So, that happened.
Ever since former The Apprentice host Donald J. Trump officially won the United States presidency on Tuesday night, Saturday Night Live fans have been wondering how the show would handle the news after spending the election season riffing on Trump’s political showdowns with the likes of Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, having him host an episode during the primaries, and mocking his tweets and debates. Every cold open of the season so far was a sketch about the election, so viewers wondered: How would Saturday’s episode begin?
Not with Trump. Alec Baldwin, who has impersonated the president-elect this season, was notably absent from the show, and the cold open instead focused on Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton paying tribute to Leonard Cohen and her failed run with a cover of “Hallelujah.” But while SNL didn’t include any direct mockery of Trump with Baldwin, the show did reference and mock Republican winner throughout the episode, with host Dave Chappelle’s monologue, a sketch about what kids think of Trump, and McKinnon’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg appearance on Weekend Update being highlights. (Trump hosted SNL last year, a highly controversial appearance that continues to be criticized for helping to normalize Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric.)
Instead, this week’s SNL opened with the aforementioned “Hallelujah” cover, a one-two punch of over-the-top sentiment. At the end of the song, McKinnon turned to the camera and said through tears, “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.” While beautiful, the performance felt like an almost-random combination of two big unrelated news events that happened this week.
Dave Chappelle’s Monologue
But SNL became more pointed with its criticism of the election when legendary comic Chappelle, who was hosting for the first time, began his monologue. Chappelle’s Show stands as one of the titanic artistic statements on the role of race in American culture, and its creator opened his monologue by noting, “It seemed like Hillary was up in the polls, but I know the whites.” While most of the media seemed shocked by Trump’s win, Chapelle wasn’t surprised (a bit on which he and Chris Rock spoofed later in the show).
Also in his opening remarks, the comedian shared a memory of a recent party at the White House, featuring all black people “and Bradley Cooper for some reason,” and how it gave him hope for the future. He noted the history of black people visiting the White House, which started with Abraham Lincoln inviting Frederick Douglass and having to pick up his esteemed guest at the gates himself. Chappelle ended his monologue by addressing the president-elect with a hopeful message: “I’m wishing Donald Trump luck, and I’m gonna give him a chance. And we, the historically disenfranchised, demand that he give us one too.”
Best Political Moment: Election Night
After the spirited monologue, the very first sketch, “Election Night,” told the story of an election-viewing party where the white guests (played by Aidy Bryant, Cecily Strong, and Beck Bennett) prematurely celebrated Clinton’s win, while Chappelle shook his head and reminded them “it’s a big country.” Chappelle was eventually joined in his skepticism by surprise guest star Chris Rock, who walked into the party as news of a potential Trump victory broke. “I mean yeah, of course,” he says.
The whole sketch is a spot-on skewering of liberal illusions going into this election. Many Clinton supporters assured themselves, in Bennett’s words, that “the country’s shifting demographics mean we might never have another Republican president.” Instead, exit polls show that 30 percent of Latinos and 53 percent of white women voted for Trump. Clinton also lost Rust Belt states like Michigan and Wisconsin. When asked why Clinton lost Obama voters, Rock noted, “Replacing a charismatic 40-year-old black guy with a white woman is like the Knicks replacing Patrick Ewing with Neil Patrick Harris.”
Best Sketch: Walking Dead Chappelle’s Show
When SNL wasn’t getting political this week, it was getting extremely meta. In a digital short modeled after The Walking Dead season premiere, Chappelle is dressed as Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan and addresses a captive collection of characters from Chappelle’s Show, including crack addict Tyrone Biggums and Lil Jon. In this way, it was actually true to the comic book The Walking Dead‘s version of the scene, in which Negan debated his choice of victim like a writer choosing which character to kill off (the young boy Carl, for instance, was off-limits because “I can’t kill you before your story ends, too interesting”).
