One of Saturday Night Live's most legendary openings featured the show's executive producer Lorne Michaels asking then-mayor Rudy Giuliani, "Can we be funny?" about three weeks after the September 11th, 2001 attacks. Giuliani responded "Why start now?" The audience laugh that followed underscored the gag's perfect execution. The message was clear: comedy is brave when it goes on in the face of tragedy. Saturday Night Live is an institution, and we should be able to count on it when things go wrong.
That should be a contract between SNL and its fans, but the show has broken it. This election season is Saturday Night Live's best opportunity in its history to prove comedy's cultural relevance and live up to its own potential. But so far, the show has thrown the ball down a sewer grate and kept boardin'.
'snl' has thrown the ball down a sewer grate
In a recent interview on the Politico podcast "Off Message," SNL's Weekend Update co-hosts Michael Che and Colin Jost defended Donald Trump, saying he's "super smart" and "super hardworking," and implying he doesn't deserve all the negative attention he gets. Che also said, "Let's not pretend that this guy is a mutant, you know, and he's the most evil, racist, mutant piece of crap that ever walked. Listen, there's probably somebody in your building way worse than Donald Trump, and you buy bagels from him, and it's fine."
The argument that there are "worse" racists is blatantly stupid. None of those worse racists have a shot at becoming president in the next month. (I can't believe we even have to say these things!) Che is a successful comedy writer / performer who presumably has some training in writing and performing satire. He's probably received some amount of education on the history of political satire, which has been used as a subversive counterweight to power since the beginning of governments.
I don't know Che or Jost, so I have no idea why they would feel compelled to stop people from being "too mean" to Donald Trump. We're talking about someone who's built his entire campaign on being mean. There are rules of decency and compassion when talking about human beings on TV, but they shift with the decency and compassion exhibited by their subject. In the last year, Trump has shown none of either, and the rules have ceased to apply to him. We have only four weeks to make sure this election doesn't result in one of the most catastrophic cedings of progress in our nation's history, so nobody should give a fuck about hurting Donald Trump's feelings.
rules of decency change when your subject is completely indecent
The idea that being "mean" is sweepingly bad and always "bullying" is exactly what led many people to relish the dying breaths of Gawker Media after a vindictive lawsuit pushed by wrestler Hulk Hogan, and financed by Silicon Valley ghoul Peter Thiel, bankrupted the company. Meanness — especially viral comedic meanness — when directed at power, is admirable. Meanness is one of the few weapons that anyone can wield. There is almost no criticism Trump has not opened himself up to by throwing the first stone (he asked his supporters to murder his opponent!), so Saturday Night Live shouldn't be holding back its own stones.
The creators behind Saturday Night Live should be embarrassed about how they've handled Trump's campaign in the last year, not just because they let him host the show, but because their unwillingness to address his critical flaws has leaked into the show's writing. Jokes written for the Weekend Update segment in particular are toothless, bordering on glib. Just this week, Jost and Che spent the majority of the segment's presidential debate discussion talking about how Hillary Clinton is celebrating too much in the wake of her win. They asked if both candidates were on drugs, and said "No matter who wins, it's going to be a rebuilding season." One month out from the election, Weekend Update is still addressing Clinton and Trump as if they are comparably less-than-ideal candidates. This Saturday's presidential-debate cold open was smart and pointed, largely on the backs of Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon as Trump and Clinton. But one bold, opinionated sketch isn't enough if the rest of the episode is still pulling punches, or treating the candidates equally.
Saturday Night Live has wielded real political influence in the past, under circumstances much less dire than the present ones. Chevy Chase's clutzy oddball Gerald Ford became the real Gerald Ford in the minds of many kids in my age demo who watched SNL reruns with their parents, and never knew the real deal. Will Ferrell's loose impression of George W. Bush as a feckless boy-man lampooned the dangers of letting lovable dopes step into power. Sarah Palin's public image entirely disappeared behind Tina Fey's impression of her. In popular imagination, Will Ferrell's face is George W. Bush's face, and Fey's grinning bray is Sarah Palin's voice.The claim that Fey played a tangible part in derailing John McCain's campaign is not baseless pop-culture worship — it's backed by social science.
Critics and civilians left, right, and center called Fey's impression "mean," and she responded in her 2011 memoir Bossypants: "No one ever accused Dana Carvey or Darrell Hammond or Dan Aykroyd of 'going too far' in their political impressions. You see what I'm getting at here. I am not mean and Mrs. Palin is not fragile."
'saturday night live' has wielded political power in the past
I didn't have a problem with Fey's Palin impression, but the more understandable criticism of it was that Palin was not a public figure on the same scale as the presidents or presidential candidates that SNL usually mocked. At the time, she was a super-conservative Republican from a super-conservative, non-contiguous state that had little to do with Saturday Night Live's coast-to-coast audience. But she was a vice presidential nominee, and the power she stood to hold is the same as the power Trump (and his equally detestable running mate, Mike Pence) still have a chance of nabbing. Did Palin really deserve to be eviscerated on TV? Yes. She had already accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists" and made it clear that she didn't believe women or same-sex partners deserved full civil rights. And she might have made it to the White House. She might have made it to the White House.
Fey reprised her impression eight years later for a Saturday Night Live cold-open parody of Palin endorsing Donald Trump for president at a campaign stop in Iowa. In this sketch, Palin is still the joke (which is fair, because her speech was unlistenable, and contained literally zero full sentences), and Darrell Hammond as Trump is playing the straight man. "She's crazy, isn't she?" he asks the audience in a collegial aside, "Dear God, she's still talking." There was no evidence before, after, or during Palin's speech that the real Donald Trump realized it was awful, or found it embarrassing, but SNL let him have that on national TV anyway. Why?
In his recent film Don't Think Twice, Mike Birbiglia asks whether Saturday Night Live has ever been funny, or if everyone just thinks it "used" to be funny because everyone used to be younger and easier to shock and please. That's always been the SNL scam: convincing America that an institution is worth the time, money, and centrality in pop culture simply because it's been around so long, and it meant something to its viewers at some point in their personal histories. But if it isn't doing anything useful or daring with that weight, there's no reason for it to exist. SNL can't have it both ways — it can't be a beloved cultural institution with bragging rights about carrying the country through hard times, and then pass the buck when we most need bold, incisive satire to upend the status quo and expose the ridiculousness of the things we're taking for granted. That's what satire is for.
When Trump hosted SNL last September, there were very few jokes at his expense. Che and Jost defended the choice, saying that the harder jokes were coming, that they were being saved, and we would see them later. So? Bring them on. We're running out of time.