Yesterday Amazon, the all-consuming corporation from the paranoid dystopian sci-fi story that has become our lives, finally announced where it would build its second headquarters. The site will be split between two cities, with campuses in Long Island City in Queens and outside of Arlington, Virginia. To seal the deal both states offered up huge amounts of taxpayer money, with New York’s contributions to Amazon exceeding $1.5 billion, and Virginia’s subsidies totaling over $500 million. That’s billions in public funds going to a company that hit a market cap of $1 trillion earlier this year, whose CEO is the richest person in the world, and who treats its underpaid employees like chattel. Given the impact Amazon and other tech giants have had on the housing markets and local economies of their home cities, New York and Virginia basically took money from its citizens to give to a fantastically wealthy company whose presence will eventually force those citizens to move. It’s irresponsible, immoral and inexcusable, and yet also completely unsurprising.
As soon as Amazon’s HQ2 was announced cities started bending over backwards to pay the company to take over some of its neighborhoods. That’s how business works today—tax breaks and other incentives draw businesses who don’t even need them to a city with desperate leadership, with hardly any long-term benefit to the so-called winners. The grotesque bidding process was widely discussed across the media, even inspiring a particularly bad Saturday Night Live sketch from early this year. And since I am a comedy editor writing for a comedy section, that sketch—and what it says about SNL’s priorities and awareness—is what I’m writing about today. If you want to understand what’s wrong with SNL today, this sketch is as clear of an example as you’re going to get.
Here it is again. It aired in January, in an episode hosted by Jessica Chastain. It is bad. I apologize for asking you to watch it.
So here we have an absurd process where a world-conquering corporation richer than most states is trying to steal as much money from the public coffers as possible, in an era when most states have been reducing public services for years on end. Our infrastructure is rotting, public assistance has been squeezed more and more every year, healthcare is an economic disaster waiting to happen, and yet local governments fall over themselves to offer obscene sums to a company that has no loyalty to anything outside itself. It’s a sign of a real sickness deep at the heart of this country, and it should be really easy to make fun of that.
Instead the best our highest profile source of satire could do is wheel out a bunch of hackneyed stereotypes and cliches about some of the cities that were dying to get ripped off.
SNL took the most glaring and disgusting case of corporate welfare we’ve seen yet and did absolutely nothing with it. The only joke at Jeff Bezos’s expense is when his creepy robot servant program mispronounces his last name. At no point does the sketch ever mock or question the glaring problems with business development through public funds, or try to say anything about why politicians would be so desperate to give out billions of taxpayer dollars for something that will almost definitely wind up hurting those taxpayers. It doesn’t attempt to say anything, which makes us wonder why they bothered to talk about Amazon at all.
Instead of criticizing Bezos or Amazon, it shows them having to suffer through a procession of fools offering gifts from their various cities. None of them mention the billions that were really being offered to Amazon. Instead it’s an ostentatious Atlanta preacher and Paula Deen showing up with a bag of Chick Fil A and a heart attack joke. It’s Boston accents and Pitbull giving shout-outs to Miami. If we were being charitable we’d say that this was actually a revealing look at the cynicism with which companies like Amazon view these belittling auctions—Bezos sits patiently while buffoonish local figures embarrass themselves for his approval. That’s giving too much credit to a sketch that starts by uncritically repeating the pipe dream that the city that lands Amazon will make billions of dollars, though.
This should’ve been batting practice for professional comedians. A trillion dollar company with a bad labor record shaking down cities for billions with the promise of mythical benefits is a big, slow-moving meatball right over the middle of the plate. It perfectly sums up the exploitation and inequality that define our times. Not only didn’t SNL knock it out of the park, but they somehow struck out and hit into a triple play at the same time.
You might be tired of hearing about how good satire should punch up, and not down. That maxim might be overused today but that doesn’t make it untrue, and it’s only so overused because too many comedians today forget it. This sketch doesn’t necessarily punch down—it’s more like a sideways elbow, or perhaps a spinning back fist—but punching up in this scenario would be targeting Bezos and Amazon, and it certainly doesn’t do that. SNL had a perfect opportunity to justifiably savage an unlikable tycoon using detestable practices to commit grand larceny against entire states, and instead they went with a Casey Affleck impression. And now that we know how successful Bezos was at fleecing local politicians, this sketch is even more disappointing than it was ten months ago. But this is Saturday Night Live: a corporate sketch show and cultural institution that long ago lost the desire to say anything incisive or critical about the world we live in.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.