Monday, April 03, 2017

Comedy in Crisis

When NBC's Saturday Night Live debuted in October of 1975, I was a freshman at Archbishop Molloy, at that time an all boys high school in Queens, NY. SNL's original "Not Ready For Prime Time Players" (especially Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Laraine Newman) had an authentic irreverent and anti-authority vibe to them that deeply impressed a kid experiencing the weirdness of being in a gender-segregated Catholic school at the height of the Second Wave feminist movement of the 20th century. Thanks in no small part to [what I perceived to be] the rebel comedy promoted by SNL, I learned to laugh at some of the absurdities of my school and life in general rather than get depressed or angry. I suspect millions of Americans had a similar experience. (Today we would probably all be put on adderall, ritalin, and/or anti-depressants).

Archbishop Molloy enforced very high academic standards; Molloy Boys learned American history and were forced to read classic literature. Thus my viewing of SNL from the beginning was filtered through a historical/critical lens. I could see how the SNL writers in their penchant for satire and social commentary were somewhat like a modern day Jonathan Swift--though less profound than the Swiftians called Monty Python's Flying Circus across the pond in the United Kingdom. I could even recognize some Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw in the early skits, but the more immediate influences seemed to be edgy comics of the 1960s like George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, the Smothers Brothers, Richard Pryor, and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.

Thanks to Donald Trump, the 2017 version of SNL is more political than usual, and politics combined with a ratings surge has critics and viewers comparing today's show to the 1970s version. The comparison doesn't really hold up because the earlier show and today's appear in radically different contexts. When the 1975 SNL entered the scene, America had just been through an extremely turbulent period featuring assassinations (two Kennedys, Malcolm X, King), campus strife, a variety of movements pushing for social change, the Watergate scandal, and ultimately President Nixon's 1974 resignation. The fact that not only did Nixon resign, but 18-year-olds got the right to vote and protests helped bring the Vietnam War to an end were widely perceived as signs that--however imperfectly--civic engagement and America's democratic institutions did work the way they were supposed to. In that context, the 1975 SNL was a kind of "comic relief" not needed to end an ill-advised war or topple a corrupt president because those crises had already passed. I don't think it's a coincidence that disco music arrived on the scene at the same time: after more than a decade of social and political chaos, millions of people felt they had earned the right to just laugh and just dance.

Unfortunately, SNL never quite got out of the "comic relief" mode. The show never was a serious threat to the political or news media establishment, and by the 1980s had pretty much become part of that establishment. SNL introduced many brilliant comics over the years (Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Dana Carvey, Kristen Wiig, etc. etc.), but no one ever looked to SNL as an ally in the struggle against Reaganomics in the 1980s, "free trade" deals and deregulation in the 1990s, or the War on Terror in the 2000s and beyond. If anything, the power brokers that have given us Reaganomicsfreetradederegulationwaronterror (yes, I made up a word) over the last 30  years have looked forward to their portrayals on SNL, sometimes even yukking it up with the performers at various galas and occasionally even on the show. In fairness, SNL from the beginning did not pretend to be anything more than comic relief.

But today we've got comedy in crisis. I mean that in a couple of different ways: (1) comedy exists IN the crisis of the Trump years, but (2) COMEDY itself is in crisis. If we truly are in a national political crisis unlike anything we've seen in our lifetimes, then "comic relief" just won't cut it.

So what could we say about SNL in these early days of the Trump years? We know that the Tweeter-in-Chief watches the program, as evidenced by his tweeted dislike of Alec Baldwin's portrayal of him. For me, Baldwin's Trump doesn't go much beyond comic relief. Sure, he capture's the president's narcissism, inability to take responsibility, vulgarity, and intellectual limitations. But in so doing, Baldwin and the writers merely display the obvious. Great caricature, like great satire generally, succeeds most when it shows us what is NOT obvious. Baldwin himself told the UK Press Association recently that Trump is "satire resistant" and that he might not repeat the role for next season's SNL because “If everything stays the same in this country as it is now I don’t think people are going to be in the mood to laugh about it come September.”

