Whatever your thoughts on Hillary Clinton, or her ability to sell a punchline, her appearance on Saturday Night Live’s 41st season opener last night gave us one thing they can never take away: Clinton doing a Donald Trump impersonation. It was a pretty good one, actually, in that Hillary way: Awkward, halting, but still efficient and vaguely indicative of a little bit more prominent of a funny bone in private than we ever see in public. You can imagine Clinton doing a Trump impression to her staff and making them laugh with it. It’s one of those things that might just be funny when Clinton does it.
This is always the best aspect of these “humanizing” SNL skits, when politicians put themselves through them. It might take clever writing from comedy professionals with decades of experience at doing this precise thing, but a well-scripted sketch can, for a brief second, give you a look behind the curtain, letting a candidate reveal an awareness that, yes, they know what you’ve been saying about them. In its own bizarre, looking-glass way, a comedy sketch can be the most real a candidate is ever allowed to be. By saying they’re just kidding, they can, at last, be truthful, about the issues, about the campaign, about themselves.
This was what worked so well about Clinton’s SNL sketch. The Democratic presidential candidate was cast as “Val,” a friendly bartender lending a sympathetic ear to Kate McKinnon’s “Hillary Clinton.” Having a candidate talk to a version of themselves as someone other than themselves is a smart way to get a candidate to say things they wouldn’t ordinarily say, or give ground they wouldn’t ordinarily give. Thus, in the funniest and sharpest exchange of the skit, McKinnon-as-Clinton says about gay marriage, “I could have supported it sooner,” and sort of gives a wink and a nudge to Clinton-as-Val, who says, “Fair point.” This does several things for Clinton at once. It makes her look in on the joke. It acknowledges a mistake (in a way that’s far more believable and effective than your usual my major failing is that I sometimes work too hard for America faux-self-effacement). And it gives a quiet nod to liberals who have started to lose faith in her. I know, I know, Clinton says. I’m not perfect but I’m still on your side. That McKinnon is a lesbian, and an open Clinton supporter, gives the exchange an extra kick. It’s a liberal Hillary voter keeping Hillary in check.
Clinton is never going to be a natural performer—if she were one, she wouldn’t have to appear in “look, I’m just like you!” skits—but she doesn’t need to be in sketches like this one. (There was only one too-loud, stilted belly laugh, which is an improvement over her Ellen appearance last month.) All she has to look is self-aware. She has to look like a person who does not exist outside the normal parameters of human behavior. You know she’s awkward. You know she is a hard person to get to know. You know she’s an inherently uncomfortable campaigner. You just need her to know that. That’s what she has to show in a segment like this. This is a low bar to clear, by design. It’s not in SNL’s best interest to make politicians who come on the program look foolish. But it’s a bar she still cleared.
And she’s certainly right about one thing.
Taran Killam, slated to play Trump on SNL, is a fine Trump.
But if Clinton is elected, we will get four years of the supremely talented McKinnon—about to truly bust out in the new Ghostbusters movie with Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy—doing her inspired, affectionate-but-still-savage Clinton impression. Considering how SNL never has quite figured out how to satirize President Barack Obama, this is change we can all believe in.