Comedy is hard. Not only does it require a basic ability to pay attention to events happening around you, it also demands that you make observations about those events. To complicate matters further, the modern comic must also have a belief system through which to filter those observations, that is, to judge exactly what is funny about them. In other words, a comic must do at least three things, which if you think about it is an awful lot of things. And when you consider how one joke typically has three parts all on its own, well, that’s when things really begin to multiply.
So it makes perfect sense that only the most skilled comedians rise to the top. While countless hapless souls are consigned to doing three things again and again in dank bar backrooms around the country, a rarified few are selected to do three things at well-lit conference tables decorated with sandwich plates. And of those few, an even rarified-er few are selected to lead them—to wield their considerable judgment in determining which combinations of three things are the funniest of all. A hefty burden indeed.
One bearer of this burden is Bryan Tucker. He is one of Saturday Night Live’s four (very unfunny number) co-head writers, along with Michael Che, Colin Jost and Rob Klein. Tucker has written for SNL since 2005, before which he wrote for Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, Chappelle’s Show, MADtv and The Chris Rock Show. He has been nominated for multiple Emmy awards and won a Peabody award; he is by all accounts a funny, successful guy. So we can forgive him one unfunny tweet, that is, this tweet:
As you may know, there was a basketball game last night. It concluded with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ JR Smith neglecting to take a game-winning shot because he mistakenly believed his team would call for a timeout. An image of Lebron James’ exasperated response to Smith immediately became a meme.
As you may also know, Online yesterday was abuzz with controversy over Full Frontal’s Samantha Bee’s use of the epithet “feckless cunt” to describe Ivanka Trump. The phrase came at the very end of a segment about the Trump Administration’s separation of undocumented children from their parents at the border. Bee apologized, the right called for her head and the White House called for TBS to cancel her show.
Considering the ingredients at his disposal, Tucker did what many of us would do and have done: He mashed them into a single tweet, one that implied James was calling Smith what Bee called Trump. Later, perhaps realizing that neither event shed any light on the other, or that it just plain wasn’t funny, or that maybe men still shouldn’t use that word, or D) all of the above, he deleted the tweet. No harm, no foul.
I am highlighting this tweet not to shame Tucker, but because I think it neatly crystallizes one of the biggest weaknesses of SNL under his leadership. So much of the show’s approach to satire, especially in the cold open, is just to mention one or two things that happened during the previous week without really saying anything about them. These naked references will get a laugh of recognition—yes, they did happen, I remember that!—which SNL often compounds by tossing in a celebrity cameo as well. Ahh, it’s that actor I recognize playing that other famous person who did that thing this week! Lol!
What sketches I am referring to? Reader, I am referring to sketches like the recent “Donald Trump Robert Mueller Cold Open”—
—an extended, bizarre riff on the Sopranos finale, featuring Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump, Kate McKinnon’s Rudy Giuliani, Ben Stiller’s Michael Cohen, Mikey Day and Alex Moffat’s Don Jr. and Eric Trump, and Robert De Niro’s Robert Mueller. The “jokes” in the sketch, as my editor Garrett Martin noted in his review, mostly comprise references to the week’s news. Then Mueller makes an “I’m watching you” gesture to Trump and the sketch cuts to black over audience applause, the applause presumably directed at the implication that Trump is going down. It’s not funny and it’s not coherent; it’s just a mashup of what people are already talking about, with cameos from celebrities they can hardly be surprised to see. The same can be said of, in no particular order, “Michael Cohen Wiretap Cold Open,” “Meet the Parents Cold Open,” “Sarah Palin Advice,” “A Kanye Place” and Tina Fey’s soulless celebrity Q+A monologue:
In a curious defiance of physical law, these sketches are filled with laughter and applause though they contain no funny jokes. Rather they contain fairly straightforward references to agreed-upon facts: Trump is corrupt, Michael Cohen is corrupt, Jeff Sessions is a racist, SNL is over-reliant on celebrity cameos, Bob Mueller exists and so does Robert De Niro. In cobbling these references into sketch form, SNL often demands that we twist our knowledge of the underlying facts to fit the logic of the sketch: The premise of “White House Christmas Cold Open,” for instance, is that Trump feels guilty for his various crimes—as does Aidy Bryant’s Sarah Huckabee Sanders in “Sarah Palin Advice”—and McKinnon’s Jeff Sessions is often framed as the sympathetic straight man to Trump’s villain. Perhaps this sort of wish fulfillment-based comedy is cathartic, but that catharsis comes at the expense of truth.
Masha Gessen, a journalist who has written extensively on totalitarianism in Russia, wrote in the New Yorker of the function of laughter in that country: “Jokes serve a transparent purpose: they reclaim the power to define—and inhabit—reality. They also reclaim the goodness of laughter, for regimes weaponize laughter to mock their opponents, creating what the cultural theorist Svetlana Boym called ‘totalitarian laughter.’ Its opposite is anti-totalitarian laughter.” Gessen describes laughter in the age of Trump as a cousin of anti-totalitarian laughter, the reaction to a “faithful portrayal of fact-based reality” in which SNL reenacts White House press conferences and late-night hosts pretty much do normal journalism. “The hunger for a reflection of reality is so desperate that,” she observes, “I have discovered repeatedly over the last year and a half, one can reliably get laughs simply by quoting Trump during a public talk.”
In other words: It may be perfectly funny to describe things as they are, but funny is not enough. Gessen points to Michelle Wolf’s monologue at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner as a solution: “She called the President a racist, a truth as self-evident as it has proved difficult for mainstream journalists to state,” and she “made mincemeat” of White House staffers, Congressional leaders and journalists of every bent. While SNL certainly does not shy away from casting Trump and his ilk in ugly terms, this is always a comfortable ugliness. It tells us not only what we want to hear, but what we have already heard; there is no need to think critically or interrogate our priors, simply to clap at the things we recognize. Worse, the subtext of these sketches is almost without exception that these villains are an aberration, that they will be gone soon and things will go back to normal. This, again, is catharsis at the expense of truth: They are not an aberration; they are the inevitable product of long-entrenched injustices that define whatever normal we would return to, which we should be fighting never to return to.
We’ve strayed a bit from the original subject, a dumb deleted tweet by Bryan Tucker. But I think we have not really strayed so far. The sort of joke where you combine one topical reference with another topical reference is very common, and often very funny on Twitter. I certainly have dabbled in it myself and I certainly don’t mean to suggest it is illegitimate or bad. Still, I find this one tweet to be an illuminating glimpse into the mind of a longtime SNL writer who is presently steering the ship. There are plenty of funny writers on that show; I only wish one of them were in charge.
This post has been updated to reflect that Kate McKinnon played Rudy Giuliani in “Donald Trump Robert Mueller Cold Open,” not Jeff Sessions.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.