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‘Saturday Night Live’ Used to Be Where People Went to Fix a Scandal. Does That Still Work?

The social media backlash happened nearly concurrently with the cameo itself when presidential candidate Nikki Haley made a surprise appearance on the February 3 installment of “Saturday Night Live.

Interrupting a Donald Trump (James Austin Johnson) town hall in the cold open, Haley made an age joke about Presidents Trump and Biden, grinned awkwardly while “Trump” made fun of her name, and got in a few attack lines in the sketch-turned-free-commercial. Cut to a question from a concerned voter (host Ayo Edebiri) for a joke about her recent “gaffe” regarding her inability to say that the cause of the Civil War was slavery. “SNL” even let Haley say the iconic “Live, from New York…” line!

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What was striking wasn’t that Haley was on the program. (Donald Trump, of course, infamously hosted when he was a candidate in 2015, and in a pre-Trump world, presidential candidates from both parties putting in an appearance on the show was de rigueur.) It’s that it felt like her team was trying out a decision from a pre-Trump late-night landscape. Who on earth is this for?

It’s old hat to say that “Saturday Night Live” is past its prime, but fans really see the cracks when Lorne Michaels agrees to moves like this. The segmentation of audiences and the death of the monoculture make what was once a media power move a lot less powerful. When Sarah Palin appeared on “SNL,” it dominated the news cycle for days. Even less obviously buzzy moments, like Amy Poehler’s consistent take on Hillary Clinton, were a regular part of the political and media discourse. It’s hard to imagine anyone talking, or even remembering, about Haley past tomorrow.

People certainly still watch the old stalwart (the premiere this season drew about 4.8 million viewers), but the convo-domination — and therefore the appeal as a scandal fixer — feels like a distant memory. It worked as a whitewashing agent because A) Americans simply love people willing to laugh at themselves, however fake, and B) because there was enough cultural cache involved that the pluses one would earn allowed them to come out ahead of whatever dumb thing they did.

Allowing Haley to appear and brush aside her anti-LGBTQ views isn’t just a mealy-mouthed “both sides” shrug. It’s trading whatever cool capital the program still clings to for something that isn’t even going to get NBC the tradeoffs they presumably wanted from a cameo like this in the first place (juiced ratings, center-of-the-discourse discussion, a non-regular watcher tuning in…). All “SNL” accomplished here is a toothless political stunt that doesn’t work for anyone, including said losing candidate who agreed to the appearance and walked away with exactly zero cool points from anyone that wasn’t already voting for her.

In a situation with far, far less real-world stakes, Justin Timberlake similarly tried out the retro image renovation bit when he went back to “SNL” last week for the first time in a decade. Despite some ahistorical X chat recently, it’s important to remember Timberlake was incredibly popular on the program. After a year of rough press following revelations from Britney Spears’ memoir, as well as a general reexamination of Timberlake’s early 2000s frat boy-esque behavior, it made sense he would choose a move from 2003 to help with his PR problems. But it’s not the early 2000s anymore, and that’s why Timberlake’s appearance (he was the musical guest, but also appeared in sketches) was met with a collective shrug.

It almost seems like “SNL” itself is aware of this buzz problem and that’s why they are making desperate, attention-seeking decisions. Mere moments after the Haley cameo, the show announced that the next host would be stand up Shane Gillis. You know, Shane Gillis! The comedian “SNL” hired and then immediately fired as a cast member before his first appearance in 2019 for making repeated racist comments. And for what? So Gillis can be welcomed back into the fold and “SNL” can tell itself it’s edgy? It’s not that the NBC program needs to stay away from perceived right-wing individuals. But it sure seems like a move designed to gin up controversy at a moment where the show seems particularly concerned about its own cultural relevance.

One ill-advised Haley cameo does not a failure make. But the landscape has changed. These days, the show’s headlines are more often for moments like Bowen Yang appearing to keep his distance onstage from Dave Chappelle than for some incisive commentary or even just an LOL sketch. With any more desperate swings like this, don’t be surprised if audiences do something worse than keep their own distance — they may just stop caring.

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