Donald Trump

'Saturday Night Live' Re-enters The Race Just In Time

The show returns for a new season this weekend with the opportunity to repeat history and snatch back the comedic conversation in the homestretch of the presidential contest.

A recent TIME magazine cover about late night TV comedy and the presidential race featured images of Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah and John Oliver.

"Saturday Night Live," notably, didn't notch a spot under the headline, "We Joke. You Decide." The show's only mention in the article came via a reference to Meyers' previous gig as a "Weekend Update" anchor.

The omission, perhaps, is understandable: The smart piece focused on a move toward comedic partisanship, and "SNL" largely has been seen as an equal opportunity offender. More likely, though, the NBC show's absence from the article reflected its absence from the airwaves since May. 

That changes this weekend when "SNL" returns for its 42nd season – and quite possibly its most crucial presidential race sprint yet. The show arrives with the opportunity to repeat history and snatch back the comedic conversation in the election’s homestretch.

In the weeks before the 2008 vote, "SNL" produced some of its most memorable political humor when Tina Fey returned to play Sarah Palin. Fey’s portrayal of the GOP vice presidential candidate as a dangerous ditz ("And I can see Russia from my house!") helped snag “SNL” a Peabody Award. The award citation suggested the show “may have swung” the election to Barack Obama.

This season, Fey's "30 Rock" co-star and frequent "SNL" host Alec Baldwin reportedly will play Trump, presumably adding to the show's buzz like Larry David's appearances as Bernie Sanders did last season.

It's impossible, of course, to fully gauge the impact of comedy on voters. But it's easier to measure the viral impact of "SNL," through ratings and online views.

Success in those realms could prove as much as a function of the strength of the writing and candidate impressions as potentially controversial candidate cameos.

Will Hillary Clinton return as Val, the earthy bartender who appeared last season opposite her "SNL" doppelgänger Kate McKinnon?

Will Donald Trump, who hosted an "SNL" installment last November amid protests from Mexican Americans and others, go live from New York again – and face-to-face with Baldwin?

Trump seemed to be playing along with an elaborate gag during his hosting gig, goofing around in a sketch imagining him as president and "Apprentice" alumna Omarosa Manigault as his secretary of state.

A lot has changed since then with Trump gaining the GOP presidential nod – and critics decrying some comedians and news outlets for going easy on him. Bee, last week on her TBS show "Full Frontal," slammed Trump’s "SNL" hosting stint and criticized "Tonight Show" host Jimmy Fallon for his recent tousling of the candidate’s hair during a conversation devoid of tough questions.

Meanwhile, Meyers – Fallon’s former "SNL" castmate and "Weekend Update" successor – gained notice this month for declaring Trump a "racist and a liar" during a scathing "Late Night" segment reminiscent of Jon Stewart’s prime "Daily Show" days.

Meyers, who co-wrote the classic 2008 skit pairing Fey’s Palin and Amy Poehler’s Clinton, told Time that the current election cycle served as a "catalyst" for him to display a strong point of view in his political humor.

"SNL" has long parodied presidential wannabes of all stripes, and its perceived relative lack of partisanship might bolster its comedic credibility with the undecided or wavering. But the show, born out of the cynical post-Nixon years, has always harbored a point of view, even as it tried to mirror the times – for example, the "SNL" depiction of Jimmy Carter morphed from fresh-faced would-be savior to world-weary defeatist in four years.

The first sitting president the show tackled was Gerald Ford, a former football player depicted by Chevy Chase as a hopeless klutz after a few public spills.

The show, as it returns with the 2016 election a little over a month away, is in for the kind of scrutiny Ford met four decades ago. This weekend’s season premiere, to be hosted by Margot Robbie, will help set the tone for whether "SNL" will stumble or hit a new stride at a time when its comedy could matter most.

Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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