If I were calling the shots at SNL I'd hand the Trump role over on a permanent basis to the African-American comedienne Leslie Jones. Her portrayal puts on display the president's greatest fear: that people of color and women can reduce him to a laughing stock, primarily by doing their job with more skill and competence than he can do his. She's also been a victim of racist Twitter trolling, an experience that will come in handy as she awaits the 140-character wrath of Trump

Gender-switching has actually been one of the more intriguing aspects of this year's SNL. Melissa McCarthy's send-up of White House press secretary Sean Spicer became iconic almost instantly. When watching the real Sean Spicer perform, one gets the feeling that--as with all press secretaries for all presidents--he is bending over backwards to satisfy his boss. Yet rarely has anyone in that position seemed so willing as Spicer to sacrifice all personal integrity so as to be a point man for the president's alternative universe. McCarthy's Spicer is an arrogant, belligerent dumb ass so obsessed with maintaining the "tough" image of the Trump White House that he feels compelled to defend the indefensible at every turn.

Kate McKinnon's SNL portrayal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions has not received the attention of Baldwin's Trump or McCarthy's Spicer, but in my view it's a more important performance. McKinnon's Sessions hides an attitude of intolerance and a willingness to lie for personal gain and to protect cronies under a thin "aw shucks" veneer that eerily channels the real Jeff Sessions. I've been following and been bothered by Jeff Sessions for his entire career in the United States Senate, but it really wasn't until McKinnon's caricature that I finally figured out what it is about him that has irked me all these years. It's not the intolerance and the lying; we expect those things from politicians. Rather, it's what I'll call a "banality of evil lite;" Sessions can exude a charm and surface-level civility at the same time communicating deep hostility toward political opponents or anyone defined as "the other." He's a "nicer"--but more dangerous because he's smarter--version of Trump, something that is not immediately obvious but shines through in McKinnon's portrayal.

The performances of Baldwin, McCarthy, and McKinnon show that SNL in the Trump era is interested in going beyond mere "comic relief" in response to the times. Those of us who believe that the nation really, truly is in an existential crisis should appreciate what SNL is doing at the same time recognizing that comedy produced by profit-driven corporations can only go so far. SNL is not and will never be Charlie Hebdo (neither is any other popular comedy found on the networks or cable stations).

For what it's worth, here's my advice for SNL going forward. For the remainder of the Trump presidency, make every "Weekend Update" segment into a serious news broadcast. Invite people who are being directly harmed by Trump's policies to participate in that segment, either live or by taped interview. Introduce the revamped Weekend Update section with a statement like this:

Saturday Night Live has always been and will continue to be a source of comic relief during tough times. We've always believed that comedy and laughter were the best medicine for whatever's been ailing our nation. We still believe that, which is why SNL will continue to feature the most cutting edge comedy we can produce. But like millions of Americans, we're deeply disturbed by what we see as the current administration in Washington's willful and persistent attacks on democratic institutions, the media, and really anyone that disagrees with them. We've tried to make fun of the abuses that we see, but there comes a time when even professional comics have to admit that some things just aren't funny. Therefore, for the remainder of the Trump presidency the Weekend Update segment will be a serious newscast designed to (1) explain clearly what kinds of abusive policies are being hatched and put in place in Washington and (2) introduce our viewers to some of the real victims of those policies.

We know that in reformulating the Weekend Update we are inviting harsh attacks from political partisans and hacks. We expect a windfall of hostile tweets from the Commander-in-Chief. We expect to lose advertising revenue. We expect to be mocked by other comedy  shows. We expect to lose some of our most loyal fans who will sincerely disagree with our decision to place serious news and commentary in a comedy show. 

SNL is produced by writers and performers who are citizens just like you. It's important to us, as citizens, to know that we are doing everything within our power to protect this great country from threats to its core democratic freedoms. We believe that the revamped Weekend Update is a small but potentially powerful way to do that. Please watch it with an open mind and let us know what you think.