New York (AFP/BLOOMBERG) - Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump hosted the sketch-comedy show Saturday Night Live, defying protesters to make the highly anticipated but controversial primetime television appearance.
Wearing a dark suit, white shirt and red tie, Mr Trump stepped on stage to cheers and insisted in a nearly five-minute opening monologue that saw him flanked by two lookalikes: "People think I'm controversial, but the truth is, I'm a nice guy."
"It's wonderful to be here. This is going to be something special," he said.
Mr Trump, a billionaire real estate developer who has never held elected office, leads the polls along with Dr Ben Carson for the Republican nomination for the 2016 race to the White House and will be hoping that his appearance on the show will cement his status as frontrunner.
But the 69-year-old has courted controversy for his statements on immigration, promising that if he becomes president he will expel immigrants who are in the United States illegally and build a wall along the US-Mexico border.
He has also alleged that Mexico sends rapists and other criminals across the border.
That stance saw Latino community leaders hold a rally Friday in Los Angeles calling on NBCUniversal to drop Mr Trump from Saturday Night Live. And there were more protests Saturday in New York hours before the show was broadcast, with demonstrators marching from Trump Tower to NBC's studio in Rockefeller Plaza.
There were fears that audience members might seek to heckle Mr Trump over his views and a Hispanic advocacy group had offered a US$5,000 reward for anyone that called Mr Trump "racist" during his closely watched opening monologue.
He indeed was interrupted with a cry of "you're a racist!" - but it turned out to be from comedian Larry David, who co-produced Seinfeld.
"Who the hell is - oh, I knew this was going to happen," Mr Trump responded in what was clearly a scripted sketch. "Who is that?" "I heard if I yelled that they'd give me $5,000," David said, to laughter and applause from the audience.
Other sketches saw Mr Trump poke fun at his own bombastic personality and holding a cabinet meeting as president of the United States, during which he is told the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria extremist group has been defeated.
People in Mr Trump's America are just "sick of winning", he is told.
Prior to that, Mr Trump - who has admitted he vetoed some of the skits for being too "risque" - said: "Many of the great have hosted this show. Like me, in 2004.
"A lot of people say: Donald, you are the most amazing guy. You are brilliant, you're handsome, you're rich, you have everything going, the world is waiting for you to be president, so why are you hosting Saturday Night Live? Why?
"And the answer is: I really have nothing better to do."
Mr Trump got plenty of laughs from a sympathetic audience, but that was not enough to satisfy Ms Maureen Ryan, a TV critic with respected show-business daily Variety.
"The fevered lead-up to Donald Trump's 'Saturday Night Live' episode turned out to be more exciting than the edition of the show he hosted," she wrote.
"Most of the sketches involving Trump were weak, timid or predictable."
The "racist" sketch with David was one of the few that worked, said Ms Ryan.
There's a certain look a cast member gets that longtime viewers of "Saturday Night Live" can instantly recognize. It's the "this is bombing, isn't it?" look.
The look is as undeniable as it is terrifying: There are millions of people watching me not be funny right now, and there's nothing I can do about it.It's as close as you can come to being completely naked on network television.
That look of discomfort, that "it's gotta be getting close to 1am, right?" that the entire cast of Saturday Night Live had during the Donald Trump-hosted show, was impossible to miss, and all told, even Mr Trump himself sort of had it.
What might have seemed like a good idea initially-rather than have Mr Trump do a walk-on, why not just have him host the whole show? What could go wrong?-was a disaster in practice, with both the host and the cast doing what they could to undermine the material and act like they were anywhere else but on stage.
Some of the best Saturday Night Live sketches of the last decade have involved actual political figures having fun lightly skewering their personal foibles and exaggerating their weaknesses, including the infamous QVC sketch a few days before the 2008 election in which Tina Fey mocked Sarah Palin just a few feet away from John McCain, who happily played along.
But no one had the energy for that this time. They all looked like they'd rather be anywhere else.
The whole cast was clearly off its game. "Weekend Update" hosts Colin Jost and Michael Che flubbed their intro and didn't even feel particularly compelled to correct it.
A musical sketch late in the show featuring Mr Trump playing a "laser harp" somehow seemed simultaneously to never start yet never quite end.
Mr Trump's monologue relied on two separate Trump impersonators. The "political" sketch was a thinly written, poorly (deliberately?) performed imagined 2018 Trump Oval Office, with lame jokes like the President of Mexico delivering Mr Trump a check for his wall and Mr Trump making Russian President Vladimir Putin cry. (It also featured a "surprise" cameo by Mr Trump's daughter made all the more painful by the audience having no reaction to her.)
This hasn't been a great season for Saturday Night Live so far, but I swear, it's not usually this bad. No one's heart was in it.
As you might suspect, Mr Trump wasn't required to work too hard. Worries about equal time laws aside, Mr Trump showed up in several sketches by was never required to do much more than make some Trump grousing faces, with the possible exception of him doing a Hotline Bling dance in a sketch that might have been funnier if there hadn't been roughly 90 billion Hotline Bling remixes on the Internet in the last 10 days.
The sketch that seemed to sum up the cast's view on Mr Trump's appearance was one in which Mr Trump announced that he would live Tweet.
He didn't actually Tweet the sketch - though I, like surely millions of others, went to check anyway - but instead fake Trump Tweets insulting the cast popped up as the cast members slowly checked out of the screen and ultimately began trying to crawl out of the shot.
By the end of the sketch, after fake Trump joked about "the blacks", cast member Leslie Jones pretended to rush the camera in rage, and the feed went out.
Like Larry David - once again, the funniest part of the show as Bernie Sanders, in a cold-open political sketch that, oddly, didn't even mention Mr Trump - pretending to yell "you're a racist!" at Mr Trump during his monologue, it was a winking meta-nod to the controversy of Mr Trump hosting that allowed "SNL" to have its cake and eat it too.
It could pretend it was above having Mr Trump around solely to goose the show's ratings while, you know, not being above it at all.
There was a time when cast members openly revolted against hosts they didn't want to be associated with, as in the famous week that Nora Dunn refused to be on set with Andrew Dice Clay. But tonight was far more passive aggressive than that. There wasn't a cast member who didn't consciously shrink.
Did Mr Trump do himself any good with his appearance? It's tough to see how. He wasn't particularly funny - it's always good to remember that being a showman in the realm of politics and a showman in the realm of entertainment are two far different things - and he didn't look comfortable either. (Also: His suit was too big on him.)
He surely will increase SNL's ratings, a fact he'll happily boast about it, but in a way that probably doesn't benefit him or the show: He looks more like a huckster - the show actually made him look a little small, though again, maybe that was the suit - and the show got a lot more eyeballs to watch one of the worst episodes of the last several seasons.
There was no breakout, instantly memorable moment, which ultimately seems to be by design. It was a night that everyone involved with wanted to move past as quickly as possible and hope no one ever discusses it again.
It shouldn't make much of a dent in the news cycle, but the oral history written five years from now, with the cast members talking about that lost, dead look they all had in their eyes the week Mr Trump hosted … now that'll be a must-read.