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How the ‘SNL’ cold open took on the dueling town halls, but went way too easy on NBC

Bill Goodykoontz Arizona Republic (CNT) City News And Talk #local-all

Go big or go home, the saying goes.

“Saturday Night Live” continues to do neither. It just sort of … goes.

Choosing from what has become a weekly buffet menu of bizarre 2020 election events to satirize in its cold open, the show went with the dueling town halls featuring President Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

The fact that one of those town halls — Trump’s — aired on NBC, the network “Saturday Night Live” appears on, and that the decision was harshly criticized, did not go unnoticed or ignored in the episode’s cold open.

Although it was close.

In fact the best takedown of the craven scheduling move didn’t come until the “Weekend Update” segment later in the show. More on that in a bit.

Biting the hand that feeds you is a comedy staple — how many times have “The Simpsons” brutalized Fox News? How often did David Letterman make fun of CBS?

You didn’t find much of that kind of courage here.

“One town hall was a thoughtful, cogent discussion of the issues facing our country,” a voiceover intoned at the beginning of the show. “The other featured President Trump.”

Kate McKinnon, playing “Today” show host Savannah Guthrie, who moderated the Trump town hall, began by saying, “Good evening America. I’m surprise badass Savannah Guthrie, and if you were angry with NBC for doing this town hall, just let me get a few questions in and I think you’ll thank me.”

Thus the show allowed Guthrie (and McKinnon, always the current cast’s go-to MVP) to bail out the segment, just as the real-life Guthrie bailed out the network’s news division. Guthrie’s tough questions and willingness to call Trump (played again by Alec Baldwin) out on his lies made people forget, kind of, what a mistake it was for NBC to schedule the town hall against Biden’s in the first place.

“We have lots of voters waiting to ask questions,” McKinnon’s Guthrie said, “but I’d like to start by tearing you a new one.”

Meanwhile, Mikey Day’s George Stephanopoulos hosted the returning Jim Carrey’s Biden on ABC, with “SNL” switching back and forth between the two networks, much as NBC’s decision forced viewers to (or you could record one, or even try to watch both at the same time).

“The vibe we’re going for tonight is poorly attended college lecture,” Day’s Stephanopoulos said. “The folks asking questions are half pro-Biden and half anti-Trump.”

That would be a pretty funny line if NBC had a leg to stand on when it comes to integrity in this particular situation.

Of course Carrey’s Biden eventually became Mister Rogers (and, better still, calm-yourself painter Bob Ross, the rare instance of riffing on events in a new and different way). Carrey’s Biden continues to feel off somehow, just not quite right. But his mix of manic somnambulism — we’re all about oxymorons — seems like something we’re just going to have to put up with till Election Day, and maybe beyond.

All the show had to do to try to milk laughs out of Baldwin’s Trump, on the other hand, was recreate a version of reality. Guthrie’s “crazy uncle” line made it into the segment, with Baldwin’s Trump saying the “conversation we’re having right now is a preview of Thanksgiving dinner in a lot of American households, so crazy uncles stand back and stand by” (a reference to Trump’s inability to denounce white supremacist groups).

Yes, the nodding woman made an appearance

Naturally the over-eager nodding woman who sat behind Trump showed up — an excuse to work in Maya Rudolph’s Kamala Harris. All this wasn’t great, but it was at least an improvement over the last two weeks. (That’s the definition of damning with faint praise, if you’re wondering.)

The best summation of the town halls and NBC’s role in them didn’t happen till “Weekend Update” co-host Michael Che said, “NBC held a town hall event with President Trump because, what can I say? We have a type.” A graphic appeared on-screen with pictures of Bill Cosby, former “Today” host Matt Lauer and Trump – all former NBC employees, all accused (and in Cosby’s case convicted) of sexual assault.

That’s the kind of bite the show could use more of. And maybe “Weekend Update” is the best place for it.

While you can understand why the show uses the cold open to take on events of the week — social media mentions, for one thing — there’s no rule that it has to. If you’re going to do it, do it right.