That SNL Sketch Though..
In a recent article on Vox, Emily Van Der Werff writes an insightful criticism and reflection on the nature of political satire as seen on the now venerable comedy show, Saturday Night Live. While much internet writing and response tends to dive into criticism, I want to start with some positives and then urge it’s not so bad as the author would have us believe.
For anyone who’s worried about the devolution of US political debate Ms. Van Der Werff’s article provides more grist to that mill. What she finds wrong with the satire of Trump SNL offers is that rather than using humor to explore a difficult topic, or the deep issues and threats that Trump’s approach to politics has on our society, SNL provides a caricature. Sure it’s making fun of Trump, it’s ridiculing him, but it’s not doing anything to point out some deeper flaws in the situation. As far as satire goes, A Modest Proposal this isn’t. It lacks the subtlety of good satire. What the humor largely relies on is the tried and true model of finding some aspect or character traits and then hamming them up. The debate highlights Trump’s lack of restraint. The comedy shows the only way to deal with that is the pause button—our updated deus ex machina. Take his well-known childish pouts and exaggerate them and show only that side of Trump. Take Biden’s beautiful pearly whites and have Carey flash that smile the same as when he lampooned TV sales folks in his sketches about the Juice Weasel. These sorts of tropes or techniques are decent comedy perhaps, but they’re not really satire.
Ms. Van Der Werff’s main issue really isn’t that the sketch is a failure of satire—that’s secondary and related to her primary concern. Her worry is that because of the medium of the screen these depictions of Trump specifically, “normalize” his awful behavior. They make him a “cartoon game boss” who has only a couple tricks and can be defeated if you have the right approach or perhaps a cheat code (thank you again remote control pause button). Once Trump’s behavior is laid out there in the comic world, his awfulness becomes less threatening. And this is not helpful given how truly toxic his behavior is. People become inured to histrionics, to the cavalier selfishness. The only difference between the reality and comedy is that Alec Baldwin puts on less make up than Trump. That’s what the real problem is. Since Baldwin’s impression really only takes Trump’s behavior and adds the clown face to it, it doesn’t do satire in a meaningful way because it makes the buffoonery seem less harmful. The satire should be focused on the awfulness of the behavior and then using comedy and humor to at once make fun of it, as well as draw out the ridiculousness of such behavior from any public figure, let alone the US president. What’s worse is that instead of being horrified, or perhaps using the satire to then work against the toxic behavior, people come to accept it. Hey, it makes for good, if not simplistic comedy.
This argument is reminiscent of the critique often inveighed against the use of racist, sexist, or ethnic jokes is that they reinforce negative stereotypes that harm the groups. If the assumed stereotype is that a particular group is weak-willed, and I make a joke relying on that, then I reinforce the stereotype, especially if the joke gets the laughs. In order to get the joke, you have to know the stereotype. People won’t get it otherwise. TV’s reach makes this normalization problematic for an engaged electorate. Real satire helps to engage people with the ideas and issues, motivates them to interact, not laugh and forget. All this has the ability to make these sorts of racist or sexist ideas remain in play in our culture. Since they are objects that also help us laugh, we cherish them in an odd sort of way.
I have to say this article has caused me some serious thought. To normalize Trump’s anti-social behavior is to further degrade our social and political lives. It makes the practice of engaged democracy harder. I am worried that Ms. Van Der Werff’s views are spot on. But then I watched the sketch with Jim Carey. I watched with this article in mind, for I had read it before I saw the sketches. While the criticisms have merit, I think they go, to borrow another philosopher’s words, “a bridge too far.”
Carey’s spoofing of Biden is vintage Carey. It’s has all the trappings of what made him famous. Wild gesticulations, over-the-top caricature, and no small amount of good old fashioned zaniness. There is also something more reflective in the caricature. There’s the slow build of the frustration. The clear recognition in Carey’s portrayal of an individual who knows he needs to stay on message and not appear rattled, but really can’t do it, because of the narcissistic, childish bullying of the opponent—a bullying meant to take advantage of his stuttering. Biden can’t rely on accepted norms and protocols. There’s an ineffectual moderator that Trump simply plows right through in addition to the norms. He’s not a disruptor, he’s a destroyer. In the end, most any normal person would lose their temper and tell the guy to shut-up. This all comes to fruition when the sketch has Trump spontaneously stop mid-verbal diarrhea. The denouement, as Van Der Werff, notes does what many of us wish. Just stop for a while and let the work be done. Stop being so fragile as to demand that everyone pay attention to you.
This does exactly what satire does. It just so happens that it relies on other comedy techniques to get there. It’s in fact one of the things that I appreciate about SNL’s approach to political comedy. They do not forget the importance of a good fart joke. They don’t forget, in part, because they need to appeal to a wider audience, but also because it adds internal richness to the sketch. The low and high work together for effect. Good comedy will work on and through a number of levels. High level satire offset with simple parody isn’t bad. It’s bad if parody is all there is. Perhaps the complaint is more of amount. Maybe SNL could be more satirical and rely less on the fart joke. I am not a practiced comedian, I can’t say. I think the structure, the use of all the “easy” forms of humor and parody build to a place where the pause button has its greatest effect. It highlights the nature of what we’re dealing with. Carey tones down the parody from finger gun flames to a less ostentatious, but still satirical message about karma and science. I happen to think that this is good satire. The normalization isn’t an evil of comedy, it’s an outcome of the medium-the screen and the odd ways in which humans deal with them. Ms. Van Der Werff’s issue is not with the comedy, it’s the medium. The comedy is good comedy. It’s the screens we need to figure out—he types while looking at a screen.
There’s one other thing that Ms. Van Der Werff ignores in her article. The sketch, the comedy, and any satire, is in some part valued for its entertainment value. When I watched the sketch I admit that I began unhappy. I had only watched five minutes of the original debate and it was all I could stand. This was not a debate. Whatever it was, however charitably we try and evaluate the situation, what we had was detrimental to everyone that participated. But the humor and comedy made me feel less awful about the situation. At least I could talk a bit more about it, I could have a discussion whereas before I could only be snide. Humor can make difficult topics easier to deal with. This sketch did that. While the issues we face as a society are difficult, especially now, that we have comedy to help us do better, to help us get through some of the awfulness. This world would be less for its absence.