SNL’s Celebrity Castings and How We View American Politics

By Joseph Kim

NBC’s Saturday Night Live has been a staple in American television for over 40 years, creating iconic comedy moments and expanding careers of Hollywood’s finest. And a defining part of SNL is its political satire. Lorne Michaels founded the show in 1975, airing at the heels of the Vietnam War and the Watergate Scandal. To say the least, disillusionment and frustration with authority was at an all-time high. So, it makes sense that SNL would focus on political commentary through impressions and sketches, performed by the main cast members.

Yet, for the past couple of years, since 2016’s election and the Republican nomination of Donald Trump, certain political figures, highlighted at the time by the mainstream media, were, and still are, cast with third-party Hollywood actors. Take SNL’s Donald Trump: originally, for the Republican primaries, he was portrayed by SNL alum Darrell Hammond. Then, when Donald Trump became the forerunner and moved into the general election campaign, Alec Baldwin, who has hosted the show 17 times, the most of anybody, took over the role.

Both Hammond and Baldwin have done incredible work with their respective portrayals, but Baldwin has clearly shined, winning a Critic’s Choice Award and a Primetime Emmy for his work. He’s made a bigger impression on the general audience. But is this bigger impression due to Baldwin’s more hilarious accents to the character, or due to his already-established popularity among the public, or both? I am only questioning this because the casting decision came out in a weird way. SNL cast Baldwin into the role for season 42, without Hammond’s knowledge of the consideration. It makes sense why he was taken aback: why cast a new Trump when Hammond was perfectly capable of doing the job?

(Original clip by NBC)

Then, Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer. This took everyone by surprise, not only because McCarthy didn’t host the show on her first appearance, but also because of the gender-reversal casting. Which honestly worked to the show’s benefit. McCarthy’s energy and comedic rage matched perfectly to the temperamental demeanor of the former Communications Director. Still, it seemed like an out-of-the-blue choice. Again, why not utilize the many cast members who are at your disposal? Despite all of the questions, McCarthy’s performance was praised, and a trend of celebrity castings began.

Some notable names include Ben Stiller as attorney Michael Cohen, John Goodman as former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Robert DeNiro as Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and Bill Murray as former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, just to name a few. All of these actors and comedians, before their respective appearances, were not directly associated with SNL’s then-current season, but they each raised the show’s presence within the pop culture discussion.

To clarify an earlier point, Baldwin or McCarthy weren’t the first of these celebrity castings. Larry David’s spot-on Bernie Sanders impression first appeared in 2015, making appearances on-and-off for the next couple of years. But without Baldwin’s consistently-funny performance, McCarthy’s casting wouldn’t have come up as a possibility, and the trend wouldn’t have started. Baldwin was the catalyst, and McCarthy was the proof of concept.

Going into the general election, with Trump in the running, SNL’s writers and producers noticed something. They didn’t notice a change in how the public views politics in media: they noticed that a change already happened, without our knowledge. American news outlets have slowly transformed from impartial wells of information to biased entertainment pieces, on either end of the political spectrum. The 24-hour news cycle, radicalization of movements, and a decrease in public political consciousness have all culminated to a Trump presidency, where the host of The Apprentice can become leader of the Free World.

I think SNL saw how news media and its audience perceived headlining politicians, and wanted to satirize it to the extreme. So, in order to satirize the “celebriti-zation” of political figures, why not cast real celebrities to portray them? Now, it’s not that the SNL cast members are ill-equiped to portray these figures. Kate McKinnon, for example, first portrayed Robert Mueller in a Weekend Update segment, before being replaced by Robert DeNiro.

*A brief mention: Kate McKinnon is amazing on SNL. She’s played countless political figures with ease and grace, and never ceases to be hilarious. *

The casting decision was strategic. It would immediately elevate any impression of a supposed figure to the same weight that the mainstream media gives. SNL wants to criticize not only the political crisis of the Trump era, but also the media’s attitude and approach to said era.

I know I’m throwing Trump’s name around. It’s easy to paint Trump as the bad guy. I’ll even acknowledge my own bias, being a politically liberal person. But this article isn’t about Trump. It’s not about conservatives versus liberals, Republican versus Democrat: it’s about how we bear witness to our leaders, our policy-makers, our government. It’s about asking questions, of how we consume and process media in today’s political climate, and of what to do next. So, no matter where you stand politically, please vote this November. Be politically active. Don’t just be entertained: be informed.