Live from the U.S.A – The Trump Fallout
On Saturday November 12th a sizable chunk of North America settled down with the need to laugh. The week earlier, it was announced that legendary comedian Dave Chappelle would be hosting Saturday Night Live, on the first episode since the U.S. Elections.
Many predicted (or at least hoped) that this would mark a triumphant return to Network television for Chappelle, whose titular Chappelle’s Show was critically and commercially acclaimed during its run from 2003-2004. Many also believed that this would be the first SNL in the Hillary era, appropriate for a show whose biggest star is female comedian Kate McKinnon, a LGBT performer who won an Emmy for her work this past year, and has been on the forefront of progressive causes.
Those hoping for such a coronation had their foundations shook that Tuesday night, as election returns first proved unnerving, then ominous, and finally flat out stomach churning as TV mogul Donald Trump won enough electoral college votes to become the 45th President of the United States.
While nearly 62,000,000 people voted for Trump, the largely liberal entertainment world has seen a funerary vibe overtake much of their content. On his live Election special, fictional Republican but very real-life Democrat Stephen Colbert tried to make sense of the results to the audience. “By every metric, we are more divided as a nation”, Colbert began, before recalling his late mother, a devout Catholic who had voted Republican in every election before telling her son at age 92 “I would vote for Hillary this time, its time” before dying in 2013.
Late Night host Seth Myers came to tears on-air when discussing seeing his own mother heartbroken over the results, and the fear that she too may not live to see a female President. Former Daily Show Host and pundit royalty Jon Stewart took a more cerebral approach while on Charlie Rose, saying that the election was a repudiation of both Democrats and Republicans. He continued to say that we should not believe that we are living in a different country now that Trump has been elected because “the same country that elected Donald Trump elected Barack Obama”, before opining that “American exceptionalism” is in fact the fight against human history and behaviors that so often devolve in tribal fighting.
While many in the comedy world took strong stands against Donald Trump or for Hillary Clinton, some have grappled with how to cover the election without alienating the non-coastal Americans whose viewership buoys their ratings and subsequent livelihood.
Jimmy Fallon, the current king of late night, has come under fire from more political comics for his playful interactions with Trump, including famously tussling his hair in a bit that had many criticizing him of normalizing the GOP candidate who had attacked various Americans of multiple faiths and ethnicities.
Even Saturday Night Live, whose brutal caricature of Sarah Palin by Tina Fey was credited in turning public opinion against her, had embraced Trump to the point of letting him host an episode almost exactly a year prior to the election. The episode was their most-watched since January 2012. While the entertainment capitals of California and New York went Blue by over five million votes, it is clear that the largely white “heartland” supported the Republican nominee, and it was the white working class vote in those states that sealed the deal for Trump on Election night.
The fine line between catering to the nation as whole, and speaking out against perceived injustice seems to be too fine for some of America’s biggest stars.
Saturday Night Live began at 11:30 on November 12th with McKinnon, decked out completely in her Hillary pantsuit costume, playing the recently departed Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” before turning to the camera and stating with a cracked voice “I’m not giving up, and neither should you”. Then, Chappelle jumped into his monologue, joking that while he didn’t know for certain that Trump would win, he did “know the whites”, before remarking that while many of his Black friends have threatened to leave the country, he would “stick around and get this tax break”.
To conclude, Chappelle switched gears and told a heartfelt story about his last time in the White House at an event attended mostly by African Americans (and Bradley Cooper for some reason), and that he thought of all the times a Black man even visiting the White House would have been a total impossibility. He ended by saying he would give Trump a chance, but that he and “the historically disenfranchised demand he give us one too”.
The rest of the show was decidedly anti-Trump, including the usually political Weekend Update, but the damage of the Donald’s episode may have already been done. Many chided the show with a “too little too late” reaction, with more cynical commenters guessing that SNL is actually happy with the results, as a Trump presidency would create far more opportunities for satire and high ratings.
We will no doubt see a sizable amount of conflict in America for at least the next four years. Battles over healthcare, immigration, women’s rights will come to the forefront as a Republican Senate and House is emboldened by their first unified government since 2006. It is clear that comedy and entertainment does not come close to affecting the lives of Americans as strongly as those policy issues.
But for the many who turn to humour and levity to distract them from the realities around them, we may be seeing Comedy at a crossroads, with a contract in one hand and a battle-axe in another.
Ethan Gordon is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of Juris Diction.