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Like America, 'SNL' after Trump will be better for everyone

The end of Donald Trump’s presidency will be a big step in making America laugh again.
Image: Blue and yellow scribbles cover the faces of three men on the Saturday Night Live stage wearing black suits and red ties.
"Saturday Night Live" episode 1687. Pictured: (l-r) Taran Killam, guest Donald Trump and Darrell Hammond during the monologue on Nov. 7, 2015.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; NBC via Getty Images

This Saturday will be the last time this year we hear the familiar intro refrain of “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” broadcast on our screens in real time. The season finale falls shortly before President Donald Trump gets the boot from the White House on Jan. 20, and, undoubtedly, some will wonder if the iconic late-night comedy show — and political comedy in general — will suffer with Trump out of office.

At the very least, Trump has aged many of us by depriving us of sleep and ratcheting up our stress levels.

That’s a fair question since some late-night comedy shows, including "Saturday Night Live," did do well in ratings under Trump, especially in the early days of his presidency. Trump has been a reliable muse for shows like "SNL," which have featured episode after episode of comical skewering of the commander in chief. ("Saturday Night Live" is owned by NBCUniversal, which also owns MSNBC.)

But for those who truly want to “make comedy great again,” Trump leaving office is a big step in the right direction. For starters, with Trump gone, we can almost definitely expect to see the return of an annual political comedic tradition: the president appearing at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner. Trump boycotted the annual event in large part because he was too thin-skinned to allow himself to be mocked on national TV. (He also called for "SNL" to be canceled and investigated by the Federal Communications Commission for mocking him.)

But there are two other, bigger issues at play that will bolster comedy when Trump leaves office. First, much of comedy is about heightening reality. As someone who worked on the production staff of "SNL" for eight seasons and has written and performed comedy, I know the formula when it comes to political comedy: A politician says something, and then comedians will escalate their words for a laugh or poke fun at the absurdity of it.

With Trump, how do you heighten reality when the starting point is already so far off the charts?

Take Tina Fey’s infamous line, when she parodied Sarah Palin on "SNL," "I can see Russia from my house!" Palin never actually said that line, but many people ended up believing she did. This was simply "SNL" escalating some of Palin’s past comments for laughs, taken from the 2008 presidential campaign when people criticized her for desperately attempting to prove she possessed some type of foreign policy experience.

But with Trump, how do you heighten reality when the starting point is already so far off the charts? This is the same Trump who suggested people inject disinfectant into themselves to kill the Covid-19 virus. Comedian Sarah Cooper rose to social media fame by simply lip-syncing Trump’s comments while mimicking his gestures. (I’m in no way trying to take away from Cooper’s talent — just making a point about the inherent absurdity of Trump's rhetoric.)

But the second big reason why Trump exiting the White House is good for comedy is far more serious: For many, Trump is rightly viewed as an actual danger. This explains the relief expressed by some funny people who have themselves profited from mocking Trump in reaction to his loss in the 2020 election. Alec Baldwin, who Trump viciously attacked on Twitter over the years for his depiction of him on "SNL" to the point that Baldwin in 2019 expressed concerns for his and his family’s safety, tweeted after Trump lost, "I don’t believe I’ve ever been this overjoyed to lose a job before!"

Even Stephen Colbert, whose ratings under Trump soared with his nightly takedowns of the president, cheered Trump’s loss by sharing words that I’m sure resonated with many: “And when he leaves, do you know what I'm looking forward to? Sleep.”

This sentiment is not new for many in the comedy world. In March 2017, Baldwin commented on that same concern, noting he didn’t know then how much longer he would continue playing Trump on "SNL" because “the maliciousness of this White House has people worried.” And, as NBC’s Seth Meyers said on my SiriusXM radio show back in 2017, he would trade the comedic material Trump had inspired for having a different president “in a heartbeat” given all “anxiety and stress” Trump has caused for so many.

At the very least, Trump has aged many of us by depriving us of sleep and ratcheting up our stress levels.

These comedians’ comments sum up so much of what the Trump presidency has been about: His message wasn’t political, it was personal. At his worst, Trump has encouraged violent extremism, demonized Muslims, spewed lies about Mexico sending “rapists,” enacted policies that kept kids in cages and separated families and allowed hundreds of thousands of Americans to die in a pandemic. At the very least, Trump has aged many of us by depriving us of sleep and ratcheting up our stress levels.

The sense of fear Trump inspired prompted comments about political comedy that I had never heard before. It was the fear that comedy about Trump could help normalize his words and actions and prevent people from seeing the danger he poses to so many. I heard this sentiment from listeners to my show and especially from those in minority communities who suffered uniquely under Trump, including my own community of Muslim Americans.

This is in sharp contrast to how people reacted to comedy based on the last GOP president, George W. Bush. Bush's treatment on "SNL" then was seen as both funny and cathartic. It’s not that progressives and people in my community didn’t view Bush’s policies as alarming — especially the Iraq War — but there wasn’t a daily sense that Bush was intentionally trying to turn Americans against one another. And Bush never defended his supporters committing acts of violence — which, however alarming it still is, Trump certainly has done.

So for those looking forward to Trump leaving the White House on Jan. 20, I give you one more reason to celebrate a post-Trump America: It should be a lot funnier. The end of Trump’s presidency should be a big step in making America laugh again.