This will be different. On the surface, it might even seem thin and meaningless. And there is a level of truth to that. And it might also seem like just a reaction to something against my personal preferences. And there is some truth to that, as well. But it’s more than that, and about something that’s, at least in part, substantive, which I hope will become clear as I address why. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me – but then that’s true about all my articles. But I also suspect I’m not alone. And I believe that those who agree are wise and prescient and of great, piercing insight. But, of course, I’m biased. And -- I do think – right…
There’s a great scene in the Mary Tyler Moore Show series. TV news director Lou Grant has sent his incompetent nephew out with a camera. When it turns out that there was a major fire in the neighborhood where the young man is, Lou is ecstatic that his station will scoop everyone and can’t wait for him to return with the footage. But all the film shows is a caterpillar crawling along the sidewalk. Controlling his anger, Lous asks why in the world that’s what he filmed. “I wanted to show,” the nephew says, “that even when there is a raging fire, only a few feet away life goes on.” For the briefest moment, Lou says nothing – and then slowly responds, “Why couldn’t you have made the point that while life is going on, just a few feet away…THERE IS A RAGING FIRE!!!!!!!!???”
That's sort of how I felt watching Saturday Night Live this past weekend.
For the second week in a row, Saturday Night Live opened the show with a “Joe Biden is old and befuddled” sketch. On the Weekend Update segment, the first two stories were about “Joe Biden is old and befuddled.” Nowhere in the show was there a sketch about Trump being old and losing his mind and being fascist and in the middle of five trials – and furthermore, there weren’t even any jokes about him on Weekend Update. (There were two jokes about his sons testifying, and one of the jokes included Trump in the punchline. But that’s it.)
To be clear, my perturbed reaction to this isn’t just “You’ve opened the last two show with entire sketches about Joe Biden being old and befuddled, but not Trump.” It’s that this past week – when it not only was a major news story when it broke but has continued to be a big news story all week – is when Trump gave his manifesto speech echoing Hitler, using language directly out of Mein Kampf and other Hitler speeches.
And SNL couldn’t figure out a way to do a sketch about that?? Seriously? Or couldn’t even think of a single joke about Trump echoing Hitler on Weekend Update. And instead chose to open the show with “Ha, ha, Joe Biden is old” for the second week in a row, and open Weekend Update with a couple more “Hey, get this, Joe Biden is old” jokes. Really??
I admit to being as teeth-gnashing annoyed at a comedy show as is reasonable.
And yes, part of it is because of my own personal politics. But I don’t tend to get angry when there’s a joke at my politics’ expense, or when my own ox is gored, especially if the jokes are really good, though even if they aren’t. I might sometimes wish it were otherwise, but “angry”? Not like this. More to the point when watching was a concern about democracy. I kept thinking, “I know that all of you who make this show watch the news. And I know you all are aware what’s going on. I know, too, that you think Joe Biden is old – and he is – but you also most surely know that Trump is just as old, and is actually befuddled enough to keep saying that Barack Obama is president, and getting countries wrong, and getting world leaders wrong, and even World Wars wrong and much more.
Much more like quoting Hitler. And saying if he’s re-elected he wants to built camps for undocumented immigrants and deport minorities and said he wants his former Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs killed, and wants to re-make the Constitution to put the Justice Department and civil service under direct White House control, and said his Vice President deserved to be hanged.
It is not hyperbole to say that democracy is on the ballot in 2024. And SNL chose to ignore all this, ignore Trump echoing Adolf Hiter that very week. And instead though, “Let’s go again with “Joe Biden is old and befuddled’ and pepper the whole show with that.
(By the way, yes, Joe Biden is old. As is Trump. But unlike Trump, no, Biden is not befuddled. He occasionally does misspeak, but not because he’s old – Joe Biden has been misspeaking for much of his public life. He also stumbles with his words a bit because he has a lifelong stutter that he’s largely overcome. But he’s not befuddled. The show had a joke about him not knowing the name of Chinse president Xi. And that could have been a good joke in other contexts – except for all the things to kid Joe Biden about, that is not one of them. Biden’s expertise is foreign policy, and he’s met with Xi at length for 15 years. But yeah, let’s go with that, rather than Trump continually referring to President Biden as Barack Obama.)
