Saturday Night Live’ returns, with room for improvement

It’s time for Saturday Night Live to step it up. USA TODAY

The venerable late-night comedy show returns for its 43rd season Saturday, fresh off of winning six Emmy Awards and riding a ratings and cultural resurgence in the wake of Donald Trump winning the White House.

Great, swell, well deserved, whatever.

Now get better.

Why? After all, every new episode last season, it seemed, found fodder in Trump’s latest misstep or gaffe, with Alec Baldwin (the winner of one of those Emmys) portraying Trump as a swollen gasbag belching out toxic pronouncements.

It wasn’t much of a stretch.

And that’s part of the problem. The bits worked better during the campaign, with events like the debates offering plenty of surreal material to work with (playing the Jaws music when Baldwin’s Trump stalked the stage behind Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton). But once Trump won — an event mourned by the show the Saturday after the election as McKinnon sang Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah alone at a piano, which also served as a memorial to the recently departed Cohen — the going got complacent.

A sameness set in quickly: Though wildly praised in knee-jerk fashion on social media every time he showed up, Baldwin’s portrayal relied more on simple mimicry than any kind of deeper understanding of who Trump is, or why he might behave this way. (Granted, figuring that out is a tall order.)

We often hear that the outrageous things Trump says at rallies are red meat to his base.

Baldwin’s portrayal is Brie and chardonnay to the other side.

This is not to say brilliance couldn’t be found (and Baldwin is funny, just monotonous over time). Melissa McCarthy — the recipient of another Emmy — did what Baldwin did not with her savage Sean Spicer satire: She created a wholly new character, “Spicy.” It was so rich and thorough and devastating in the denials and justifications that it was impossible to separate her version from the real thing when Spicer conducted media briefings during his tenure as White House press secretary. (Spicer spoofed her portrayal of him at the Emmys, in a weird meta bit that didn’t go over so well.)

But for inspired genius, nothing topped McKinnon’s Kellyanne Conway. The presidential adviser had been photographed kneeling on a couch in the Oval Office while the president met with leaders of historically black colleges. McKinnon (yet another Emmy winner) simply showed up without speaking, playing Conway kneeling in various places. No explanation, just a surreal addition to scenes that pointed out the absurdity around us.

More of that, please.

It’s also important to remember that this isn’t The Daily Show (though one could argue the whole idea for that show sprang from the “Weekend Update” segment of SNL). The show doesn’t exist solely to take shots at Trump, or whoever is in the White House. Host Ryan Gosling and musical guest Jay-Z may get political Saturday; they may not. It may not matter.

Which classic skits do you best remember? Sure, some political ones — Dan Aykroyd’s monstrous Richard Nixon, raving with John Belushi’s Henry Kissinger at his side — but also the straight comedy routines, like the Bass-o-matic; Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber; Velvet Jones; Wayne and Garth of decades past.

But do you remember any sketches from last season that didn’t have to do with politics? Be honest: How many times did you check out after the cold open last season, once the show was done with Trump?

Here’s hoping SNL doesn’t play it safe this season — not in its political humor or anywhere else. You’ve got the audience again. You’ve got the material, though when watching CNN is as bizarre as political parody used to be, it’s a challenge. But it can be done. Take more chances. Get weird. Go big.

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