Eventually, Chappelle’s Negan chooses to kill Tyrone Biggums. After the baseball bat decapitates him, however, Tyrone’s head comes rolling back, and does in fact have its own political message to declare: “Even though our country seems irrevocably severed, like a man from his head, let my example prove that we should continue to move forward.” Tyrone’s head is then Photoshopped onto a variety of images, from the Statue of Liberty to Trump himself. In some ways, the bizarre, genre-bursting sequence seemed like a proper response to such an insane week. Tyrone notes, “I’ve only got two weeks until they take away my health care.”
Weakest Sketch: Kids Talk Trump
SNL‘s weakest sketch this week featured Vanessa Bayer interviewing schoolchildren about Trump’s victory. Most of the kids spoke about Trump’s narcissism or “weird fake hair,” but Chappelle’s daughter then declared that since Trump has “unleashed racism and xenophobia, we now must return to the dark ages of white presidents.” A sketch in which kids “drop truth” and say what some adults won’t isn’t as cute when the realities are a little too real.
Weekend Update Highlights
Colin Jost and Michael Che are not the sharpest duo to ever host Weekend Update, and their efforts to analyze Trump’s surprise victory seemed superfluous next to Chappelle’s commentary and A Tribe Called Quest’s musical performance. But Jost did have his moments, such as when he described Trump’s victory as America needing “life-saving surgery, and we could’ve gotten one of the world’s most experienced doctors, but instead we went with a guy wearing a hat that says ‘I’m a good doctor,'” and when he compared Trump’s proposed cabinet to “a swamp full of newts, a sleepy little turtle, a hissing possum, and a pile of wet garbage.” (That’s Newt Gingrich, Ben Carson, Rudy Giuliani, and Chris Christie, by the way/)
Che, for his part, smartly contextualized the Trump/Clinton divide in terms of the ongoing culture wars, saying Trump “made white guys feel pretty and strong. He’s like their Beyoncé. Fifty-four percent of white women voted for Trump. You don’t think that had something to do with seeing their out-of-work, depressed husbands come back from Trump rallies all jacked-up and horny, ready to seize the day?” Che had another joke about the 30 percent of Latinos who voted for Trump, but unfortunately messed up the line delivery, which speaks to the inconsistent quality of this version of Weekend Update.
Jost also brought out McKinnon to reprise her Ruth Bader Ginsburg character. McKinnon delivered some “Gins-burns” to the likes of Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, but the idea that Trump’s presidency means a conservative Supreme Court for years to come may have been too soon to joke about for some liberal viewers.
Best Musical Moment: A Tribe Called Quest, “We the People”
One of the foundational acts of ’90s New York hip-hop, A Tribe Called Quest consisted of four founding members: Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi White, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. Earlier this year, Phife died from complications from diabetes, but not before recording a final album, We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service. The album is a masterpiece, and when it landed on streaming services Wednesday, many fans praised its timing.
Q-Tip opened the SNL performance by asking everyone in the audience to raise their fist and declaring, “We are all one,” before launching into the album’s most political track, “We the People” (which features police sirens and lyrics imitating racists saying, “All of you black folks you must go … Muslims and gays, boy we hate your ways”). During Phife’s verse, the group lowered a goofy illustrated portrait of their friend and let his words speak for themselves. A beautiful, uplifting performance.
Cast MVP: Kate McKinnon
This episode was Chappelle’s show, and the cast mostly got out of his way and let him do his thing. McKinnon, though, was not afraid to go head-to-head with the legendary comedian, as in this week’s “Last Call” sketch. McKinnon is easily the biggest star on SNL right now, and it’s a pleasure to watch her match wits with talented guests like Chappelle. As mentioned above, this recapper wasn’t a huge fan of the cold open, but McKinnon is still the only cast member who could have possibly handled that burden.
Episode Grade: A-
The cold open was lackluster, and of course there were some weak sketches, but the combination of Chappelle’s skillful, spirited commentary and A Tribe Called Quest’s powerful music was exactly what many viewers may have needed right now. Onward.