And yes, I know it’s just a comedy show. And I know I'm no longer the target audience. So, I’m not “outraged.” And Joe Biden as president is fair game for being ridiculed and laughed at. But Saturday Night Live has been a major part of the popular culture’s political satire for young audiences for almost literally a half-century! For 48 years. So, creating perceptions about politics is, in fact, something important to the show. No, it’s not a Major Thing in American political life in the slightest, nor is it even remotely close to being seriously influential, but the impact that it has, particularly among younger voters who are the least-likely constituency to vote, is not non-existent.
That's why I believe last week the show was just completely tone-deaf. Not just because of politics and what’s a good basis for jokes – but because of reality, what was actually major news last week (and recent weeks), what’s literally at stake, and what is itself a deep foundation for jokes.
And high on the list is that it’s hard to understand why SNL decided to keep going back to the well for “Joe Biden is old jokes” again and again. Those are so easy jokes to make, kids have been making them about old people since the beginning of time. If you want to make Joe Biden jokes, that's 100% fine – but SNL has very clever, smart comedy writers – come up with smart, clever jokes about him. Because jokes about President Biden are completely appropriate. It's just that, while they’re at it, they might want to also come up with smart, clever jokes about his opponent to lead the country echoing Hitler that very same week…and building internment camps, and deporting minorities and Muslims, and ripping up the U.S. Constitution, and being found liable for the equivalence of rape and found guilty of fraud, and being indicted four time with 91 counts – and being the runaway favorite of Republicans. And being old and befuddled. Rather than avoiding mention of it all -- especially when it's been a major news story all week. But, hey, that's just my taste...)
It's a weird thing with Saturday Night Live. After all, these are the people who not long ago thought it would be a great idea to have Trump host the show in 2015 five months after he’d already announced he was a presidential candidate. (And after he won, wrung their hands on the air in weepy sadness how it could ever have happened.) And thought it would be a great idea to have Elon Musk be a host, when he was already a problematic public figure – though not yet quite at the deeply, crazed anti-Semitic level he’s at now. (Yeah, how did that choice work out…?)
By the way, I want to be clear – I like Saturday Night Live. I watch it most every week, and if I don’t always find it funny, and if sometimes I find it too insular in some of its unthinking, knee-jerk choices, it’s been pretty funny and spot-on for half a century, which is remarkable. And the last two weeks have been some of their funniest shows in a long time. So, this isn’t a case of “Gee, SNL has lost it.” They haven’t.
What I think they have lost perspective on occasion recently – and totally closed their eyes to last week – is that while President Biden is an absolutely fair target for jokes (even if “He’s old” jokes are pretty thin for expert craftsmen), the show exists in a world where actual fascism and a Hitler-quoting candidate have a serious chance to undermine democracy. Where joking about them can make you considered an “enemy of the people.” And while the trees you make fun of are valid, it’s important to realize that while laughing at them, the dried tinder of the entire forest is smoldering and at risk of burning them all down in flames.
I was so stunned to see yet another opening sketch about “Joe Biden is old and doddering” for the second week in a row that it colored my view of the entire show. Fortunately, I recorded it – and so I began fast-forwarding through, pausing to see what the next sketch was, and after getting the joke, not caring enough to laugh any further, and fast-forwarded on again. Hoping I’d see a Trump sketch about, y’know, echoing Hitler that was in the news all week, but no. And expecting something on Weekend Update, but after the first two items were about “Joe Biden is old,” I fast-forwarded more, watching the TV to see what the topic was, stopping briefly to watch and then fast-forwarding on. I’m sure many people found some, if not most of the sketches funny. And that’s fine. I’m not suggesting the show wasn’t funny for them. Just that, for me, it was irresponsible, and when you make that personal observation, laughter doesn’t come easily.
(I should add that when a friend called the next day, at one point he brought up SNL and before I could get a word in, he said, “I couldn’t believe they opened the show again with that guy doing a “Joe Biden is old’ sketch. Two weeks in a row. And what’s the deal with that joke about him not knowing Xi?? It wasn’t funny because it made no sense, the thing Biden knows best is foreign affairs.” I don’t say this as proving I’m right. It doesn’t. It just shows I’m not alone.)
I like Saturday Night Life. It’s just that last week was the first time in 48 years my heart constricted at their utter cluelessness on a level far deeper than just, “I didn’t like the jokes.”
They’re better than this. They’re smarter than this. They’re more aware than this. The two weeks previous showed that. The episode with Nate Bargatze was one of the funniest they’ve had in years. This week, though, was – to me – like they wrote a show about popular culture with their eyes closed to that culture. And the forest it exists in. Just a few feet away.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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