Did ‘SNL’ Quietly Shelve Its Trump Impression?

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty Images

If you are among the more than half of Americans not paying much attention to Trump’s hush money trial, two pieces of news may still have managed to make their way to you: that Trump appears to be farting quite frequently, and he also seems to be falling asleep in the courtroom.

What could be funnier? Everyone loves a good fart joke. But if you tuned into Saturday Night Live this past week, their flatulence-themed sketch wasn’t James Austin Johnson’s Trump offering his characteristic word-salad over increasingly loud fart noises. Instead, it was host Maya Rudolph as a throw-back Hollywood starlet trying to sell decaf coffee while pretending she’s not stinking up the room.

In fact, Johnson’s Trump impression has not been seen since March. This absence comes during a particularly historic eight weeks, including the unofficial launch of the first election rematch of two presidents since 1892 and the start of the first criminal trial of an American president since ever. Yet instead of capitalizing on this historic moment, SNL has relegated Trump to somewhat perfunctory jokes in Weekend Update.

Johnson’s Trump was a regular fixture this season up until March, and Alec Baldwin, who previously spoofed him, basically moved into 30 Rock during Trump’s (first) term. SNL has one more show left this Saturday, and it’s possible Trump might be back (I would be surprised if he isn’t for the season finale). Still, SNL has found more recent success in its take on ’90s cartoons and bringing back a recurring sketch with a performer who hasn’t been on the show in two years than with anything political.

James Austin Johnson as Donald Trump smiles in a sketch from SNL.

James Austin Johnson as Donald Trump in January.


I doubt SNL is intentionally spiking its Trump content. Instead, the show’s writers are probably reacting to a very real trend in the zeitgeist: The 2024 election is the one no one wants. In poll after poll, Americans have expressed a desire for someone, anyone, other than the candidates we’ve got. Polling this week from The New York Times found that nearly 70 percent of Americans think there needs to be a major shakeup in our system.

This year’s 2020 rematch has pushed us into a malaise that leaves political comedy with no good options. Late-night comedy exploded during the Trump era, with comedians becoming stand-in Cronkites to tell us how to make sense of the chaos. (This is particularly true for the liberal-leaning, The Daily Beast-reading parts of the country, but don’t forget, Joe Rogan was once a comedian too.) Absent a monoculture, we found the soothing balm of comedy could get us through the week—or, at least, we could point to a Colbert monologue or a “Closer Look” segment and say, “This is how I feel, but it’s more entertaining when he says it.”

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The supposed return (he never went away) of Trump presents a problem for shows like SNL and other late-night comedies. In a country where no one wants to hear about the news, how do you keep viewers tuned in and turned on? SNL became appointment viewing in 2017 when people wanted to see its take on the week’s crazy, and which celebrity would play which Trump acolyte. Now, each week, we just want to forget about what’s going on.

Jon Stewart was once arguably the main news source for a generation of young people, and Comedy Central has brought him back, in an election-year gambit, to occasionally host The Daily Show. Stewart’s rise to popularity during the Bush years was marked by his ability to show a politician saying one thing, then a clip of that same politician disagreeing with whatever principled statement was just shared.

Jon Stewart sits at a desk in a still from 'The Daily Show with Jon Stewart'

Jon Stewart on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2014.

Rick Kern/Getty Images

Now, this duality of reality is not only readily exposed, but expected. Trump can take credit for the end of Roe v. Wade one day, then say abortion laws should be up to the states the next, and then disregard the reintroduction of a Civil-War-era abortion law in Arizona later that week. Truth is what we make of it. Alternative facts have won.

Entering the Trump era, many people (myself included) thought that comedy would save us. This hope was nothing new. People thought that Stewart could stop Bush with a well-placed archival video and a look of impudence. But after almost a decade of Trump jokes, it’s becoming clear that, while comedy can make us laugh during tough times, it can’t necessarily stop them. (See Jesse David Fox’s Comedy Book for a very comprehensive analysis of the limits of comedy to not just speak truth to power, but actually shift power.)

