The National Endowment for the Arts, Responsibility, and Saturday Night Live
There are so many elements of Donald Trump’s administration that, for me, transcend the idea that they are “troubling.” They are absolute threats against American values. From a ban on refugees to a, as Jon Lovett put it, “repeal and go fuck yourself” policy for health insurance, Trump has done nothing to mollify his doubters. If anything, one of the latest revelations of his plans for policy has exacerbated the concern that a majority of Americans rightly harbor.
The New York Times reported on February 17 that Trump’s first budget proposal includes cuts to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which is responsible for both the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio) and the National Endowment for the Arts. Between this proposal and Trump’s repeated claim that reputable organizations like CNN, NBC News, and others are “fake news,” it is definitely fair to move my fear that Trump is sowing the seeds of a dictatorship in the United States from “paranoid” to “pretty reasonable.”
If someone or some group aims to upend a democracy, one of the first steps is to strip the press and the arts of their power. Why? Because they’re representative of a resistance to so-called leadership. Trump sees the press as the enemy, which they are. But only for him. He is the enemy of American democracy and because the press and the arts are indicative of core American values and Trump is not, therein lies his view of threatening and nonthreatening.
The most troubling thing about this, though, (and one of the core reasons for why I started The Sensitive Armadillo in the first place) is that I have no idea what to do about it. Sure, you see those fundraisers and pledge drives on PBS all the time and NPR is constantly a major source of donated revenue, but what happens if a large part of what keeps them running is suddenly taken away? And what can be done to aid the NEA in weathering a time of both uncertainty and potential peril? I honestly have no idea so I now have to place my faith in people who are smarter and more equipped to combat a totalitarian regime than I am. Weirdly, many of these people are going to be the ones who could lose funding soon. I’m not a fan of uncharted territory when it comes to our way of life.
On the other hand, there has been a lot of good that came out of uncharted territory. Recently, Saturday Night Live has constructed two of its best episodes, not only in recent memory, but potentially in the show’s entire history. February 4, 2017’s Kristen Stewart/Alessia Cara episode and February 11, 2017’s Alec Baldwin/Ed Sheeran episode are two excellent examples of the fact that great art and great satire can come from times of turbulence. Times like a Donald Trump administration. And if, suddenly, the NEA and PBS and NPR and our other beloved government arts programs are gone, we will have to look to other sources that challenge Trump.
As expected, SNL has done a great job of satirizing and commenting on the daily chaos surrounding Washington. But what was not expected, at least in my case, is that they did it at such a breakneck speed and with such a high level of humor and consistency that I had to wait until the show was on an off-week to write about the amazing job the show’s staff has done the past two weeks.
The reason for SNL’s sudden uptick in quality, however, is not only because they are roasting Trump, but because they are trolling him. We already know that Trump is tuned to NBC at 11:30 every Saturday night, but when it came out that Trump was upset with the way SNL portrayed Steve Bannon (as the Grim Reaper), Kellyanne Conway did not favor Kate McKinnon’s brilliant impression of her (manic and unhinged), and Sean Spicer was distraught by the idea of being portrayed by a woman (geniusly by Melissa McCarthy who has probably won the Guest Actress in a Comedy Emmy already), SNL decided to go meta, addressing the president himself in multiple sketches and doing exactly the things he claimed to be angriest about them doing on Twitter. This was ratcheted up to eleven when Leslie Jones, a black woman, portrayed Donald Trump in a ten-to-one sketch. It was trolling at its finest.
And while these past two episodes have produced a shit ton of unbelievably funny sketches (a rewritten Welcome to America airport instructional video, the cold open of Trump calling world leaders, Kellyanne Conway’s Fatal Attraction parody, Trump being overruled on The People’s Court, etc), I think it is important that we revisit the sketches when McCarthy portrays Spicer. I don’t know who came up with the idea that McCarthy should come in as a guest to play him, but that person deserves an Emmy of his, or her, own. I mean, Beck Bennett probably could have played Spicer and done a good job. I’m sure Mikey Day could’ve handled it, too. Maybe even Bobby Moynihan. But bringing in McCarthy is genius because the sketches are short enough that she can bring it from start to finish and her comedic energy is so boundless that it doesn’t even matter if she’s reading the cue cards correctly.
I’ve never been a big fan of McCarthy’s. I enjoyed her in Bridesmaids, but movies like Identity Thief and Tammy strongly turned me off to her. But she has easily been the best part of the past two SNL episodes and what strikes me the most is that she had no obligation to take the role in the first place. But as with many comedians and artists and actors lately, they feel as if their work is being threatened (which, based on Trump’s budget plan, it is) so it becomes their responsibility to use their talents against the current administration.
There’s something really remarkable about our country that one can infer just from the fact that whenever a huge political bombshell transpires (which seems like every two hours these days), a lot of comments seem to be, “I wonder how SNL will handle this.” It’s the responsibility for a sketch show like that, which is built on political satire, to help dismantle current events and make demagogues like Trump seem less scary. In a lot of ways, these past two episodes of SNL can be seen as the first true pieces of post-Trump art, which we will surely be seeing a great deal more of in the coming years. A lot of movies in the coming year have already been written or filmed and a lot of novels are still in final stages of revision so it takes a live sketch show to truly get at the core of what’s happening in the world during a time when there might not be many other options to turn to. That’s responsibility. A show that’s been around for forty-two years has a great deal of power and therefore, they need to use their platform properly. It’s just like Uncle Ben told Peter Parker.
What Donald Trump doesn’t seem to understand about his responsibility is that he was tasked with improving the country by building off of the improvements made by Barack Obama. It’s like raising children. People hope to be better parents than their own parents were and they hope their kids will be even better yet. I hoped Trump could be even better than Obama. But my doubts were there. And now they’re confirmed.
It seems so simple. It was on all of his hats. His responsibility was to make America great again. But by disposing of the arts and attacking the press and halting immigration (and the list goes on and on and on), he’s destroying the very things that make America so great in the first place. It makes you wonder what his warped idea of a great country is anyway. If we don’t have the arts and the press, then what do we have? What could be left for us? They are our greatest sources of entertainment and information and aid for daily life. And they are the greatest source for holding the current administration accountable. They take responsibility for this and because they’re using their national platform in this manner, Donald Trump attacks them. The best thing to take away from this is the fact that because Trump is threatened by them, then they’re doing their job and they’re doing it well. I give them every ounce of my gratitude because the presidency is supposed to be the thankless job. Not the media surrounding it.
For now, I will hold Sesame Street and NPR’s StoryCorps and all the other great programs we have received because of our country’s encouragement of the arts close to my heart. And Donald Trump better get ready for a bigger fight than Lorne Michaels could ever orchestrate.
Next week: an alternative look at the nuclear football through the theme of acceptance and the 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.