SNL‘s Blatant Bothsidesism Makes Its Political Comedy Worse Than Ever

Comedy Features Saturday Night Live
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SNL‘s Blatant Bothsidesism Makes Its Political Comedy Worse Than Ever

I think we’ve made it abundantly clear that we aren’t big fans of Saturday Night Live’s political comedy around these parts. It’s toothless, witless, detached from reality, and more interested in creating its own cartoonish versions of prominent politicians that it can perpetually riff on than it is in actually engaging with what those politicians say, believe and represent. And somehow it seems to be getting worse—this past weekend’s episode would have been the show’s political nadir, if, you know, it hadn’t inexplicably invited Donald Trump to host while he was running an openly bigoted and hateful presidential campaign. Multiple times throughout the episode the show engaged in the kind of ignorant bothsidesism you’d expect from South Park, equating the left’s desire to both show people some respect and hold our dull crook of a president accountable with the right’s “owning the libs” oafishness and their talk radio conspiracies about impeachment. These two sides are not the same, and SNL has to realize that. So why double down so hard on this fake centrism?

It started with the cold open. Ignore the pointless reference to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that starts it off: the meat of this sketch is contrasting liberals in San Francisco with conservatives in South Carolina, while presenting a matter-of-factly cynical black family in Atlanta as the only rational party. We’re supposed to think Bowen Yang’s character saying that Trump violated the Constitution, which the evidence strongly indicates he did, is somehow as unhinged as Chloe Fineman’s character saying that the Democrats are trying to pull off a coup since they lost the election. One side is actually based in reality, while the other is repeating conspiracy theories and calling Nancy Pelosi a “libtard,” and yet apparently SNL thinks both are pretty much the same thing.

The first jokes of Weekend Update hit this same note hard. Colin Jost, one of the show’s co-head writers, and the de facto face of its very white, very bourgeoisie brand of apoliticism, begins the segment by mocking Democrats for impeaching Trump, and follows it up with a joke directed at Democratic Congressman Jerry Nadler about how pointless and anonymous members of Congress are. His co-host, Michael Che, then turns the impeachment process into another dig at Democrats, saying the lesson from Trump’s actions shouldn’t be that presidents should be held accountable, but that nothing matters and Democrats should just start cheating as flagrantly as Trump and the Republicans do. So the show’s main home of political humor doesn’t target the president who’s broken the law, or the party that blindly shields him from repercussions, but instead mocks the other party for actually caring. That’s the exact same kind of message that South Park has been pumping out for decades, and that has taken root throughout the internet.

The same attitude reappears near the end of the episode, in the return of a sketch about a device that translates dogs’ thoughts into English. The joke here is that the dog offends the liberal scientists by repeating Fox News talking points, but it’s framed and acted as if the scientists are uptight, self-righteous nerds upset at the dog’s confident truth-telling. The pug repeats the thought that impeachment will win reelection for Trump, defends his record on economic metrics, mocks the field of Democratic candidates, and berates his owner for living in a bubble and having no contact with real-world conservatives. When the dog says that all the impeachment evidence against Trump won’t change any conservatives’ opinions about him, it’s not framed as an indictment of the blind loyalty of those voters; it’s used as another talking point to insult Democrats for caring too much about law and order, and more proof that Trump is beating them on crassly political terms. We’re supposed to side with the dog here as he repeats the same kind of right-wing beliefs as talk radio and Fox News, that everything the Democrats do is bad for them and good for the Republicans.

There’s always been a strong sense of laziness about Saturday Night Live, despite the unnecessarily grueling way in which an episode is put together. Sketches and concepts are repeated ad nauseum, and it has increasingly disappeared into its own nostalgia over the decades. This kind of equivocation, though, is unusually lazy even for this show; instead of trying to understand any of the issues or political events it feels the need to joke about, it just dismisses all nuance with a shrug and mocks whatever party seems to care more. This kind of thinking has grown more prevalent in SNL’s political comedy over the last few years, but it’s rarely been as obvious or as sustained as it was in Saturday’s episode. It’s hard to tell how much of it comes from apathy, cynicism or a legitimate sensitivity to the right—I’d have to think most of the show’s writers aren’t likely to be Trump supporters or conservatives, but it’s entirely possible a few writers or producers in positions of power are—but the result is the same regardless. Saturday Night Live’s political comedy, once merely tiresome and pointless, might now be actively harmful in its lazy and thoughtless bothsidesism.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.