Trump can hate on SNL all he wants, but he won’t stop watching

Posted at 9:59 AM, Feb 20, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-20 12:37:10-05

The president obviously had some executive time on his hands in Mar-A-Lago over the weekend, and he chose to tune in to one of his old favorite TV shows — only to be disappointed again.

Yes, “Saturday Night Live” was at it once more, skewering the president’s “national emergency” announcement in the Rose Garden and ruining his après-golf evening.

What previous president has ever been mocked so mercilessly by comedy performers? All of them? (OK: Obama, maybe not so much.) This one, however, has stepped up to be the first to call for “retribution” against “SNL” and, for good measure, other network shows he sees as mistaking funny for cruel.

As Trump put it:

“Nothing funny about tired Saturday Night Live on Fake News NBC! Question is, how do the Networks get away with these total Republican hit jobs without retribution? Likewise for many other shows? Very unfair and should be looked into. This is the real Collusion!”

What form this retribution might take was not spelled out, other than being “looked into.” But the word retribution is defined as “punishment inflicted as vengeance,” which sounds pretty serious.

Alec Baldwin, the Trump impersonator for “SNL,” took it seriously enough to wonder in his own tweet Monday if the president’s words might constitute a threat to the actor’s safety. After all, a Trump supporter was charged last year with attempting to send pipe bombs to CNN’s offices and several public figures Trump has railed about in the past, including George Soros, Hillary Clinton and President Obama.

Mostly, however, this tirade drew the same less-than-apoplectic reaction as many previous Trump fulminations by tweet: just more Trump noise — move along everybody.

Likely Trump will not follow up in any meaningful way. He has spoken vaguely in the past about threatening the broadcast licenses of stations owned by NBC. Vaguely, because he mentioned NBC’s “license,” in the singular, and networks don’t have licenses. Stations they own do, and those are indeed regulated by the federal government, though the president is not permitted to order the Federal Communications Commission what to do. (Up to now, anyway.)

That didn’t stop Richard Nixon from trying to intimidate station license holders like CBS and The Washington Post during Watergate days. It was reported that he managed to at least cow CBS a bit into telling Nixon it would cut back on “news analysis” after presidential speeches (though CBS always said it did not follow through on that promise).

Station licenses are less valuable in this era when the dominance of three networks is a distant memory; so intimidation tactics probably wouldn’t work anyway. Nor is overt persuasion likely. There have been no reports thus far of the president resorting to calling Lorne Michaels of “SNL” or the NBC executive hierarchy to insist on muting the mocking.

A president actually did do that once. Lyndon Johnson called William Paley, the founder of CBS, in 1968 to urge CBS to squash the irreverent mocking of him on the network’s hit show “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”

These days, Trump would have to make a lot of calls. Virtually every late-night comedy show drowns Trump in nightly ridicule. For that reason alone, “SNL” does not deserve to be singled out.

Baldwin’s appearances as Trump have also slackened off a bit this season. The Trump sketches have increasingly tended to be exaggerated recreations of Trump appearances, based on his own words, not an over-the-top, highly fabricated satirical vision of him. (See the great Phil Hartman in his classic 1986 Reagan impression.)

Nor is Baldwin really trying to do a complete impression, leaning instead toward broad caricature — a few gestures, pursed lips and the voice — approximately.

But “SNL” means a lot to Donald Trump. He believes he has a relationship with the show. He hosted twice — which provided the kind of legitimacy as an A-List celebrity he has always craved — and was only too delighted to be invited as a past host to sit with all the celebrities attending the show’s 40th anniversary special in 2015 (only four months before he declared his candidacy).

Trump clearly respects the show’s significance and place in television history. (And he is probably even conflicted a bit about the choice of Baldwin to play him, because the actor may be an outspoken lefty politically, but he is, after all, a leading man.)

So the president is likely continually disconsolate that his old friends at “SNL” persist in picking on him. The other shows he sort of lumps together, with the throwaway designation of “likewise” — and no specifics. In reality, the cuts on most of those shows, like Stephen Colbert’s and Jimmy Kimmel’s, go much deeper.

But there is only one “SNL,” a show that has been sending up presidents since Gerald Ford first fell down. Many of those victimized have come to appreciate the mockery as an honor of sorts. George H.W. Bush even invited Dana Carvey to the White House to perform his impression at his staff Christmas party.

Baldwin probably won’t get a similar invitation. But if he had any doubts, this past weekend surely cleared them up: The biggest testament to an effective parody is that the subject, while he may be full of rage and spitting nails, never misses the chance to catch the latest edition.