President-elect Donald Trump is not the only midtown Manhattan resident encountering problems with his transition game this week. So too is Saturday Night Live, which failed to consider the possibility of the erstwhile star of NBC’s The Apprentice becoming the 45th president.
Who will SNL’s longtime producer, Lorne Michaels, install to impersonate the most bombastic and histrionic commander-in-chief in the show’s, if not the nation’s, history? And will Jared Kushner cast influence on who becomes Michaels’s appointee?
Thus far, in the late-night NBC show’s 42nd season, Alec Baldwin has portrayed the Donald. A veteran film actor who has hosted SNL 16 times, more than anyone else, Baldwin was a natural to play Trump in a limited run. For six years, he starred as Jack Donaghy, a similarly narcissistic chief executive, on 30 Rock (a show set in the very edifice SNL occupies). A favorite of Michaels and the show’s writers and cast, Baldwin was a welcome presence in the hallways around Studio 8-H. Everyone knew it was a limited run, though; no one prepared for the exigency of a Hillary Clinton defeat. “I’m trying to shed the Donald Trump cloak,” Baldwin said in a radio interview in New York earlier this week.
Not unlike the “lamestream media,” SNL was ideally set up for a Clinton victory. The show’s strongest cast member by far is Kate McKinnon, who two months ago won an Emmy for outstanding supporting actress. A Long Island native like Baldwin (and technically Trump), McKinnon’s Clinton and Ruth Bader Ginsburg impersonations are weekly highlights. A Clinton presidency would have put her in better stead with SNL than Ronda Rousey once was with UFC. Upsets happen.
McKinnon’s headliner status—she opened the post-election era by performing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on piano dressed as Clinton—is axiomatic and emblematic of a larger truth: Most of the current cast’s alpha males are women. McKinnon, Cecily Strong, Leslie Jones and Aidy Bryant are all naturally closer in temperament—they have the world’s greatest temperaments—to Trump than any male in the cast with the exception of Kenan Thompson.
Further complicating matters, Michaels failed to pick up the final year of Taran Killam’s contract last summer. A six-year veteran who had played Trump and arguably the most talented male cast member since the exodus of Bill Hader, Killam would have been a suitable choice—albeit not as inspired a selection as Alec Baldwin.
Since its inception in 1975, SNL has parodied presidents without pause. Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford gave way to Dan Aykroyd’s Jimmy Carter, which ceded power to Phil Hartman’s Ronald Reagan, which yielded the Oval Office to Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush ("Not gonna do it"), which ceded the podium to Darrell Hammond’s Bill Clinton, paving the way for Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush and then to Fred Armisen’s Barack Obama. No impression was funnier than Carvey’s Bush, but Chase’s Ford might have created a blueprint for the quandary in which Michaels now finds himself. Why? Because Chase never attempted to look or sound like the 38th president.
In Chase’s debut as President Ford in 1975, he addressed America as words appeared below him on screen. “This is not a good Gerald Ford impression,” the line read, followed by, “but Rich Little won’t work for scale.” Little was the 1970s version of Frank Caliendo.
SNL cast members have impersonated former leaders of the free world with keen dialect precision (Hammond’s Bill Clinton) and eerily similar physical features (Hartman’s Reagan). And, as Chase’s Ford demonstrated, they are capable of an impression that does as little as possible to provide a facsimile. The only thing unprecedented about a presidential impression on SNL would be no impression at all. The show must go on, and for the foreseeable future there will be no person on the world stage more primed for parody than Donald J. Trump. So what is Michaels, the original producer of SNL who has been in charge of it throughout its run with the exception of a five-year hiatus in the early ’80s, to do other than flee to his native Canada? Here are some suggestions.
Darrell Hammond: A gifted impressionist, Hammond has been with the show longer than any cast member in its history, though his only current duty is as the program’s announcer. He appeared in 87 sketches as Bill Clinton, and his Trump was better than Killam’s, if not the equal to Baldwin’s. The choice of this 61-year-old, who will be in the studio each week anyway, invites little risk—which is why it feels like a cop out. The surest thing about a Trump presidency is that none of us know quite what to expect, and maybe in the spirit of Trump’s campaign, Michaels needs to drain the swamp of incumbents.
Beck Bennett: Now in his fourth season, Bennett has the recommended daily allowance of obnoxiousness to portray Trump, but he cannot land this role for two obvious reasons: His physical features suit him ideally to play either Vladimir Putin or Mike Pence, each of whom will be ideal comic foils to President Trump in any sketch.
Kenan Thompson or Aidy Bryant: “Oooowee, what’s up with that? What’s up with that?” Thompson is black, while Bryant is a plus-size woman. Both are hilarious physical comedians and, like Trump, overwhelm any scene in which they find themselves. Who cares if neither is a tall white man? Simply knowing how greatly it would annoy Trump to be played by a black man or a woman would be half the comedy (it’s almost enough to inspire Michaels to invite former Hispanic castmate Horatio Sanz back for a run).
Leslie Jones: lack, female and exponentially louder and prouder than anyone in the current cast. Put an orange wig on her, wind her up and let her go. Trump would be tweeting his disapproval of this, big league.
Kate McKinnon: She’s 5-foot-3 and embodies everything that Trump is not. As talented as the spritely McKinnon is, this feels like a poor fit.
An Outsider: Hammond joined the cast in 1995 and almost exclusively played Clinton. Might Michaels consider extreme vetting of new talent to fill a similar hole in his current cast? How about ninth-grader Jack Aiello of suburban Chicago, whose Trump impression went viral last June? Or comedian Anthony Atamanuik, whose Trump impersonation is not only spot-on but whose “white power” riff is as incisive as anything SNL has put out all season?
Donald Trump: Why not? All indications are that the president-elect plans to spend his weekends away from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and at Trump Tower, a scant seven blocks north of SNL. Besides, he has hosted the show once before and is a former NBC employee. Nobody could play Donald Trump better than Donald Trump, buh-lieve me! He would be tremendous!
Then again...one more suggestion: There is a man who suddenly finds himself with more free time than he bargained for who could commute from New Jersey (we suggest taking the Lincoln Tunnel).