Will Heath/NBC

Even Dave Chappelle Can’t Absolve SNL’s Sins

The show tried to tug at liberal America’s heartstrings, but its normalization of Donald Trump won’t be forgotten

In the days before Hillary Clinton lost the presidential race to Sabrina, the Teenage Witch guest star Donald Trump, a flurry of articles concerned with voter turnout began to manifest, and they all had one thing in common: They blamed black people for Clinton's potential loss. But with her actual loss came the knowledge that it wasn't black people who let Clinton down at the polls, it was white people. It's a reminder that black people are often called upon to be extraordinary in times when white people have to do the bare minimum, whether it's the cinematic trope of the Magical Negro or Dave Chappelle being summoned to absolve Saturday Night Live of its complicity in Trump's election.

Chappelle's return to live television was brilliant, as anyone could've predicted it would be. His searing, near-12-minute opening monologue managed to drag Trump ("We've actually elected an internet troll as our president"), satirize his own life as a rich black man ("I'ma stay here and get that tax break, see if it works out"), and even throw a few jabs at white people ("It seemed like Hillary was doing well in the polls, and yet ... I know the whites"). They might not have realized it, but "the whites" Chappelle was critiquing were the ones behind SNL.

As moving as the opening was — Kate McKinnon dressed as Clinton, playing "Hallelujah" on the piano in a somber tribute to Clinton's losing campaign and Leonard Cohen's death — it was also flagrant as hell. When McKinnon looked at the camera and said, "I’m not giving up and neither should you," I immediately flashed back to November 7 of last year, when Trump hosted SNL. That episode, which garnered ratings as high as Chappelle's appearance, aired amid protests of Trump for his racist comments against Mexicans.

Trump's opening monologue addressed the protests and his racist comments; actor Larry David was on hand to yell "Trump's a racist!" It wasn't an actual protest, of course, it was merely a setup for a joke, and the punch line was: "I heard if I yelled that, they'd give me $5,000." Trump played along and responded, "As a businessman, I can fully respect that." To be clear: For a ratings grab, Lorne Michaels invited a racist hatemonger onto his television program and made jokes about the fact that he'd vowed mass deportations and said of Mexico: "They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Ironically, Chappelle's episode aired during further protests of Trump. Only this time, the protests are because he's been elected president on a campaign that fueled racial hatred in America, has appointed a white supremacist as his Chief of Strategy, and has announced plans to deport 2 to 3 million undocumented immigrants. What was a joke to SNL's writers only a year ago has become a horrifying reality for millions of Americans, and they had the audacity to let McKinnon drive their viewers to tears and act as if they themselves are victims, too, instead of complicit in normalizing Trump to American voters and abetting his rise to power.

Further news of Trump's impending presidency has included the revelation that Barack Obama will have to "spend more time with his successor than presidents typically do," due to Trump's overwhelming inexperience. It's a slap in the face to the man who had to endure years of Trump's racial attacks and insistence that he was neither an American nor a legitimate president, to now have to help legitimize Trump's own presidency. The anger this arouses is not dissimilar from the anger I felt while watching Chappelle act as a mouthpiece for SNL, presenting them as woke members of the resistance. From McKinnon's tickling of the ivories, to Chappelle's standup, to the emotional embrace between members of A Tribe Called Quest after their final performance while a banner of deceased member Phife Dawg hung in the background — Saturday's episode presented an SNL that is far from the real SNL.

The real SNL only hired its second Latina cast member this season, perhaps as a mea culpa for allowing a Mexican-hating racist to host its television program last year. The real SNL ignores actual diversity in its writing staff and cast, instead relying on its black cast members to make meta jokes about how white SNL is or have Chappelle heartbreakingly tie Obama's presidency to Booker T. Washington's historic 1901 visit to the White House (which caused such an outcry that no black person was invited back for 30 years). They are expected to perform this duty because SNL sells itself as a show taking the pulse of America, like when its first episode after 9/11 opened with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani and members of the Fire Department of New York telling New Yorkers that it was OK to laugh again. Giuliani's appearance was meant to remind New Yorkers of their resolve and how they could come together as a city in the wake of a horrific terror attack: "Our hearts are broken, but they are beating. And they are beating stronger than ever." Fifteen years later, Giuliani joined Trump's campaign of hatred and discord ("To say that Donald Trump is a racist is outrageous," he said. "And to call anybody a racist is outrageous. I can't stand that"), dishonoring the memory of the words he spoke on the SNL stage in 2001. But if SNL is a place where Trump can have his redemption and Chappelle is called upon to exonerate the franchise of any wrongdoing, is there anything at all to dishonor beyond a hollow, wooden stage that houses America's sideshows, no matter the cost to the health of the country?