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ABSURDIST HUMOR

On “SNL,” Melissa McCarthy’s Sean Spicer has the same uphill battle as Alec Baldwin’s Trump

  • Heather Landy
By Heather Landy

Editor of Quartz at Work

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Well, that was fast.

Melissa McCarthy’s brilliant impression of White House press secretary Sean Spicer may not have exactly worn out its welcome, but it’s clear that Saturday Night Live is already struggling to make the absurdities of the White House press briefing room any more absurdist than they have been at times in real life.

That’s not to say that SNL isn’t trying.

But it’s hard to spin comedy out of the kinds of traits that made Spicer a comedic target in the first place—the unabashed lying, the over-the-top belligerence in the press room, the insane chewing-gum habit.

McCarthy’s cold open to the NBC comedy’s Feb. 11 episode did take some sharp digs at the administration’s efforts to restrict immigration.

And the physical comedy was pretty sublime.

But without the novelty of last week’s debut of the McCarthy take on Spicer, the skit felt, on the whole, unsurprising. Its references to the more outlandish things the administration did this week—needling judges who ruled against Trump’s executive order on immigration, picking a fight with Nordstrom over its decision to stop carrying First Family member Ivanka Trump’s clothing label—only served to remind the viewer how difficult it is to outdo the current reality.

McCarthy shouldn’t feel too badly, though. The same thing happened during the election season to no less an SNL luminary than Alec Baldwin, whose impression of Trump was similarly, and regularly, upstaged on the absurdist meter by the real thing.

This episode marked Baldwin’s record 17th time carrying SNL hosting duties. His first turn as host was nearly 27 years ago, in April 1990.

Baldwin’s squinting, preening Trump didn’t appear until about an hour into the episode, but it was worth the wait—less so for the impression, which was delivered with Baldwin’s unwavering quality, than for the scenario explored in the skit. In a setup foreshadowed by McCarthy’s Spicer, Trump was bringing an appeal for “broad, unchecked power” to The People’s Court. (The long-running courtroom series, which showcases multiple small-claims cases on each episode, was one of television’s original “reality” shows.)

Baldwin’s Trump won’t swear to tell the whole truth as he argues his complaint against the three federal appellate judges who declined to lift a temporary restraining order on the immigration and travel restrictions in his Jan. 27 executive action. The TV judge is siding with her brethren on the bench, telling Trump that his order ”seemed rushed even to me, and I settle three court cases an hour.”

The skit gets bonus points for giving SNL cast member Beck Bennett another chance to show up as a shirtless Vladimir Putin. Additional bonus points go to viewers who catch the Trump strategist sitting in the back row of the courtroom in the GIF below.

Other highlights of the episode included cast regular Kate McKinnon in a fun, Fatal Attraction-esque sequence in which her Kellyanne Conway won’t rest until Bennett’s Jake Tapper agrees to put her back on CNN.

McKinnon also played a freshly confirmed US attorney general Jeff Sessions—more subversive for extending the run of Trump administration officials portrayed on SNL by women than for the impression itself. And the gender-bending theme established by McCarthy’s Spicer and McKinnon’s Sessions reappeared toward the end of the episode in a strangely affecting skit in which cast member Leslie Jones tries to become the show’s next Trump impersonator.

Though Baldwin appeared in only one scene as Trump, this episode didn’t stray too far from politics. There were even political undertones to a skit poking fun at building-supplies retailer 84 Lumber’s highly cinematic, deeply perplexing commercial that aired during Super Bowl 51. Only here, it’s the Cheetos snack brand that’s looking to take its marketing in new, unexpected directions. Pitched by an ad agency on a spot featuring a similar storyline about a Mexican girl journeying to the US and being confronted by a border wall when she arrives, a marketing executive for the brand concludes, “It’s important, it’s now, it’s Cheetos.”

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