Read the room, ‘Saturday Night Live’

Cutting Room Floor

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Like a lot of people, I have a soft spot for “Saturday Night Live.” Some of my earliest memories of watching real, grown-up television include my parents putting on DVDs of Eddie Murphy and Will Ferrell’s greatest hits. I remember when my friends and I first discovered The Lonely Island; we spent months huddled around an iPod Touch watching masterpieces such as “Threw It On The Ground” and “D*** in a Box.” Those videos felt like church. I still know all the words. 

Just barely, my love for SNL has sustained me through its last few disappointing seasons, which saw a downward trend that coincided with the revitalization of political parody brought about by Donald Trump’s political career. This overlap is no coincidence; it’s the result of season after season of a general failure to adapt its comedy to the dramatic shift in national mood and political climates since Alec Baldwin first donned the blonde wig four years ago. 

SNL began its 46th season Saturday night with a parody of Tuesday’s presidential debate, a sketch that was surely planned weeks in advance as the perfect opportunity to kick off the new season and introduce Jim Carrey as the newest guest star to play Joe Biden.

Unfortunately for SNL, the real Tuesday night debate was a horrifying spectacle, and certainly not something that I or anyone else wanted to relive. The writers had their work cut out for them: Between the president’s callous remarks about Biden’s children, Trump’s incessant interrupting of both his opponent and the debate’s moderator and his refusal to condemn a group of neo-Nazi white supremacists, the night was not exactly ripe for satire.

And then, on top of everything, within the two days that SNL typically rehearses and locks in its sketches for the week, news broke that the president tested positive for coronavirus and was soon transported to the hospital with serious symptoms.

I offer all of this context only to bring us up to the moment when the cold open airs. With all of this uncertainty and turmoil unraveling in the national consciousness, Baldwin and Carrey take the stage. And they bomb. 

The sketch begins with a comedic disclaimer acknowledging that the debate was incredibly hard to watch. This acknowledgment inspired in me a glimmer of hope — maybe, if they knew no one wanted to watch even a parody of the debate, they would do something different, something that rises above a blow-by-blow recreation. 

My hopes were soon dashed. It became apparent early into the sketch that they would be tackling the debate’s most memorable moments while attempting to put a comedic spin on the generally chaotic atmosphere. So, for 13 grueling minutes, I watched them cobble together a half-hearted, shallow rehashing that failed miserably to make light of the painful Tuesday evening. 

Baldwin’s portions of the sketch served as a harsh reminder that over the past four years, President Trump’s behavior has become basically indistinguishable from the cartoonish antics Baldwin portrays on SNL. This is a bleak reality to confront, and it’s one that makes Baldwin’s portrayal more or less unwatchable at this point. It also throws the show’s incomprehensible take on Biden into sharp relief. 

Carrey nailed Biden’s expression and his voice, but the SNL writers appear to believe that Biden is an easily distracted, infantile man with secret anger management issues — if you were to show that description to a viewer of Tuesday night’s debate and ask who they thought it best described, I guarantee you Biden would not be their answer. By trying to prove that they can also make jokes about Democrats, the show’s writers painted an artificial picture that felt more like an impulse to appease its imagined conservative audience than a real observation of the former vice president.

“But it’s a comedy show!” they’ll say. “It doesn’t have to be true to life!” I couldn’t agree more; it’s SNL who thinks otherwise. The writers decided to make their sketch as true to life as possible, which is a truly baffling decision: Why would you willingly give yourself the task of making light of the president of the United States winking at white supremacists or berating his opponent’s son for struggling with addiction? 

If the past four years are any indication, current events are only going to grow more chaotic in the weeks leading up to the election and beyond. SNL showed us this weekend that it’s not up to the task of offering any kind of relief or clarity. The SNL I loved as a kid wasn’t perfect, but it had imagination. If the show wants to stay focused on its political humor, it needs to take risks and bring some of that magic back.

Perhaps the show can remind us of what’s happening enough to situate a joke, but without breathing new life into the week’s horrors. Maybe it can use its own galaxy of talented cast members to play the characters instead of relying on star power to distract from the thoughtless scripts. Personally, I want them to meet the moment, and I think they have the ability to do so. But unless next week involves Carrey playing Biden as his character from “The Mask,” you can count on me tuning out.

“Cutting Room Floor” columns are one-off, arts-oriented pieces written by Daily Cal staff members. Matthew DuMont covers television. Contact him at [email protected].