No one had a clearer read on why Donald Trump was invited to host Saturday Night Live than Donald Trump. “The reason they put me there is one very simple reason: It’s called ratings,” the current Republican presidential frontrunner said Thursday on The Today Show.
Trump may overstate his influence in basically every other way, but he is remarkably clear-eyed when it comes to what he has called his "mutually profitable two-way relationship with the media." His assessment of his SNL hosting gig was no different.
Protesters demonstrated and legal scholars questioned the possible consequences under the FCC's "equal time" rule, but NBC pushed ahead. Because, at a moment when most of us can't look away from the daily spectacle that is The Trump Show, the network knew people would watch.
So what were we watching? Not a whole lot.
Trump appeared on screen for just 12 minutes, and there are a few possible explanations for his comparatively short go of it. (As Variety pointed out, Amy Schumer was on screen for around 25 minutes when she hosted back in October; Miley Cyrus clocked in around 22 minutes.)
The first could be that the schedule of an active presidential candidate probably doesn't lend itself to spending a week in New York City to rehearse lines for a sketch about "Hotline Bling." Or possibly because, under federal communications law, Martin O'Mally or Chris Christie could have pointed to Trump's hosting spot and launched their own campaigns to get the same amount of time on the network. NBC may have kept his screen time low just in case.
But the most obvious reason might just be that Trump, for all he's done to massage and hold the public's attention for these last several months, isn't particularly funny.
His stiff, flat delivery played well enough in the few sketches that were strong enough to carry him—Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto shows up to a Trump White House and begs to give the U.S. money to pay for the border wall as well as a weird bar room sketch that had Trump playing the laser harp while wearing what looked like a velvet cape—but otherwise made for an awkward night.
His presence felt hard to justify even when he managed to pull it off. In a sketch about the state of the country after two years of a Trump presidency, the jokes felt chummier than they might have been if Taran Killim had filled the role instead of Trump himself.
It's hard to make fun of the guy you're in the room with, particularly for a show like SNL, which rarely has the political stomach that, say, Stephen Colbert had at his best, most biting on The Colbert Report.
Even the most provocative moment of the show—Larry David interrupts Trump's opening monologue to call him a racist—fell flat.
“You’re a racist. Trump’s a racist!” David yelled from off-stage.
“It’s Larry David. What are you doing, Larry?” Trump replied.
“I heard if I yelled that someone would give me $5,000," David explained.
It was a moment when the writers actually engaged with the controversial nature of Trump's presence on the show, and it was immediately blunted into a we’re all friends here kind of pablum.
Trump is actively campaigning for the presidency, and while his general lack of a filter has served him well so far, it's clear he wasn't going to sign off on any sketch that was critical in a way that could actually be wounding. This general lack of teeth—the result of giving your subject veto power—made watching the show feel tiresome.
There was basically no real reason for Trump to act as host instead of going the traditional route of making a handful of appearances. The best sketch of the night—Trump dancing to "Hotline Bling"—wasn't even live, and was decidedly apolitical.
A few softballs about how Trump's general platform is politically implausible and a goofy dance didn't feel like enough to justify his presence more than a sketch or two. But whether or not he was up for the job didn't stop NBC from giving it to him. The question now is if the voting public has better judgement.