It’s hard to know where to start with Saturday Night Live’s troubling “indefinite suspension” of writer Katie Rich for her tweet, “Barron Trump will be the first homeschool shooter.”
I find it deeply sad and infuriating that the very people calling for Rich’s head would surely oppose gun regulation with the same vehemence. These are the same people who cry “censorship” at criticism of jokes they happen to agree with. Their fury comes not from a feeling that mass shooters are bad, but an unassailable conviction that Donald Trump is good. They are internet commenters upset about an internet comment, and many of them are probably the same internet commenters who have made—or at least defended—grossly bigoted jokes about Chelsea Clinton and the Obama sisters. They decry safe spaces until they need one, revile the sensitive “snowflakes” they personify, and condemn “political correctness” only when it’s a pejorative for “inclusivity.”
The hypocrisy is staggeringly obvious, though I guess it’s too high a hope that avowed anti-intellectualists might notice this. It’s been less than a week since Jason Chaffetz said he plans to continue investigating Hillary Clinton. It’s been less than a day since Mitch McConnell said we must move beyond the us and them” mentality of partisan politics. Republicans were rewarded for their obstructionism with control of both the government and the truth. Now Katie Rich’s Twitter harassers have been similarly rewarded. Lorne Michaels and NBC’s capitulation to alt-right trolls is no less disquieting than any Democrat’s vote for Trump’s unqualified, extremist Cabinet picks.
But, that aside.
I don’t think Barron Trump was the punchline of this joke. As I read it, the subtext is: Barron Trump is being raised in the kind of environment that fosters mass killers. This seems… uncontroversial. His father is a racist misogynist admitted sexual predator whose first wife accused him of violently raping her. Mass killers, who are overwhelmingly male, tend to share a history of domestic violence and grievances toward women. The joke does not target Barron. It targets Donald.
The orthodoxy that a president’s children are no man’s land for comedy seems dangerously extreme. In this case, at least, it resulted in an uproar over a joke without any thoughtful consideration of what the joke meant. The gut reaction to seeing Barron’s name in a joke should not be to write it off as a breach of norms. Perhaps, just perhaps, we can trust writers to walk delicate lines that take advantage of language’s subtle plasticities in the service of uncomfortable, complicated messages. The joke may not immediately look like punching up, and it’s probably not the best version of the joke it’s trying to be, but it is nonetheless punching up. And that’s what satire should do—especially if it unsettles you in the process.
But it doesn’t matter whether the joke was appropriate or not, nor that comedians should be given room to make mistakes, nor that Rich apologized swiftly and thoughtfully. She was obviously not suspended simply for crossing the line. A comedian’s job is to cross the line. SNL writers frequently cross the line. Michael Myers was not fired when he made fun of Chelsea Clinton, and that happened on air. Michael Che certainly was not fired when he published wildly sexist Instagram comments in defense of street harassment. Nor were he and Colin Jost fired for their “Weekend Update” joke blaming Trump’s win on the millions of non-cisgender people whose rights he will demolish. Jenny Slate was fired for saying “fuck,” but in that case Michaels had the benevolence to wait until the season ended.
No, NBC’s motivation is clear: Rich went after the President with enough audacity that she pissed off his base, the same base that will rally against political correctness every other day of the week. This was a political decision. It was censorship. That a company is within its rights to discipline whom and how it pleases does not negate the suppression of dissent.
Fuck this. Fuck this a thousand times. The message in Rich’s suspension, a message familiar to every woman in comedy, is that men can say what they want but women must be polite. The message is that jokes must adopt the language and norms of the ruling class. The message is that comedy should not upset those in power, that it must pay deference to those power serves, that the blind orthodoxy of a thousand right-wing trolls matters more than the necessary, risky work of telling the truth. The message is that SNL is on Trump’s side.
It should frighten everyone that our culture’s most visible comedic institution has so brazenly kissed the ring, electing to protect the feelings of a dangerous wannabe-autocrat over one of its own employees. But it should especially frighten SNL’s other writers. The alt-right will see this as a validation of their tactics. It won’t be long before they’re monitoring your accounts, too, ready to ignite at the slightest hint of disagreeable speech. You can stop telling risky jokes. You could also stop working for someone who will fire you for telling risky jokes. If we are to stave off authoritarianism, it will only be through collective action; this is as true in labor as in politics, in media as in manufacturing, in writers’ rooms as in the press corps. Our rights will not disappear overnight, by government decree. They will dissolve slowly, incrementally, defensibly, through quietly exerted pressures, in ways you may just be inclined to agree with. It sounds far-fetched but it’s already happened. It will happen again. This is what it looks like. If you say nothing now, you may not be able to say anything later.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor.