In 2020, What is the Point of SNL?

All summer, I could not wait for “Saturday Night Live” (SNL) to return. With each absurd news alert and headline that graced our screens this summer, I caught myself wondering how “SNL” would address it if the show were in season. Then “SNL” returned for the premier of its 46th season on Oct. 3, and they totally blew it. Since then, I’ve been left wondering what place the seemingly timeless sketch comedy show has in our current moment of memes and seven-second video clips.

The Saturday of the season premiere was scarcely 48 hours after Donald Trump announced he had the coronavirus, only days after the most raucous and disrupting presidential debates, less than a week since Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination and exactly one month before a presidential election the world has been thinking about for four years. It was also the show’s first address to its audience, after a summer full of headlines that hardly needed a comedian to be funny, and its first show back in 30 Rock since the pandemic hit. The abundance of resources and content seemed ripe for a knockout premiere. 

What did “SNL” do instead? They opened with a lukewarm re-enactment of the first presidential debate, during which the only nod to Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis and superspreader event was Alec Baldwin’s Trump calling the coronavirus a hoax and saying “that statement will not come back to haunt me later this week.” The rest of the season has followed in kind, as each week’s cold open has similarly depicted whichever town hall or debate took place that same week. It’s uncreative and, frankly, boring to watch the spoofed versions of the same things we’ve just watched, especially in a world where the comments of politicians are so absurd that it’s hard to embellish them even more for the sake of comedy. What’s even more dangerous about this, though, is that “SNL” completely wastes the powerful platform it has to insert commentary, moralize and point out the absurdities of things we may take as normal in our world. Good political comedy uses the attention it receives to unpack otherwise complex and unnoticed news and then send a message on it. It’s what “SNL” did best during the 2016 elections and the early days of Trump presidency, it’s what Weekend Update (at least most of the time) excels in, and what countless stand-ups have mastered.  

But with a looming election and ample political fodder, “SNL” has only succeeded in surface level banter and mild mocking of those at the center of the news. While Chris Wallace was negligent to the point of harm as debate moderator, the extent of “SNL’s” critique was his character’s self-aware comment that “I think I’m going to do a really really good job tonight.” When Twitter and TikTok blew up with jokes about the fly that landed on Mike Pence’s head during the Vice Presidential debate, “SNL” (days later) instead choose to explain it with Jim Carey as Joe Biden hopping into a time machine and transporting himself onto Pence’s head, where he then turned into Jeff Goldblum, in a nod to “The Fly” and “Jurassic Park.” Seriously “SNL???” That’s the best you could think of?

Part of this might come from the speed that jokes about current events can have today, more than any other period “SNL” has ever satirized; moments after the fly landed on Pence’s head, Twitter had already come alive with witticisms and punny jabs about the ridiculousness of this moment. Similarly, TikTok dominated the discussion of how ludicrous Trump’s Covid diagnosis was. By the time it reaches our screens on Saturday night (or Sunday morning, if you’re me), “SNL’s” richest jabs have been made 100 times over. A sketch comedy show can hardly keep up with the speed or the breadth of the internet’s wheelhouse of jokes. But moreso, “SNL” can’t keep up with the democratization of them. We live in a world where teenagers and octogenarians and everyone in between can produce content that they think is funny, and then voters and likers determine what gets pushed to the top to be qualified as humor. It makes me wonder about the room left in this world for top-down comedy. On a show like “SNL,” Lorne Michaels is the gatekeeper and final arbiter of what (and even more importantly who) is determined as funny. Maybe we finally live in a world where humor has moved beyond the opinion of one white old man. Just look at Netflix’s latest comedy special “Everything Is Fine,” starring Sarah Cooper, who made her name through TikToks mocking Donald Trump, which the vox populi shared and favorited to fame. Similarly, Jimmy Fallon made a video of himself skateboarding down his studio halls, drinking ocean spray, while listening to Fleetwood Mac, as an ode to 420doggface208’s viral TikTok of him doing the same thing. TikTok defined this as funny, and “Late Night” followed — a stark marker of this shift in who we look to as the arbiter of comedy.

And, in this shifting world of comedy, I wonder what “SNL’s” place is, and I wonder if a drastic cycling of more diverse writers and cast members will bring the democratization the show needs.

I am still optimistic about “SNL’s” purpose and success in this world, though. This past week, the show was left with no debate or town hall or world-watching current event to mimic. They were forced to create something new, creative, and out of their own minds — the world forced them to break this uncreative streak. As a result, the cold open was finally funny, but even better — it was finally teaching us a lesson about our role as consumers of news.

The show opened with a sketch of Joe Biden’s Halloween reading of “The Raven,” with his own political rhyme scheme. It’s original, and the fact that it’s purely a scene based on no real events but the writers’ imaginations leaves enough room for both nods to the news of the day and the commentary seeded beneath it. For instance, Kate McKinnon’s beloved Hilary Clinton returns (as the Raven herself) where she falls in step with Carey/Biden’s rhyme sequence: as he says “We’ve got this one in the bag, that’s what every pundit says from shore to shore,” Clinton retorts “not Michael Moore” and then inserts an explanatory aside that breaks from the rhyme to describe Moore’s theory that voters are being undercounted in the polls etc. In the same scene, Biden assures Clinton, “This time is different, I could win, the people know I have a plan,” to which she tells him “your real advantage is you’re not a woman, you’re a man.” It’s a moment where the absurdity and silliness of the scene reflects the absurdity of the topics at hand, and the departure from any real-life occurrence lends itself to these teachable moments.

Of course, “SNL” has a long way to go, and still struggles to hit the mark on many occasions, but I have faith that they can take the changing landscape of comedy, embrace it, and use it to their advantage to produce a show that’s not only funny but also influential in creating meaningful impact.