Trump on SNL: The ultimate implosion of reality

Three Trumps open 'SNL'
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Three Trumps open 'SNL' 03:25

Story highlights

  • Gene Seymour: Red Smith's famous line about reality strangling invention is apt for Donald Trump's meta and absurd "SNL" appearance
  • Seymour: Show played for laughs Trump's anti-immigrant remarks, mean tweets, reality-TV-type campaign. Was it satire? Who knows?

Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)I'll get to Donald Trump hosting "Saturday Night Live" soon enough. But first, a few words from 1951:

"Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly implausible, the inexpressively fantastic, can ever be plausible again."
Those of you who cherish great sports writing can recognize that quote from 90 feet away. It was the lead paragraph of Red Smith's New York Herald Tribune column on the Miracle at Coogan's Bluff, the epochal walk-off homer by Bobby Thomson that vaulted the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers for the 1951 National League pennant.
    Over the next 60-something years, Smith's lead -- and the event it helped immortalize -- have been seen by novelists, journalists, historians and other Big Thinkers as a kind of cosmic doorway into a late-20th century when real life, with its assassinations, moon shots, revolutions and random stuff like, say, Muhammad Ali or The Beatles, seemed to overtake one's imagination.
    Gene Seymour
    A real-life presidential campaign, for instance, had enough grandeur, drama, pathos, and rich characters to make it seem as though it unraveled like an old-fashioned novel. All you had to do was write a book about such a campaign, sticking mostly to known or provable facts, and you had a real-life melodrama that fiction would have been hard pressed to replicate.
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    But with whatever it is we're calling "Campaign 2016" so far, we all seem to have tumbled head-first down Lewis Carroll's rabbit hole into Jorge Luis Borges' labyrinth surrounded by nothing but flat screens giving us conflicting images encouraging viewers to believe whatever it is they wish to believe. Whatever it is, it isn't what the late great Mr. Red Smith considered "Reality." Just "Reality TV." I guess...
    Which brings us to last night's edition of "SNL," with a host who is (still, barely, I think, as of this writing) one of the two leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. He's also a veteran star of a "reality TV" franchise who is so empowered by his public image that he can make it change shapes like balloon animals and get away with stuff his less adroit -- and less wealthy -- rivals can't.

    Calling Trump a 'racist'

    So here was Donald Trump, once again wearing ties too long for his shirt, using his opening monologue to let two other guys pretending to be Donald Trump do Trump impersonations at his side. What did Trump do? Love the whole thing and warn the audience that Sia was the musical guest.
    Oh... and in case you missed it, somebody in the audience actually called Trump a racist. Trump called out his attacker. It was Larry David, who appeared in the show's cold open reprising his own impersonation of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. David told Trump with a shrug somebody offered him $5,000 to call him a racist. The show went on.
    Now...
    Best of Trump on 'SNL' in 90 seconds
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    Best of Trump on 'SNL' in 90 seconds 01:29
    How, exactly, does one "cover" a moment like that, knowing that there were, at that moment, angry protesters outside NBC's Rockefeller Center headquarters decrying both Trump's inflammatory anti-immigration statements and "SNL" for agreeing to let Trump host the show in the first place?
    The show just goes on, you guess. And it did, beginning with a fantasy sketch set two years from now with Trump as President, taking care of everything from Putin to ISIS and including a cameo by daughter Ivanka (whose appearance didn't draw any applause, one supposes, because the audience likely believed she, too, was a cast member pretending to be Ivanka).
    Then there was a sketch in which Trump announced to the audience that he wasn't going to be IN the sketch but would instead live-tweet throughout the sketch.
    Which he did -- mean-tweeting (with fake tweets) all the cast members and ruining their collective composure. One imagined, at that same moment, millions of viewers writing their own mean tweets to each other about the sketch, about Trump, about "Saturday Night Live" and why nothing about the sketch seemed funny.
    Is that "meta" enough for you? Does this sound like "reality strangling invention" or is it more like "reality television strangling reality" -- or, at least, satire?
    I have a headache, too, but bear with me: Trump was all over the place, playing a dorky tax adviser dancing dorkily in a dorky parody of a dorky Drake video. At another point, he came on to disavow a faux political ad with two porn stars telling people why they should vote for "Donald Tramp." Having fun yet?

    The most revealing moments?

    Even when he wasn't on-screen, Trump was part of the show. During the "Weekend Update" segment, Michael Che stage-whispered a reference to Trump's dogged refusal to accept President Obama's birth certificate as legitimate while Bobby Moynihan's "Drunk Uncle" character staggered out to vent all the irrational reasons for supporting Trump's candidacy.
    Was it funny? Um... But let's table the "Is Saturday Night Live Still All That?" discussion for another day.
    For now, you should know that of all the sketches Trump was in last night, the most revealing may have been the one in which he was a frustrated laser harpist for a low-rent bar band who whined about his lack of solo time. When he finally got his chance, he emptied the bar of patrons.
    At which point, you wondered whether what Trump was really doing was sending out the first faint signals that, maybe, he could get tired of this running-for-president thing eventually and go back to being just another TV celebrity; to leave whatever passes for "Reality" in the political sphere and return to "Reality TV."
    Or not. As noted, this campaign appears to mark the point where "Invention" reclaims its pre-eminence over "Reality" and that not only is nobody sure whether what they're saying is what they mean to say, nobody seems to care either.
    Whatever the situation, Larry David, by the end of the show, didn't look too happy about it. Neither should you.