SNL Just Doesn't Get It

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<i>SNL</i> Just Doesn't Get It

Another talented comedian wasted on a nothing episode of Saturday Night Live. What a shame! Tiffany Haddish lit up every sketch she appeared in; her monologue especially was a joy; pretty much every other bit of writing in the episode was lazy and uninspired. With a few exceptions.

I’ll start with what’s likely to be the most buzzed-about aspect of the episode, its ham-fisted efforts to comment on the week’s news about Louis C.K. and Roy Moore. The cold open features Vice President Mike Pence (Beck Bennett) telling the Alabama Senate candidate (Mikey Day) he should drop out of the race. Moore denies allegations he had sexual relationships with teenagers—including a 14-year-old—which Pence says is tough to believe given that he dresses like Woody from Toy Story. This joke, echoed later in Weekend Update, relies on and plays into the notion that sexual predators look and act a certain way; it’s a distancing mechanism that separates offenders from the power structures that let them offend. Later in the terribly paced sketch—I guess it technically has three beats, but they don’t in any way escalate—Jeff Sessions (Kate McKinnon) sort of makes up for this when he questions a stuffed opossum about the recent slew of abusers in the news. “Has this been happening forever? Have I both fostered and benefited from a culture of systemic oppression? No? Well, that’s a relief!”

Both of these jokes try to give SNL moral high ground on the issue. “We understand how things work,” they say, “and are far enough removed from the problem that we can joke about it.” They fall flat because they’re clumsily written and delivered, and they ring false because SNL is not at all removed from the problem. Louis C.K. has hosted four times, all after Gawker published its first blind item about him in 2012. Casey Affleck hosted last year. Donald Trump hosted the year before that. It would be foolish to pretend Lorne Michaels is somehow unaware of what goes on outside Studio 8H. (Cough, Fred Armisen, cough.) It would also be foolish to pretend SNL, a comedy show, does not have its own internal sexual harassment problems. And it would be most foolish of all to pretend SNL does not actively prop up a celebrity culture that permits predators to act with impunity and that encourages fanbases to write off allegations they don’t like about people they do. SNL is a cog in the machine, and a rather large cog at that, one with forty years of history to leverage as cultural validation of the artists it features. It’s easy to compartmentalize its failings because it’s a comedy show—it’s about making people laugh!—and that’s precisely the problem. It was also easy to compartmentalize what people said anonymously or thirdhand about Louis C.K because he was a beloved comedian who appeared to be progressive.

If that seems like a lot to spout off about two jokes, it’s only because I’m not talking about just two jokes. After Haddish’s monologue, which gave the most lucid take on the issue—if your dick is out and she has her clothes on, you’re wrong—Weekend Update took several whacks at it, starting with Colin Jost’s riff on Roy Moore. “Now, I’m not saying he’s guilty, but his naughty little cowboy outfit is screaming it,” he says, before turning to C.K.: “What’s next, it turns out the guy who always jokes about masturbating wasn’t joking about masturbating?” The joke in both cases is that it was obvious these men are predators. Maybe that’s true enough for C.K. and Moore, but it didn’t matter; they got away with it for decades; their true natures were irrelevant because they had power, the same power that enables people who don’t offer as many outward tells. (One example of that power: 3 Arts, the management company that represented Louis C.K. and represents Colin Jost). SNL’s embarrassing failure to recognize this grows more embarrassing still in the next segment, when Jost welcomes Claire from H.R. (Cecily Strong) to provide the annual workplace training on sexual harassment. She presents a list of questions about what not to do in the workplace—take your dick out, namely—which he answers correctly through bemused laughter. The joke, again, is that it’s a no-brainer not to sexually harass your coworkers, and it is absolutely wild to see this message delivered through the character of a human resources officer. Human resources departments, which exist to protect employers from their employees, are a crucial mechanism in the silencing of victims and the covering up of sexual misconduct. I could cite any number of recent stories illustrating this; here’s GameSpot editor Kallie Plagge, a few nights ago, describing her harassment by a former editor at IGN:

SNL’s decision to present HR as an authority on the subject—and an ally to survivors!—betrays deep, disqualifying ignorance. Despite Jeff Sessions’ tossed-off line about the patriarchy in the cold open, the episode’s overwhelming take on sexual harassment is that it’s perpetrated by individuals acting independently of systems. There’s never a good time to get this wrong, but now is a particularly bad time.

