I don’t know if you watched Saturday Night Live last night, but if you did, you got a chance to see James Austin Johnson bust out his Donald Trump impression again. I’m not normally one for effusive and over the top praise, but I think his take on the former President is probably the most accurate political impersonation we have ever gotten from SNL.
I’m definitely not the only one who thinks so either. The response has always been positive, but it's somehow getting even better. If you hop underneath the comments over on YouTube, it’s just a long string of people ranting and raving about how fantastic the impression is and how he’s been able to get everything from his inflection to his mannerisms down perfectly. I mean these comments are just a few of several hundred that mostly say the same thing…
And yet, despite how utterly incredible this impression is, it’s fair to say it hasn’t broken through culturally in the same way so many other SNL impressions have. Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump, as an example, was significantly less accurate than James Austin Johnson’s. It had some of the mannerisms down and the pronunciation on a few words was very accurate, but it was very much an over the top caricature that was not going for absolute authenticity. Pretty much every time he did it, however, it was inescapable the next day. Dozens of outlets wrote stories. Video was all over Twitter. It was everywhere.
Now, I’m not saying James Austin Johnson’s Trump impression isn’t popular. I’m writing this early on Sunday morning, and it’s already surpassed 300,000 views on YouTube, which is two to three times higher than every other sketch SNL did last night, but I think, at this point, it’s fair to ask why it’s so much less popular than Alec Baldwin’s take or even Darrell Hammond’s. I think there are three possibilities. So, let’s review the sketch from last night and then talk out the possibilities…
Maybe People Like A Less Accurate Impression
The first option here is the quality of the impression is actually a net negative. Sometimes people share impersonations of famous people because they want other people to see how accurate they are. Johnson clearly has that down. But sometimes I think they also share impressions because they want the subject matter to look bad. They want people to see the video and see how utterly stupid the person looks, but when the impression is so scary accurate that it’s not exaggerating the absurd or negative qualities, that might be less interesting to some people.
Maybe all those people sharing Alec Baldwin’s Trump impressions were actually doing it because they thought the impression made the President look worse than a normal video of him. The President himself certainly did. Maybe they responded to its inaccuracy in a way they’re not to this one because it’s too accurate.
Maybe People Aren’t As Excited About Watching Trump-Related Content
Another real possibility here is people are just burned out on Donald Trump. Regardless of what you think of the former President, I think we can all agree he is an absolutely wild character. For a long time, it seemed like the fans and the haters all wanted to consume any and all DJT content, but we’re now getting close to almost a decade of him at the forefront of American politics. The burnout on SNL political content, and specifically the Trump sketches, might not have anything to do with the Trump sketches themselves. We might just be reverting back to a lower, pre-Trump level in which fans liked SNL’s political commentary (particularly the debate sketches) but weren’t necessarily turning in every week specifically for that.
Maybe The Writing Isn't As Good
I think the final possibility is the sketches just aren't as sharp or well-written as we were getting when he ran for President in 2016 or 2020. Watching someone do a spot-on impression might be enough of a draw for 30 seconds, but if we’re going to watch four or five minutes, there needs to be a point of view and/ or funny lines interspersed. Now, to be clear, there are plenty of funny lines in last night’s sketch, but a lot of those funny lines are just sorta thrown in as part of Trump’s stream of consciousness rambling. They’re the type of thing that make me smile, but they’re not like jokes I’d tell other people to watch because they’re so funny.
To Sum Up
I love James Austin Johnson’s Donald Trump impression. I am absolutely not making a case that SNL should go in a different direction or bring back Alec Baldwin, who might not even be available for awhile anyway. I’m merely saying that the Trump sketches were once an inescable talking point on Sundays after a new episode. Now, they feel a lot like random sketches that are simply designed to showcase how accurate Johnson’s impression is.
Something needs to change. I think the writing needs to improve. There needs to be a bit more of a premise behind whatever we’re watching. I also think Johnson would probably get further by occasionally turning up the heat and being a little less accurate in order to really emphasize a personality trait he wants to emphasize. Sometimes a little less authenticity produces something that’s more fun to watch.
Whether anything changes or not, I'm going to keep watching and keep appreciating what I'm seeing. It's probably the best impression we've ever gotten from SNL, but that doesn't mean it can't be better or there aren't ways to help it connect with more people.