The episode of Saturday Night Live following Hillary Clinton’s defeat opened with a mournful piano recital, performed by teary-eyed cast member Kate McKinnon who sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” She punctuated the performance by turning solemnly to the camera and saying, “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”
What little humor that is left on the show comes not from its easy gags but from the deadly seriousness with which its insular, feverishly liberal comics takes themselves. It is amusing to watch professional parodists behave no differently than members of a cult. Perhaps the retired members of the cast — many of whom acknowledge that political correctness is killing comedy (from Dennis Miller to Norm Macdonald to Jon Lovitz) — could reassemble to mock the current cast. Imagine a grief-ridden Jon Lovitz, in a Michael Dukakis outfit, turning to the camera and saying intensely, “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”
In the days before Obama’s departure, SNL cast members grew even more cultish, belting out a song in Obama’s honor from the movie To Sir With Love. Two cast members, standing in front of a Mao-like photo of Obama, sang, “And as you leave, I know that I am losing my best friend, a friend who taught me right from wrong and weak from strong.”
It was reminiscent of the cultish “I Pledge” video celebrities made at the beginning of Obama’s presidency, as well as the songs that public school teachers instructed children to sing for Black History month (“He said red, yellow, black, or white, All are equal in his sight, Barack Hussein Obama”).
Unable to see any humor in their own hyper-sensitive liberalism, the cast members console themselves with pot shots at Trump and other reviled conservatives, which even Yahoo’s TV critic, Ken Tucker, calls “easy, flimsy, and — despite the topic — bereft of any sort of substantial political satire.” Alec Baldwin plays Trump as dumb, whereas the late Phil Hartman played him as relentless and shrewd. Liberals laugh hysterically at Baldwin’s performance, but it only highlights their own out-of-touch smugness and impotence. If Trump is as a big a moron as they claim, what does that say about the intelligence of the people whom he defeated? Hartman saw the qualities in Trump worth exaggerating, but Baldwin is too ideologically invested in hating Trump to imitate him effectively.
Into this deluded moment of comics taking themselves seriously now steps Al Franken, the SNL cast member turned Minnesota senator. From the chattering class, we now hear growing talk of Franken as a potential rival to Trump. A spate of articles have appeared in recent days touting him as a “2020 presidential candidate.” After a period of hibernation (prompted by a desire to retain his seat in the wake of a narrow and contested victory), Franken is fighting mad again and feels he now has the gravitas to play Walter Mondale to Trump’s Ronald Reagan.
He sees no humor in a former SNL gag writer like himself questioning the credentials of cabinet nominees. “It’s not a job for amateurs who don’t know the first thing about education,” he said, lashing out at Trump’s education secretary. “I voted against the nomination of Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor, because she is the most incompetent Cabinet-level nominee I have ever seen.”
What exactly was Franken’s experience before joining the U.S. Senate? Appearing in a Stuart Smalley movie? Writing the book Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot? Sending out phony letters on the official stationery of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government?
It is fitting that a political party so unserious about governing according to common sense is now led in part by comics whose anger exceeds their self-awareness. At one time, Franken could laugh at the therapeutic liberalism underpinning his Stuart Smalley sketches. Not anymore. It is as if the court jesters now aspire to kingship, with Joy Behar, Bill Maher, and Franken, among others, lecturing Trump on statecraft and “responsibility.” We’re witnessing a replay in some ways of the Bush years, when Democrats and media mavens were panting after the approval of Jon Stewart and looking to satirists like Stephen Colbert for direction and advocacy they couldn’t summon in themselves.
Republicans can only hope that this culture spreads among Democrats. It guarantees that they become more and more the party of a smug coastal elite, too busy laughing at its own jokes and crying at its own imaginary traumas, to notice its estrangement from much of the country. Al Franken once said that Chevy Chase is no longer “in on the joke that he is a joke.” The same could be said for a party so terrorized by Trump that it turns to humorless comics for leadership.