The rest of the episode ranged from boring to fine. The sketches were almost universally long and unfocused; as in the cold open, it seems the writers didn’t even bother with structure. “Tournament Fighter,” a strange bit of nostalgia for the videogame Street Fighter, finds Pete Davidson and Kenan Thompson in a tournament where Thompson gets stuck with a character, Boo Boo Jeffries (Haddish), whose moves aren’t up to the task. It’s one of those sketches that reads more like a brainstorm of a sketch, where the writers drop something incongruous into an existing world and then just spend five minutes showing us all the various ways it’s incongruous.

“Message From the DNC” feels similarly devoid of purpose: It summons forth a half dozen impressions of Democratic leaders to make the point that… they’re out of touch? And didn’t really care about the elections they won last week? And Bernie is an unwanted hanger-on? And Hillary Clinton wants to run for president again? And people were wrong to criticize Larry David’s Holocaust joke? And Donna Brazile, whose revelations didn’t end up harming the party this week, is going to harm the party? Look, I’m all for ragging on the DNC—which, among other things, is absolutely awful at fundraising, loooooves cozying up to corporate elites and just purged a slew of Sanders/Ellison allies—but this is lazy as hell. Hey SNL, 2016 called, and they want their Tim Kaine jokes back.

If the episode had any highlight, it’s probably “Beck and Kyle,” a behind-the-scenes-esque digital short in which Kyle Mooney’s love affair with Leslie Jones disrupts his friendship with Bennett. It’s a charming diversion from the house tone, and it ends rather delightfully with a succession of cast members (plus Lorne) beating the shit out of Colin Jost. More of that, please! Then there’s “The Dolphin Who Learned to Speak,” a faux-documentary segment chronicling two scientists (Aidy Bryant and McKinnon) who set out to discover if a dolphin can learn English; the dolphin catches on quickly, but uses its new knowledge to demand that they jerk it off. Again, the sketch is more original and feels more inspired than the rest of the show, but it’s also… a sketch about women in the workplace getting forced to provide sexual pleasure? And, on the flip side of that, it’s a sketch about a dolphin getting sexually abused? I’m not sure what to make of this—everyone is very funny, especially Haddish as a disapproving bystander—but it certainly seems odd to round out the episode’s “sexual misconduct is bad” jokes with “but it’s funny when it’s a dolphin!”

And that wasn’t even the last thing SNL had to say on the subject. In the episode’s final sketch, an installment of the recurring “Whiskers R We,” McKinnon and Haddish play a pair of cat shelter employees pitching a sequence of adorable felines. Like past installments, it’s a great open canvas for a list of whacky cat jokes. Something weird happens late in the sketch, though: Haddish’s character tells McKinnon’s that she looks tense; moving behind her, she offers to give a shoulder massage; instead she gropes her breasts. This comes out of nowhere! It has nothing to do with anything else in the sketch! Yes, it’s ultimately presented as not-unwanted contact—“You know that’s my chest and you know that I like it,” McKinnon says—but it’s nonetheless a representation of workplace harassment in which the harasser seems to recognize she’s doing something wrong (she lies about her intentions) and only obtains consent after the fact. And this is all made out to be a joke!

I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone involved saw this as a harmless bit of fun, like the sketch last month that culminated in Gal Gadot kissing McKinnon. Still, it’s completely narratively unjustified, its politics are messed up, and it wards off any lingering doubt that SNL has no idea what it’s talking about when it talks about sexual harassment. Surprise, surprise.

Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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