2021 arrived with some pretty big questions: Can we conquer the COVID-19 pandemic? Will the economy recover? Is the nation capable of healing its dangerous divisions? Then, of course, there was the biggest question of all: What will late-night comedy do without Trump?
“Saturday Night Live” answered the last of these, at least in part, with its first episode of Joe Biden’s presidency. And the future looks … uninspired.
After a month-long break, the show struggled to find its footing and seemed woefully outpaced by a world that’s changed drastically since the venerable sketch comedy, now in its 46th season, was last on the air in December. Despite all the grist — an astounding capitol insurrection, Kim and Kanye’s split, Bernie Sanders’ inauguration mittens meme, QAnon idiots in fur, vaccine roll-out blunders, Game Stop goofballs gaming Wall Street — host John Krasinski and the cast were given little to nothing to work with by “SNL’s” writers.
There was a “Ratatouille” spoof, in which the precocious rodent of the film was reimagined as a rat that controlled Krasinski’s moves in the bedroom. There was an unfunny take on “Supermarket Sweep,” a weak “Weekend Update” with jokes about transgender “tucking” in the military, and other lazy, crude gags scattered about in sketches I’ve already forgotten.
If Trump has had one victory in the the last month, it may be that “SNL” suddenly seems lost without him. The big orange beacon of ridicule has left the building, and where’s the joy in poking fun at Biden (played most recently by Alex Moffat, who replaced Jim Carrey) or Vice President Kamala Harris (Maya Rudolph) when all there is to work with so far is an aggressively normal inauguration and civil daily press briefings. The new team in Washington will surely be parodied as they embark on one of the most challenging terms in modern memory, but they’ll never spin the drama like their predecessor. “SNL” will have to widen its scope again, because wringing humor out of the White House is never going to as easy as it has been the last four years. The nation’s health depends on a boring POTUS.
When the returning series tried to spin humor from the news on Saturday, it rarely hit the mark. In the cold open, Kate McKinnon hosted the talk show “What Still Works,” where she looked at what, if anything, still works in America.
Her first guest: Marjorie Taylor Greene, the newly elected congresswoman from Georgia who promotes QAnon conspiracies, endorsed the execution of Democratic leaders on Facebook, and thinks the mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla. was staged. In the segment, Greene brings a gun to the interview, boasts about threatening to kill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and believes the California wildfires were started by Jewish space lasers.
The problem is, that’s not satire: It’s the truth. And the bit doesn’t improve as it goes along… for several more “guests.” Among them was O.J. Simpson (Kenan Thompson), who made an appearance to talk about the vaccine rollout in what now passes on “SNL” for ironic humor. (Simpson has been vaccinated against COVID-19, unlike much of the nation.)
Why write jokes when the farcical nature of reality is hard to beat? There’s no question that it’s getting harder and harder to top the headlines, perhaps even more so than it was back when Melissa McCarthy turned the infuriating bluster of Sean Spicer into comedy genius.
But “SNL” has built a 45-year-old comedy empire atop skewering culture, politics and anything else that happens to capture the zeitgeist. There’s no doubt they’ll do it again. But they need to wean themselves off of an old presidency, and look at the present and future with fresh eyes — no matter how bleary or bloodshot they happen to be after four years of Trump.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.