'Saturday Night Live' ratings soar thanks to Baldwin's Trump and McCarthy's Spicer

President Trump is making “Saturday Night Live’s” ratings great again.

NBC’s long-running late-night sketch comedy program is having its most-watched season in 22 years, thanks in large part to Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of the 45th president of the United States and, more recently, Melissa McCarthy’s devastating take on White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

Through Feb. 11, first-run episodes of “SNL” have averaged 10.64 million viewers when a week of delayed viewing on DVRs is added in, according to Nielsen — numbers not seen since the 1993-94 season. Saturday’s show, which was hosted by Baldwin and featured several Trump-related sketches as well as jokes on “Weekend Update,” had 10.8 million viewers, the largest SNL audience since Jan. 8, 2011.

Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, believes the program has become a bonfire for viewers upset or agitated over the chaotic and polarizing opening weeks of the Trump presidency.

“People who hate Trump need to gather together and sometimes it’s in the streets and sometimes it’s watching a show like ‘Saturday Night Live,’” he said.

The effect can be cathartic as well.

“You can’t be angry all the time — it destroys your health,” Sabato said. “So ‘Saturday Night Live,’ in a sense, is a kind of Pepto-Bismol for the bile that’s building all week long.”

Topical comedy has thrived during times of heightened political divisiveness in the country. In the late 1960s, when the news focused on Vietnam War protests, civil unrest and even political assassination, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” became a top 20 show. It was only canceled  when it became too subversive for nervous network executives.

“Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” embedded social commentary in the rapid-fire bits that emanated from its candy-colored set on NBC’s Burbank lot and became the No. 1 TV show in 1968. One of its writers was future “SNL” impresario Lorne Michaels.

Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” hit ratings highs in 2004 as a large segment of the public became disenchanted with the U.S. invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush.

But “Saturday Night Live” is having an impact that extends far beyond the realm of entertainment. Its potent political sketches, with what has become a cast of characters based on the new administration and its cohorts (Kate McKinnon as pit bull White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and Beck Bennett as shirtless Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as CNN anchor Jake Tapper) are deconstructed on serious cable news programs for days afterward.

An “SNL” representative declined comment.

Trump has reacted negatively to the show on Twitter throughout the season. On Jan. 25 he tweeted “@NBCNews is bad but Saturday Night Live is the worst of NBC. Not funny, cast is terrible, always a complete hit job. Really bad television!”  He has been silent on the matter in the last two weeks since McCarthy has begun lampooning Spicer. Leaks from within the White House to reporters have claimed Trump is particularly disturbed by McCarthy’s depiction of Spicer, stoking rumors that a replacement for him is being sought.

Baldwin’s portrayal of Trump as a poorly informed, malleable narcissist has only magnified what many political pundits have said or written about his first month on the job.

Sabato said “SNL” has not had such an impact on the public perception of a presidency since Chevy Chase portrayed Gerald Ford as a bumbling klutz, an image that historians believe contributed to his election loss in 1976.

Trump detractors who need a TV outlet to release their anxiety over the day’s news are beginning to spread to weeknights.

Stephen Colbert was a destination for pointed political humor when he hosted “The Colbert Report” on Comedy Central. He lost a bit of that cachet when he succeeded David Letterman as host of “The Late Show” on CBS in 2015 and shrugged off the satirical “Stephen Colbert” persona.

But Colbert’s ratings are seeing a lift since Trump’s inauguration last month, as viewers look to him to riff on the day’s events. He  scored his second consecutive weekly ratings win over NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” when Nielsen issues the data on Tuesday. Those wins are significant given that Colbert has only bested Fallon once previous, the week he debuted.

“We go out our of way not to make fun of the people who support Trump or who support what he’s trying to do,” said a source involved with “The Late Show” who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and requested anonymity. “But we certainly go after the way he’s doing it in this hamfisted way that things are coming across. It’s just perfect for comedy.”

And clearly good for the ratings. 

stephen.battaglio@latimes.com

Twitter: @SteveBattaglio

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UPDATES:

8:25 a.m.: This article was updated with data from Nielsen.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.

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