Over the course of its nearly 45–year history, SNL’s role in American politics has been unique. From its humble beginnings as an underdog television program, SNL has maintained an influence over politics—specifically presidential politics—as it has parodied national figures and created sharp works of satire on the state of our nation. Some have been critical of the show for being too partisan, but I’ve enjoyed watching SNL’s long history of poking fun at both sides of the aisle. I couldn’t tell you whether I laughed more at the late Phil Hartman’s performance as Ronald Reagan, where he snapped back and forth between his doddering public image and a shrewd, calculating persona, or at the very same comedian, only six years later, stuffing civilians’ Big Macs in his mouth as Bill Clinton. I can nearly recite “Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton Address the Nation,” a deeply feminist cold open performed by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler that emphasized the effects of sexism on both political parties during the 2008 election.
These sketches were all great, and, as SNL has leaned even more heavily on political humor over the past few years, they’ve created many funny moments: Alec Baldwin’s Trump failing at international relations and being laughed at by world leader after world leader, Rachel Dratch as Amy Klobuchar, bangs quivering in the primary debates. But these were before, and here’s the cold, hard truth of where we are now:
It isn’t funny anymore.
As great as it probably would be for ratings to open this Saturday’s show with Baldwin and the recently announced Jim Carrey (as Trump and Biden respectively) making faces at each other for ten minutes, let’s ask ourselves: what is there to parody?
Watching the debate, I saw a president who threatened the idea of American democracy, and again refused to condemn white supremacist groups, in fact, telling them to “stand by.” One who himself perpetuated racism, referring to Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” and SARS-CoV-2 as the “China virus” on national television. President Trump repeated the idea that he might “not go along with” the results of the election, implicitly recommending a similar lack of peaceful cooperation to his supporters. America’s constant striving towards equality is part of what makes us a great nation, and for the president to encourage those who would suppress their fellow citizens, especially during a time where movements bring hope across the nation, is unacceptable. A peaceful transition of power is one of the cornerstones of democracy; to have this in question devalues so much of progress that has been made over the past 244 years of American history.
The only laughable thing about any of this is the should–be–ridiculous notion that America could be failing in such a way. Humor often comes from the element of surprise: a stand–up comedian delivers a punchline that doesn’t go where you expect, or an improviser says “yes, and” and introduces an unanticipated element to a scene. To Phil Hartman and the team of writers parodying Reagan in the '80s, seeing America in today’s state likely would have been a surprise. Past comedy writers could cackle to themselves as they portrayed incompetence in political office, knowing that at least to some extent there was a contrast between their caricature and reality—a contrast that would shock the norm and bring laughter to those who watched.
There is no element of surprise anymore. America has grown used to this tumultuous time and is sick of the division, the chaos, and the embarrassment of displays like the debate.
My charge to SNL is this: don’t write and air a parody of the debate on Saturday night. Don’t amplify the sad and ludicrous happenings in this country when the only thing to laugh at right now is America itself. The country has been through a lot this year: a pandemic, racial unrest, wildfires, and a president that threatens our nation’s sense of democracy. What we all need is to be able to sit down with our friends and family late on Saturday night and laugh. We need to have a few hours to just be entertained and to forget our troubles as we’re absorbed into witty sketches and goofy characters. Rather than bringing in Baldwin and Carrey, why not mobilize Mike Myers and Dana Carvey to return as Wayne and Garth and give the television audience relief from the constant barrage of bad news? Rather than fixating on minute idiosyncrasies from the debate performances, why not let Kate McKinnon put on a wig, use a strange voice, and make us laugh?
In 2009, former SNL writer Conan O’Brien was given the opportunity to host the iconic “Tonight Show” on NBC, only to have this ripped away from him after only seven months. At the time, to Conan and his fans, I’m sure this seemed very dire. Nowadays, there are bigger fish to fry, but I urge Saturday Night Live to take heed to the words with which Conan chose to end his last show in the face of a disheartening situation:
“Please do not be cynical. I hate cynicism. For the record, it’s my least favorite quality; it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard, and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”
Rather than choosing political cynicism, why not write comedy, in a time when we need it the most, that comes from creativity, tenacity, and kindness?