It’s kind of a miracle -- but 44 years after its debut, “Saturday Night Live” is still going strong and even more essential to the national psyche than it’s ever been.
At a troubled time, when Americans are at each other’s throats, “SNL” somehow manages to thread the needle and deliver sharp social commentary that might offend the most extreme and humorless partisans across the spectrum but gives the majority of the country -- from center-right to center-left -- something to laugh about.
Television is awash in so-called satire, but most of the other late-night comedy hosts -- from Colbert to Kimmel to Trevor Noah -- have become so bitterly anti-Trump that their monologues and skits are little more than rants, applauded by those who agree with their politics and written off by everyone else.
By contrast, when an “SN”L skit goes viral, it’s usually subtle enough that both sides can get the joke — and maybe even concede that the other side has a tiny point, too. Whether by luck or design, the show has managed to stay front and center of the national conversation since the beginning of its new season in September.
Consider these examples.
The most important comedy moment of the year was the cold open of the very first episode of the season. Coming on the heels of the wrenching Supreme Court hearing, at a time when it seemed we might never laugh again, Matt Damon made a surprise appearance as Brett Kavanaugh and nailed the essential absurdity of those proceedings. From the constant invocation of his friend “Squee” to the refrain “I like beer,” Damon was all-in as the aggressively put-upon Kavanaugh. And everyone did laugh again — at least, those who don’t think politics is a matter of life and death.
The second-most important TV moment of the year was Pete Davidson’s apology to GOP Congressional candidate and Afghan war veteran Ben Crenshaw, whose physical appearance —including an eyepatch — Davidson mocked the previous week. Crenshaw had lost an eye in combat, but he graciously accepted Davidson’s apology and appeared on “Weekend Update” to make a few mild jokes and plead for Americans to both forgive each other and to remember war veterans and the heroes of September 11, including Davidson’s own firefighter father, who died in the World Trade Center. If I were king of the universe, I would make every American watch that clip at least five times.
In a way this is Davidson’s season, even though he hasn’t appeared in a lot of sketches. He entered the season engaged to pop star Ariana Grande, which occasioned a lot of jokes. And then they broke up, which wasn’t funny, but did generate a huge amount of media attention.
Or maybe it’s Kate McKinnon’s season, whose impersonations of a rapping, break-dancing Ruth Bader Ginsburg have been an Internet sensation.
Speaking of media attention, in that first episode of the season, Kanye West appeared as a musical guest wearing a MAGA hat, then lectured the audience at the episode’s conclusion about President Trump’s merits. As if that wasn’t weird enough, the rap star then visited Trump in the Oval Office, ostensibly to talk about prison reform, but really to monologue about all the ideas percolating in Kanye World. The media ate this up, too. Needless to say, “SNL” then did hilarious a sketch about the Trump/Kanye meeting. Sometimes with “SNL,” it’s hard to tell where the parody begins and ends.
“Saturday Night Live” also managed to stay in the news for reasons that had nothing to do with the new season. When actor Alec Baldwin was arrested — bizarrely — for an altercation over a parking space in Greenwich Village, he was widely identified with his impersonation of Trump on “SNL.” Baldwin’s been a movie and TV star for 30 years, but that’s now his main identification in the public mind.
“SNL” is also the subject of a pivotal scene in the hugely popular “A Star is Born.” When the movie-makers want to demonstrate that Lady Gaga’s character, Ally, has sold out her musical roots, they have her appear as a flashy lip-syncing performer on the late night show. This is another case of art imitating life, because Lady Gaga herself has appeared on “SNL” (as herself) a number of times.
Given the show’s notoriety, the ratings have been stronger than usually this year. All this is a bit surprising because the cast for the past few years has not really been that strong, with only McKinnon and long-time cast member Kenan Thompson consistently providing the zaniness of the best “SNL” ensembles.
All this goes to show is that “SNL” has become bigger than any single cast member. When it keeps its eye on the ball and remembers that its job is to produce a mainstream comedy show, it can keep laughs coming and viewers tuned in.