy Cohn, accused the FBI of “Gestapo-like tactics,” which was not common rhetoric in the early Seventies, when plenty of people in the Justice Department had fought to rid the world of Nazism. A decade later, Trump became a tabloid staple for his disastrous foray into Atlantic City, New Jersey; his lawsuit against the N.F.L.; his near bankruptcies; and the women he dated, married, and bitterly divorced.

The Eighties also saw Trump begin his long engagement with politics. In the lead-up to the 1988 presidential election, he journeyed to New Hampshire with the clear purpose of one day running. In a speech, he implied that he would make a good chief negotiator between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. David Cay Johnston, an investigative journalist, reported hearing a man in one of Trump’s Atlantic City casinos call out, “Be our president, Donald!” while he rode up an escalator. The prospect of a Trump candidacy intrigued certain Americans, and Trump knew it. “If the right man doesn’t get into office,” he said at the time, “you’re going to see a catastrophe in this country in the next four years.” All that was missing were boasts of his investigators scouring the Kenyan highlands for clues.

Naturally, Trump became a subject of interest to SNL. In 1988, the show aired a sketch called “A Trump Christmas,” in which Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks played Donald and Ivana succumbing to holiday ennui. It’s not very good — it turns on an update of O. Henry, with Donald having sold his yacht to purchase a door for Ivana’s mansion and Ivana having sold her mansion to buy an anchor for Donald’s yacht — but what’s fascinating is the way Hartman chose to portray him. The broad gangster-flick accent sounds nothing like Trump, then or now. Further, his Trump refers with ease to a fifteenth-century Italian sculptor and has only one question for Ivana when she refers to her recent purchase of pearls: “Cartier or Buccellati?”

The following year, during the show’s fifteenth-anniversary special, Chevy Chase wandered into the audience and spilled popcorn on a tuxedoed Trump, who gamely smiled and raised his fist — a little in-joke for the benefit of New Yorkers and readers of Spy magazine. Between this and Hartman’s impression, viewers of SNL could have felt certain that the one thing this outer-borough epicure would never be was a figure of world-historical significance.

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’s article “My Holy Land Vacation” appeared in the July 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine. His essay collection Magic Hours will be reissued in December by Vintage.

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