So what’s SNL, and other political comedy shows, to do?

After Midnight, the latest addition to the late night lineup, offers an interesting proposition to America’s election anxiety: Don’t worry about it. Based on an old Comedy Central show, it has a nightly panel of comedians riffing based on silly clips from social media. The internet may be full of trolling, hate speech, and candidates who confront their opponents in airports, but it also has videos of people on skis being pulled by horses and babies making funny faces. The comedians compete to win absurdist prizes, like a jar of old coins or a creepy doll the host, Taylor Tomlinson, got from her brother.

James Austin Johnson as Donald Trump and Mikey Day as Jim Jordan in a still from SNL.

James Austin Johnson as Donald Trump and Mikey Day as Jim Jordan in October 2023.


This kind of absurdist comedy, unconnected to any political events, is what we need right now. (After Midnight is last in ratings among the late night shows, but leads the 12:30 a.m. slot among the most-sought-after 18-49 demo.) SNL is on trend. Its most recent breakout sketch inserted Beavis and Butthead look-alikes into a lecture on AI. That sketch appeared in the episode hosted by Ryan Gosling, which might be a template for what’s to come. It had exactly zero political sketches, and none was connected to the news of the week (except for Weekend Update, of course).

It also had a fine dose of nostalgia—simpler times, and all that. It had a sketch referencing the film Erin Brockovich, which was released when Chloe Fineman, the cast member who played the titular character, was 12. It also opened with another “Close Encounters” sketch, which brought back former cast member (and arguably most recent breakout star) Kate McKinnon to do a broadly popular recurring sketch one more time. (Gosling was in the first iteration of that sketch, so, I guess it made sense to do it again?)

Oh, and Gosling laughed a lot. There was so much breaking that even Heidi Gardner, known for being stone-faced, got in on it.

So this might be the formula for an SNL season during one of the most stressful elections of our modern history: absurdist humor; lots of nostalgia; and the cast having so much fun they can’t help but laugh. SNL loves a good self-reference, and given next season is its 50th anniversary, it can surely ride a wave of nostalgia onward to 2025, no matter what happens.

The Gosling episode has the highest views of any recent show: “Beavis and Butthead” has more than 14 million views on YouTube (as of this writing), but the “Close Encounters” sketch also has close to 6 million. “Doctor” (which is so absurd, I don’t even know how to describe it) has three million and counting. Another sketch that seems to be driven by a joke about the “original dog from Beethoven” has 2.5 million. The only other sketch since April that has 3 million views or more is one with Kristen Wiig about her fear of being “Jumanjied.” (Jumanji and Beethoven, if you aren’t familiar, are movies, also from the ’90s.)

Political sketches are still pulling good numbers, however. The last appearance of Trump in a sketch, with him hocking Bibles, has more than 3 million views. A “Trump Sneakers” pre-tape has almost 5 million. A spoof of Biden’s State of the Union has almost 6 million. But these aired many months ago, and even with the extra time, they are just barely performing against the more bonkers recent sketches. With less than a week circulating, Maya Rudolph’s Hot Ones Beyonce Sketch (where she talks about removing her bones) has close to 3 million views.

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Even given all this, there will probably still be some politics next fall. It’s an election year, and SNL can’t pass up a chance for its famous debate parodies. But gone are the days of “strategery” or “lock box” as punchlines. Those kinds of jokes would not acknowledge the severe state of our democracy, while doing nothing to protect it.

Instead, it’s best to skip political satire altogether. Right now, maybe we don’t need comedy to solve anything or be anything other than a chance to laugh. David Fox, in his book, quotes Ukrainian comedian Yehor Shatailo on the role of comedy in politics:

“There’s no need to overestimate the power comedy has. It’s not a weapon; I don’t think I can heal any wounds. But it might help us to stay sane.”

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