‘Saturday Night Live’ and ‘South Park’ Are Haunted by Their Pasts in the Trump Era
It’s been almost two years since Donald Trump hosted Saturday Night Live, but the shock of Lorne Michaels actually inviting him still hasn’t worn off. Yes, he had hosted in 2004 back when he seemed to be a mostly harmless reality TV blowhard, but this was after he called Mexicans rapists, made a horrific menstruation joke about Megyn Kelly, and had done a handful of other things that should have made it clear that bringing him to 30 Rock was a bad idea. The show passed by with every cast member begrudgingly participating and remains one of the worst episodes in the show’s history, both morally and in terms of actual jokes. In the time since, Trump’s hosting gig has been something of an elephant in the room, or at least it had been until Taran Killam — who participated in the Trump episode — spoke out about it last week.
Killam critiqued himself for willingly participating in the debacle while also noting the hypocrisy of SNL mocking Trump every week despite ultimately being complicit in his rise to power — after all, the show decided that whatever issues they had with his politics, he wasn’t morally objectionable enough to refrain from inviting to the show. Killam’s self-reflection makes sense now that he’s left the show, especially because at the time, no one in the cast chose to boycott Trump’s episode. Nora Dunn famously boycotted Andrew “Dice” Clay’s episode in 1990 over his sexist standup routine — wasn’t what Trump had been saying for the past five months far worse? Of course, Dunn’s career wasn’t helped by the incident, and you’d have to imagine any cast members considering a Trump boycott were worried about the negative effect on their own careers. It seems cowardly in retrospect, but at least Killam is willing to admit his mistake: “I am embarrassed, upon reflection, just because of how everyone was right,” he told NPR. “Every person outside of that building protesting was absolutely right.”
And Killam certainly has a point. SNL has been pretty aggressive in skewering the president over the past two seasons, but Trump’s appearance casts a nasty shadow over it. They made fun of Ivanka with Scarlett Johansson’s “Complicit” commercial, but they were guilty of the exact same thing. They can have Kate McKinnon-as-Hillary sing “Hallelujah” in an attempt to frame Trump’s victory as a national tragedy, but if he’s so damn terrible, why did they think it was okay to have him host? Put it this way: If every single cast member simultaneously stood on stage and said “Donald Trump is absolute human garbage and we all condemn him to hell with every fiber of our beings,” it still wouldn’t change the fact that two years earlier, he stood on the same stage and cracked jokes with them.
Unlike SNL, South Park never did anything as egregious as having an overtly racist presidential candidate on its show. Its nihilistic approach to comedy has come under fire in the age of Trump, however, and some critics argue that the show played a major role in the rise of troll culture. In seasons 19 and 20 it seemed like Trey Parker and Matt Stone were doing some self-reflection — the former of those seasons dealt largely with political correctness, while the latter focused almost entirely on internet trolling. Those seasons largely played out as arguments Matt and Trey were having with themselves. In one scene, we’d see people — usually women — genuinely hurt by the effects of trolling, but in the same episode, they’d sarcastically portray quitting Twitter as being on par with committing suicide. Whether or not it was really all in good fun for them was a question they tried to answer but could never fully solve, which is perhaps why the conclusion of season 20 was so unsatisfying.
Still, the fact that they were at least trying to answer these questions was an encouraging development — one that seemed to cease, however, when they mentioned that they weren’t planning on doing a whole lot with Trump in season 21. You could sympathize with them somewhat; Trump is a pain in the ass, and so is finding new ways to mock someone who is such an obvious joke already. That being said, it felt like the coward’s way out. Sure, it’s tiresome, but just ignoring him sends the wrong message, especially when there’s a line of thought that suggests South Park was somewhat responsible for the culture that led to someone as repulsive as Trump becoming president in the first place. As Taran Killam put it while criticizing SNL, “Boy, they could definitely mine some comedy out of owning up to it, huh?”
Parker and Stone seemed to realize this themselves with the first two episodes of season 21. The premiere, “White People Renovating Houses,” was an attempt to satirize the “alt-right” after the events in Charlottesville. Unfortunately, it missed the mark entirely. First off, the protestors were stereotypically angry rednecks, ignoring the fact that what separates the alt-right from neo-Nazi movements of the past is the number of educated, affluent people participating in it. Secondly, instead of being mad about being replaced by immigrants and people of color, their ire was aimed at technology like Alexa instead. Thankfully, the show bounced back with “Put It Down,” which brought back Garrison/Trump in an excellent way, as he trolls North Korea to the brink of destruction and drags poor Tweek along in the process. The episode perfectly captured the perpetual fear that has become the norm under Trump and was one of the show’s best installments in years.
And then…that was it. The next three episodes made no mention of Trump or Garrison whatsoever. It was hard not to wonder if perhaps Matt and Trey had said “Okay fine, we did Trump stuff, can you leave us alone now?” Rather than build on what they started with “Put It Down,” they went back to dropping the subject entirely. The episodes themselves weren’t bad (“Hummels and Heroin” was an adroit look at the opioid crisis), but the absence of Trump/Garrison was troubling. Surely he could have livened up Randy Marsh’s crusade against Columbus Day, or played some role in Coon & Friends’ attempt at getting a Netflix show. But no, it felt like Matt and Trey decided they had done just enough Trump stuff and could safely return to business as usual.
The president did return for last night’s “Sons a Witches,” but in a rather irritating way. The episode satirizes the Harvey Weinstein scandal (though it never mentions him by name) by having the dads of South Park dress up like witches and go in the woods to drink Jack Daniels and smoke crack. It’s all good fun until one of them finds a spell book and becomes an actual witch, kidnapping children and causing mayhem in the process. The rest of the gang fears they’ll be targeted in a “witch pursuit thing” and call on Trump/Garrison (who used to be part of the group) to help. He kills the bad witch with the weaponry he’s acquired along with the presidency. Problem solved. This was weird, to say the least. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have Trump/Garrison be an even stronger, more evil witch? Why have him be the hero? A generous reading would be that it’s a nod to how Weinstein’s career was destroyed by his history of sexually assaulting women, while Trump ascended to the White House anyway. Even then, though, it still feels wrong to have him save the day. It was a mostly entertaining episode ruined by an unsatisfying ending, and it didn’t do much to solve the ongoing question of how Matt and Trey really want to handle the Trump problem.
Saturday Night Live and South Park are both struggling to tackle Trump, but they have opposing problems. SNL is willing to skewer him as much as possible, but the decision to have him host was so heinous that their efforts can only carry them so far. South Park has an easier road to redemption, but seems far less willing to take it. At any rate, the rise of the 45th president has proven to be a major obstacle for two of comedy’s longest running institutions, and in each case, a fair portion of the damage is self-inflicted, and it remains uncertain if either show will ever truly separate itself from the carnage.