Has SNL Finally Joined the Fray?


“I watched parts of Saturday Night Live last night. It is a totally one-sided, biased show — nothing funny at all...” — President-elect Donald J. Trump

You and I are living in a golden age of political satire. Brought on by the proliferation of technology, a long line of sharp-witted critics, and an endless supply of easy marks better fit for a Jerry Springer show than holding high office, comedy gold yet abounds.

It’s up for debate as to which comic(s) ushered in this new satirical dawn. Was it the acidic Lenny Bruce, put on trial for using profanities while riffing on thin-skinned politicians? Maybe it was Dick Gregory, the trailblazing African American stand-up comedian who received death threats for his activist brand of humor? And what about Moms Mabley – the one-woman triple threat to the privileged status quo: lesbian, black and political?

Credit whichever pioneers you will, together they cleared the path for the next wave of prophetic comedians.

A few – principally the Smothers Brothers – even managed to land TV gigs, albeit with mixed feelings and results. (The Smothers delivered their critiques with sly understatement, but not understated enough for CBS and the show’s sponsors. After two years (1967-69) the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was abruptly canceled due to the brothers’ unrelenting criticism of the Vietnam war.)

The Smothers are credited with establishing a satirist TV beachhead, paving the way for Norman Lear’s brilliant and biting All in the Family, without question the most politically charged sitcom before or since.

But American political lampooning reached new heights on Oct. 11, 1975, when an iconoclastic sketch series – hosted that night by the equally iconoclastic George Carlin – kicked off the longest running variety show in television history.

Forty-one years later, creator/producer and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient Lorne Michael’s Saturday Night Live is still thumbing its nose at convention à la Bruce, Gregory and Mabley. True to its roots, SNL continues to entertain even as it shines a light on the preposterous state of the planet.

Of course not everyone holds SNL in such high esteem. Over the years many the butt of an SNL shtick has taken issue with the show’s over-the-top characterizations: there is a long and growing list of public figures (including the president-elect) who have logged complaints with the show’s host network (NBC), corporate sponsors, the Federal Communications Commission and various social media.

But for all its wacky muckraking and risk taking, SNL has twice shown it has a soul. The first occasion was on Sept. 29, 2001, as a recently traumatized city and nation sought to regain its bearings. The “cold open” included a stiff-shouldered Mayor Rudy Guliani flanked by NYC firefighters and police officers, followed by a muted but otherwise standard show – an attempt to walk the line between anguish and mirth, tragedy and comedy.

The second baring of soul came just last month.

SNL’s various brain trusts have long declared their political neutrality – this despite the liberal leanings that permeate the series and are reflected by the majority of cast members past and present.

But as tracked in the series’ pre-election ratings, conservative as well as progressive viewers were dialing in to watch the weekly cold opens featuring a spot-on Hillary (Kate McKinnon) spar with a good-enough Trump impression supplied by Alec Baldwin.

In true SNL fashion, the scenes relied on real-life character flaws for their success: McKinnon’s Hillary was neurotic and creepily desperate to get her political due; and Baldwin’s Candidate Trump was the shallow, selfish bore without any real chance of winning.

And then the bore won.

It’s not often a satirized character is retired, but that’s what happened four nights after the election as McKinnon, dressed in full Hillary garb for one last time, opened the show with a solid version of “Hallelujah”, the recently departed Leonard Cohen’s dark and soaring hymn.

McKinnon ended the segment with a clear charge for liberals: “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”

Predictably, progressive writers and bloggers praised the moving juxtaposition of Tragic Hillary and a lament for a renowned musician. Equally predictably, conservative contributors railed against the segment, calling it “liberal loser’s schlock” and further evidence SNL is “an auxiliary arm of the Democratic Party.”

But current cast member Bobby Moynihan put an insider’s spin on the episode in a subsequent interview with Salon: “I think it’s both a scary and empowering time. It was definitely a hard week, but our job is just to try to make people laugh. In terms of satire, there’s a lot of very smart and amazingly talented, funny people who work here. We have a job to do and we’re going to do it.”

Liberal folk can only hope that McKinnon’s somber performance and encouraging remarks signal SNL’s readiness to shed its illusion of neutrality. It’s time to take up the mantle passed down from its satirical forebears and join the fray.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Blacksburg, Va. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2016


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