Donald Trump's victory in the presidential election caught TV comedy by surprise (South Park had to rewrite an election-themed episode at the last minute last week). But no show has such a significant Trump problem as Saturday Night Live.
SNL didn't think Trump was going to win, and only contracted Alec Baldwin to do his impression of the golden-haired mogul for election season. Baldwin is busy with his movie career (his IMDb page lists five projects in the pipeline for 2017-2018 already), and it's unlikely that he will be available or even willing to do Trump on a consistent basis for the next four years. He publicly disclosed that NBC executives wouldn't let SNL endorse Hillary Clinton, which surely does not ingratiate him with network decision-makers. It wouldn't be out-of-character for the outspoken actor to give up the role as a statement against allowing SNL to further normalize the president-elect, which many said it did last year by bringing Trump in as host.
NBC and Trump have a longstanding, if strained, relationship. Trump hosted The Apprentice for the network for 14 seasons before the network fired him last year after his derogatory statements about Mexican immigrants in his campaign announcement. But the network still brought him back just five months later to host SNL.
Baldwin didn't appear in the show's first post-election episode this past Saturday, and he may not be seen as Trump again. Representatives for SNL and Baldwin declined to comment for this story, so we probably won't know if Baldwin will be back until the show goes live Saturday night. But if the Baldwin-as-Trump era is over, who will take over? Here are three possibilities.
1. Darrell Hammond: Hammond is the most obvious possibility. The longest-tenured cast member in Saturday Night Live history is still with the show as the announcer, so since he's there anyway, he may step in for the cold open when necessary. Hammond has been playing Trump on SNL since 1999, and most recently appeared in May as Trump was closing in on the Republican nomination. Hammond's Trump is well honed, and since someone has to do it, he's the best option at hand. The downside to Hammond is that giving the part to someone who's been with the show on and off since 1995 feels business-as-usual in a way probably isn't the best course of action under current unprecedented circumstances.
2. Beck Bennett: If SNL decides to give Trump duties to a current cast member rather than Hammond, it would be Bennett, who joined SNL in 2013 and has gradually become one of the show's more prominent male performers. Bennett is a talented impressionist and bears some physical resemblance to Trump, so this may be his time to rise to greater prominence on the show. Bennett already does Vice President-elect Mike Pence and Russian President Vladimir Putin, two people who SNL will also need someone to do in the coming years, so it's possible that Bennett will be kept in those roles (though they could be passed along to new featured player/writer Mikey Day).
3. Anthony Atamanuik: SNL could add a new cast member as a Trump specialist. There are surely hundreds of comedians with serviceable Trump impressions who could be hired to do the job, but if SNL brings in anyone, it should be comedian Atamanuik, who did a searing Trump impression as one-half of a two-person sketch show called Trump vs. Bernie with comic James Adomian as Sen. Bernie Sanders earlier this year. The duo toured the country and appeared on Fusion and Comedy Central and earned rave reviews, so Atamanuik's Trump is a proven success. It's also much more negative toward the president-elect than SNL has been. Where Baldwin plays him mostly as an egomaniacal blowhard, Atamanuik's Trump is a malicious, monstrous idiot.
If Atamanuik is brought in, it would signal that SNL is not going to play nice with Trump. Allowing Atamanuik to do what he does would be taking a stand against Trump, which the writers and performers clearly want to do but are not being allowed to by network higher-ups, who want to preserve access to the White House and don't want to risk further alienating an audience that already doesn't like Saturday Night Live (look at what the alt-right did to Leslie Jones for evidence of that).
Therein lies the more interesting and ultimately more important question of how SNL will handle Trump's presidency: will the show poke fun at his personal peccadilloes and let him mostly off the hook for his dangerous ideas (like it did with Will Ferrell's President Bush, a situation that almost seems quaint now), or will it allow its writers and performers to actually express their authentic feelings and give their satire some heft?
The show's choice matters, because jokes help people process the world, and SNL is America's foremost joke institution. How SNL answers the Trump question will unequivocally determine who the show is for.