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Sunday, February 04, 2024

The ‘SNL’ Cameo That Was a Big Miss - The Atlantic

The SNL Cameo That Was a Big Miss

Watching the real Nikki Haley spar with a fake Donald Trump was awkward—and not very funny.

James Austin Johnson as Donald Trump on 'SNL'
Will Heath / NBC

Last night, audiences who tuned into Saturday Night Live to see The Bear star and Emmy winner Ayo Edebiri host for the first time were greeted with an awkward surprise: The sight of the Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley, trying her best to seem at ease opposite a fake Donald Trump. Haley popped up in the cold open, playing herself as a “concerned South Carolina voter” attending a CNN town hall with James Austin Johnson’s Trump. “Why won’t you debate Nikki Haley?” she asked. In response, Johnson started rambling about Nancy Pelosi—mistaking the former South Carolina governor for the Democratic congresswoman—which Haley followed up by asking “Donald” to take a mental-competency test.

While Johnson went on an absurdist Trumpian rant about how he was deemed “mental,” Haley tried to make herself seem like a reasonable alternative, maintaining a stiff posture and a persistent smile. It was framed as a friendly PR move, though Haley did consent to letting herself be mocked in one way. At the end of the sketch, Edebiri hopped in to ask: “I was just curious—what would you say was the main cause of the Civil War, and do you think it starts with an S and ends with a lavery?”

Edebiri was referencing a December town hall in New Hampshire where a voter posed a version of that same question to Haley, who did not mention slavery. “Yep, I probably should have said that the first time,” Haley said, before launching into the “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night” intro. The dissonance during that exchange characterized Haley’s entire appearance on the show: Edebiri seemed to bristle with real emotion, while Haley was solidly in campaign mode, seeing SNL as a way to salvage her attempts to unseat Trump.

SNL has trotted out many political figures across the American right and left, including Sarah Palin and George McGovern. Still, SNL had an easier time welcoming politicians onto its stage before 2015, when the show invited Donald Trump to host. The presence of Trump, who had already announced his presidential candidacy with hateful rhetoric, was met with protests and roundly criticized for softening the president-to-be’s image. The blowback signaled that the inclusion of Trump, whose stances already felt pointedly incendiary in 2015, was too much for the SNL audience to accept—that some political cameos can’t be business as usual.

But the logic behind inviting Trump was that the show has long positioned itself as a big umbrella for all types of comedy; when it comes to politicians, everyone is supposed to be fair game for both a drop-in and mockery. The approach is evident in the current season as well: Edebiri is a young, Black, internet-beloved actor and comedian, and later this month, Shane Gillis—who was fired from SNL in 2019 for making racist and homophobic comments—is set to host.

Read: The George Santos number that brought SNL to life

Edebiri approached the gig with wonderful earnestness. During her monologue, she nearly cried while explaining how much this opportunity meant to her. “This really is a dream come true,” she said, choking back tears. But for all of Edebiri’s genuine enthusiasm and the creative characters she brought to the rest of the show, the Haley cameo right at the top set a strange tone. It put Edebiri and the SNL stars into the uncomfortable role of reputation management for a national politician.

Go along with the flow and you’re laughing along with someone who still might be angling to be Trump’s running mate; push too strongly and all of a sudden a comedy show is taking itself way too seriously. Imagine, instead, that Edebiri had been talking with a fictional version of Haley played by one of the cast members—it would have been a standard SNL sketch, firmly within the show’s established purview of treating all politicians with some skepticism. With Haley herself, it was instead more of a stiff speech—and just painful to watch.

Esther Zuckerman is a culture writer who has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, GQ, and Vanity Fair. She is the author of two books."

The ‘SNL’ Cameo That Was a Big Miss - The Atlantic

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