Yesterday, two of television’s most visible satirists, Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” hosts Michael Che and Colin Jost, shit the bed. In a series of tweets addressing rightful uproar over a stupid joke, Jost demonstrated a dangerous apathy toward the lives and dignity of marginalized communities. Meanwhile Che, in an interview with Vulture, said not only that he doesn’t care whether Donald Trump is a racist, but that it’s not his job to care. These positions aren’t just inane; they’re disqualifying. As faux-news anchors on one of television’s most popular comedy shows, it is Che and Jost’s job to call out bullshit—not to normalize it. Clearly their moral barometers are off, and they cannot be trusted with the task that awaits them under the Trump Administration. If they can’t do the job, someone else should.
First, to Jost. Here is the joke in question, from this past Saturday’s show:
The bit is incoherent even in a vacuum. It’s obviously attempting to critique the Clinton campaign, as many have, for failing to excite the white working blah blah blah. But it punches up by punching down, blaming Clinton’s loss on the people who will suffer most from Trump’s win. It’s also semantically nonsensical, leaping between setup and punchline from the free market (Tinder) to the government (the Democratic Party), equating business policy with public policy. I suspect the writers assumed their audience already disdains identity politics, so they wouldn’t have to do the work of crafting a sensible joke. In this view, identity politics is already a joke, the same way that Trump’s hair is a joke—all you have to do is point at it and everyone laughs. Ha ha.
So it’s a lazy joke—most jokes are. Maybe we should cut it some slack; maybe it’s actually lazy in the other direction, and its intended target was everyone else blaming identity politics for our current nightmarish circumstance. Sadly, as comforting as it is to hope that people in powerful positions are fundamentally competent, they’re usually not. Over the weekend, Jost defended himself against those calling him out on Twitter, ultimately culminating in this exchange with Ben Hopkins, one half of the band PWR BTTM:
Then Jost cited, in his defense, a batshit New York Times column by Columbia professor Mark Lilla:
That essay, an impressive feat of intellectual disingenuousness that includes such lines as “American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity,” has been roundly rebuked up and across the web, so I won’t get into it here. What matters is that in citing it, as in his dodgy replies to Hopkins, Jost made clear that this was not just a stupid joke. He apparently genuinely believes that the language of inclusivity may have cost Democrats the election; he apparently lacks the not-all-that-powerful powers of reasoning necessary to see that protecting marginalized people is not a distraction, but an imperative. This is a man who served as SNL’s head writer for three years before stepping down to focus on “Weekend Update.”
While it’s unreasonable to expect that our comedic institutions be perfect, I think it’s fair to expect that they be good—that they meet some baseline of honesty, rigor and respect for their audience. This isn’t just a matter of punching up; it’s a matter of knowing what you’re talking about. SNL is well within its rights to target liberals alongside conservatives, but jokes like these normalize, well, jokes like these: uninformed, intolerant and objectively harmful. Violence against LGBT, trans and genderqueer people is real and horrifying. To turn that violence into a punchline is to diminish and perpetuate it.
Unfortunately, it seems SNL is not terribly concerned with the real-world effects of its real-world jokes. In a recent interview with Vulture’s Jesse David Fox, Che said he doesn’t really give a shit about Donald Trump’s racism:
In the special, you say you have to earn the right to be called a racist. It reminded me of when, on Weekend Update, you said that Donald Trump isn’t a racist, he just uses racism. Do you still think he’s not a racist?
I don’t know the man personally. Just because somebody thinks you’re a racist, I don’t know what that affects. He said some racist things; some of his policies are racist in spirit. Is he a racist? I really don’t know the guy, I don’t know his motivations for doing that. He could be held at ransom right now and just making decisions that he hates.
He might not understand. Sometimes people do a racist thing and they don’t even know it’s racist. Some people could be sexist or homophobic and they don’t even realize because they’re just doing what their circle does or they’re just doing what’s been accepted of them throughout their lives, so I really don’t know if he’s a racist or not. And it’s really not my job. I don’t really care if he’s a racist or not. I care if he’s a capable president. If you really think everything in your life, everything that you benefit from comes from socially aware, like-minded, good-hearted people, then you’re out of your mind. If you want only those people to have good jobs, we would have to learn how to adjust very quickly without those people. Maybe I’m cynical, but I truly believe that.
I don’t think I need to explain why this is a ludicrous response to the question. What I will note is that it’s virtually identical to Paul Ryan’s reply when asked if he had any concerns about Steve Bannon. “I’ve never met the guy,” he said “I don’t know Steve Bannon, so I have no concerns.” I’ll defer to Seth Meyers on this one: “I never met John Wilkes Booth, but I let his past work inform my opinion of him.”
The more pressing concern is this part of Che’s answer: “…I really don’t know if he’s a racist or not. And it’s really not my job. I don’t really care if he’s a racist or not.” On the contrary, it’s exactly his job to care whether the President-elect is a racist. Che is the host of a satirical news segment on a comedy show watched by millions of people each week. His job is to be a voice of reason, which by default makes him a voice against racism—a voice for the oppressed, the marginalized, the voiceless. If he would prefer not to have this job, then he ought to find one elsewhere.
Maybe I’m not cynical enough. SNL isn’t The Daily Show, comedians aren’t newscasters, entertainment exists largely to distract—I know, I know. But I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: all jokes are political. All jokes contain a moral viewpoint, an implicit judgment of what we should and should not laugh at. A joke should not simply be funny; many terrible things are funny. It should also be good, especially when it has a platform as large as SNL.
It would be easy to believe this doesn’t matter, as Che seems to. Earlier in that interview, he makes the case that things aren’t all that bad; that rather than going after Trump, comedy should strive to bring the left and right together. “This isn’t 9/11,” he says. “This isn’t an ISIS attack. This is a democratic, fair election. Half the people of the country picked Donald Trump. This isn’t a national tragedy; not everybody’s sad about this. And we gotta be honest to those people. These are our neighbors, this is our America, this is our family. We live here and we gotta figure out how one can get that far away from where we are and feel that isolated from where we are. That’s something that comedy can do… We gotta figure out what it is and we gotta figure out how to remedy it because apparently they felt neglected.”
This is an immensely privileged argument that’s been bandied about time and again before and since the election. Forget that a thing needn’t be a terror attack to be catastrophic for millions of people; forget that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote; forget that only a quarter of the country voted for Trump; forget that massive voter suppression allowed the GOP to win key states by targeting students, people of color and the poor; forget that “our neighbors” voted for white male supremacy. Quite simply, it is not comedy’s job to make racists feel better. It is comedy’s job, at least at SNL’s level, to confront and condemn them, especially when they’re in the White House.
This is Che and Jost’s job. It’s hard. That’s why they get compensated with money and fame. Their statements these last few days are sad and frightening because we all know the job is about to get much harder. Our incoming President cares very little for free speech and very much about how he’s portrayed in the media. Sometimes it seems that’s all he cares about. Given their platform, Che and Jost have a rare opportunity to speak to a man who appears to be listening. At the very least, they have a chance to speak to some of the millions who did not vote. We need them to speak with wit and clarity, with honesty and candor, or else not speak at all.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor.