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On 'SNL,' Aziz Ansari Aims To Quell Some American Angst That Shirtless Putin Can't

With no shortage of material to work with, Saturday Night Live satirized a packed week in American politics, reiterating themes imparted by critics for months.

The episode kicked off by lampooning Russia's role in influencing the U.S. election.

Cast member Beck Bennett brought back smug shirtless Vladimir Putin, the star of Saturday's cold open, to assuage America's fears about their new president, in a speech carried by RT, the Russian government-funded outlet.

"You are worried that your country is in the hands of this unpredictable man. But don't worry, it's not," he smirks.

Just look at Russia, suggests SNL's Putin, whose administration also started out on a road of skepticism.

"Many Russians were skeptical of me at first too, but today, no one seems to hear from any of them," he says. "It's like they're gone."

The same day millions of American women marched to protest an administration they believe threatens their rights, Bennett's Putin says that we must simply look to the satisfaction of Russian women to ease our fears.

Enter Olya, Kate McKinnon's subservient Russian character, reading from a scripted statement detailing her contentment under Putin's leadership. Olya returns, from outside the window behind him, wearing a pink 'pussyhat,' gesturing "I'm watching you," at her leader.

SNL made fun of the low attendance of Friday's inauguration, the central topic of discussion at the White House Briefing Room earlier Saturday evening, when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer accused media outlets of downplaying crowd sizes.

But what may have genuinely quelled American viewers more were diplomatic words from the week's host, comedian Aziz Ansari. Ansari's monologue fell in line with a larger trend among soapbox comedians, who aim to argue a broader social message first — to what's often their already solid fan base — and to elicit laughter second.

As NPR Politics reporter Jessica Taylor notes, "The most nuanced takes on the election have come from stand-up comedians," like Dave Chappelle's hosting stint the weekend after the election and now, Aziz Ansari the day after the inauguration.

"We've always been divided by some of these big political issues. It's fine," the comedian said. "As long as we treat each other with respect and remember that ultimately, we're all Americans, we'll be fine."

Dubbing him the "Chris Brown of politics," Ansari said we shouldn't demonize all of Trump's supporters. Like the fans of the pop star who beat former girlfriend Rihanna, some supporters rallied behind Trump for his ideology (in Brown's case, the tunes), not his character.

Laying out the day's events as a reason to stay hopeful, Ansari continued, "Change doesn't come from presidents, change comes from large groups of angry people. And if day one [of Trump's presidency] is any indication, you are part of the largest group of angry people I've ever seen," he cracked. "Yesterday, Trump was inaugurated — today, an entire gender protested against him."

The next political-themed sketch of the night featured Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway (McKinnon, again) in a Chicago-esque parody. Dodging questions in an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper (Bennett), McKinnon's Conway pivots instead to perform a musical number about her newfound celebrity in the political world.

Next up, the show's "Weekend Update" segment took on the week's leftover news headlines. In exchange for the "Update" anchor's usual humorous twist to cap off each news item, Michael Che frequently leaned on a reaction image of Michelle Obama depicted with a side-eye glance, adding a curt "Hmph." The many faces of the former first lady on Inaguration Day, which suggest she broke her poker face, have been circulating social media.

The post-inauguration show closed with a sentimental tribute to the 44th president. Cecily Strong, joined a couple verses later by Sasheer Zamata, sang "To Sir, With Love," in front of a backdrop of a black-and-white photo of Barack Obama. The scene echoed the show's post-election episode, featuring Kate McKinnon's solemn double tribute to a freshly defeated Hillary Clinton and the late singer Leonard Cohen.

The screen faded to black with the message, "Thank You President Obama."

Viewers on Twitter lamented the absence of resident Trump impersonator Alec Baldwin, who has previously said he's "trying to shed the Donald Trump cloak."

Hopefully Baldwin's no-show will give some solace to the new president, who has criticized SNL as "Unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can't get any worse. Sad."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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