Though it wasn't always clear if it could happen successfully, SNL returned to NBC this past weekend for its in-studio Season 46 premiere. With Fargo star Chris Rock as the guest host, the episode got off to a predictably rousing start, taking swipes at Ellen DeGeneres and serving up a cold open parodying the first (and possibly last) Presidential debate of the year. Alec Baldwin's Donald Trump faced the previously announced Jim Carrey as candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, and while most of the sketch lampooned the real debate's interruption-filled havoc, a few of the jokes directly commented on Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis.
To be expected, some viewers were critical about SNL making light of the current President's illness, especially when it's something as potentially serious as COVID. Alec Baldwin came to the show's defense, as well as the defense of his own portrayal, by saying the show wouldn't have included those jokes if the White House had made Donald Trump's situation out to sound more serious. Here's how he put it in a video on Instagram:
Of course, online I see that there is considerable criticism from some people about it. Beyond some people being sick of me doing this, which I get...there's the idea of the perception of we're mocking him while he's sick. And I thought, I've known these people for many, many years, and you wouldn't believe the stuff that's proposed. There are hard drives with terabytes of material, there are boxes, there are countless binders somewhere in storage out in New Jersey or in Brooklyn in some facility with the sketches that were proposed that were turned down because they were deemed inappropriate. The stuff that gets turned down, you wouldn't believe. Some of the stuff that people propose is outrageous. And this is a group of people that's pretty savvy. They know they're in network television. Lorne is one of the smartest people in the business, and the other people from the network who come and go but who interact with him, they know they don't want to sink the ship. So if there was ever the suggestion that Trump was truly, gravely ill – if people said, 'Oh, Trump is really in trouble,' – then I would bet you everything I have that we wouldn't even get near that, in terms of the content of the show. They would have done something else. I've seen that happen before. I've seen instances where there were wars going on, and they said 'Don't do sketches where it sounds like you're disseminating information, as far-fetched as that sounds.
The way Alec Baldwin sees it, most of the creatives at Saturday Night Live are known to craft some pretty fucked up material that hasn't been seen (and arguably shouldn't be seen) by the public. These writers are no strangers to coming up with barbed and sometimes off-putting jokes and sketches, which is par for the course with any comedy series that has been around for nearly 50 years. However, the fact that all those rejected sketches exist does not necessarily mean that the writers only want to cover offensive and mean-spirited subject matter, including Donald Trump having serious health problems.
But as Alec Baldwin points out, reports coming directly out of the White House have painted Donald Trump's condition to be on the less serious side, despite the more balanced take that others have presented. Saying that the episode wouldn't have possibly kicked off without parodying the hot mess debate, Baldwin continued:
We only have the words of the White House itself and the people who work there themselves to go on, and all of them have been saying that he is not in any danger. We only have their word to go by, and if their word had been that he's in serious trouble, then we probably wouldn't have done it. But that's not the case. If they had said he's in serious trouble, I can assure you we wouldn't have done it, but that's not the case. They said he's got this disease and he's got some manifestations of it and he's got some symptoms of it, but he's gonna be fine and he's not in any immediate danger. And we felt that the debate was something topical. You know, we didn't have anything with him laying in a hospital bed, but we felt that [with] the debate, you'd have to have a very good reason not avoid that, topicality-wise, and nobody thought that they were mocking somebody's illness.
The jokes that Saturday Night Live did make about Donald Trump's COVID diagnosis weren't very egregious, beyond their existence in the first place. In one moment, Baldwin's Trump called the virus a hoax and declared that his statement "will not come back and haunt me later this week," while Jim Carrey's Joe Biden made another crack about it. You can watch the full cold open in the video below!
Earlier this year, SNL tried to make remotely produced episodes happen earlier in the year as a way to combat pandemic shutdowns, the vibe just wasn't the same, and while some of the material was pretty solid, a lot of it suffered due to a lack of an audience and togetherness. As such, it's great that the producers found a way to make everything come together safely so that Saturday nights could start getting silly again, while also still paying homage to real-world events.