If there was one host and musical guest combo who could get me to watch “Saturday Night Live” for an episode, it was Dave Chappelle and Tribe Called Quest. That’s who handled the comedy show’s post-election episode on Saturday night.
Chappelle did not disappoint. His opening monologue was great. It addressed the political situation in the country head-on, with a particular focus on race. It wasn’t preachy or condescending to anyone, but at the same time it took politics seriously. He was tough on President-elect Donald Trump — very tough — but at the same time he wished him luck and said he would give him a chance. Most importantly for a comedy show, it was funny. It was a difficult thing to pull off.
The first sketch was also great. Chappelle played a guest at an election night party with a group of white people. The sketch perfectly captured the smug confidence that Hillary Clinton supporters in New York City felt, followed by the terror and crushing defeat they felt when Trump won. And, thanks to Chappelle and special guest Chris Rock, it was funny.
The sketch also captured a particular undercovered thing about some Clinton supporters’ freakout, something I’ve heard from several Clinton voters who are not freaking out. There’s a difference between political angst and real suffering. There are a lot of people with bigger, more immediate, and more long-standing problems than who got elected on Tuesday night, and when they watch their friends, neighbors and colleagues crying and claiming an electoral loss is the worst thing that’s ever happened to them or in the country, it’s laughable.
In the sketch above, when the white people are saying that this election loss makes them think America is suddenly racist, or when they say the election loss is the worst thing the country has ever done, Chappelle and Rock just look at each other and roll their eyes and laugh. Comedy is a great tool to gently push the point that melodrama of the past week is not perceived the same by everyone outside of certain echo chambers.
But we must talk about the abomination that was Kate McKinnon in full Clinton drag playing Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluja”h for the cold open. Cohen died this week, so playing his most popular hit was part tribute to him and part tribute to — and here’s where it gets weird — Hillary Clinton.
— Saturday Night Live (@nbcsnl) November 13, 2016
And it was just tribute. No jokes. There are myriad problems with this. Let’s run through them.
1) Leonard Cohen Deserved Better
Leonard Cohen had amazing body of work going back some 50 years. He was incredibly influential but underappreciated. It would be nice for people to use his death as an occasion to delve into his large body of work and his spiritual and lyrical complexity. To instead use his most popular song (you know, the one that’s played every time a beloved character dies on a TV show) and obliterate any association of it with him personally to score political points is gross.
Leonard Cohen really deserved better than having his literal death conflated with the death of Hillary Clinton’s craven career.
— Mark Hemingway (@Heminator) November 13, 2016
2) The Lyrics Didn’t Work
McKinnon’s maudlin take on the song couldn’t mask the hilarity of singing the following lyric in Clinton character:
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you? If you didn’t guffaw when she sang that, I don’t understand you.
3) This Civil Religion Sucks
“Hallelujah” is a sexual and spiritual hymn. Putting Clinton in as the Messiah figure in this mix is particularly telling and cultish. When McKinnon finished her performance, she turned to the congregation and said, as Clinton, “‘I’m not giving up, and neither should you.'” Uh, okay? (The Atlantic does its civil religion take here, calling a woman with historically high unfavorability ratings “iconic.”)
The very idea that you would mourn something that fully half of the voters in the country voted against shows how insular “Saturday Night Live” seeks to be. It has doctrinal boundaries, and if you’re outside those boundaries, you are heterodox. Apostates and blasphemers aren’t welcome and will be shunned. Or just ignored. Note how NPR thought this preachy opening represented the views of the entire nation, all evidence to the contrary:
“Saturday Night Live” does these ponderous openings following terror attacks. Because government is God to many on the left, this was a crisis of the soul and the cold open reflected that. But to equate your neighbors different political calculation on the referendum of Hillary Freaking Clinton, of all people, to terrorism is appalling and unacceptable. It belittles loss of life by creating a false political equivalence.
Light A Match
Many people have enjoyed David Remnick’s profile of Cohen in a recent New Yorker. Liel Leibovitz wrote a great profile of him in The Tablet on the occasion of his 12th album release in 2012. “To see Cohen play,” he writes, “was to gawk at an aging Jew telling you that life was hard and laced with sorrow but that if we love each other and f*ck one another and have the mad courage to laugh even when the sun is clearly setting, we’ll be just all right.”
He tells the story of Cohen’s performance at the Isle of Wight concert in 1970. Things got extremely out of hand and an overflow crowd of hundreds of thousands of rowdy concertgoers and rioters burned the stage and attacked the artists. Cohen was due to go out, and everyone wondered how he’d handle it.
He came out and softly greeted the crowd and talked about how his dad used to take him to the circus when he was a child. He went on:
‘There was one thing at the circus that happened that I always used to wait for,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to impose on you, this isn’t like a sing-along … but there was one moment when a man would stand up and say, would everybody light a match so we can locate one another? And could I ask you each person to light a match, so that I could see where you all are? Could each of you light a match, so that you’ll sparkle like fireflies, each at your different heights? I would love to see those matches flare.’
The audience obeyed. For five days, the men and women on stage—organizers, artists, or anarchists—were talking at them. Cohen was talking to them. He seemed like one of them. He seemed to care. Slowly, they took out matchbooks and lighters, and instead of setting things on fire they waved their arms in the air, emitting heat and light. Cohen smiled. ‘Oh, yeah!’ he said softly. ‘Oh, yeah. Now I know that you know why you’re lighting them.’ He strummed a few chords on the guitar and continued his speech, half-singing. ‘It’s good to be here alone in front of 600,000 people. It’s a large nation but it’s still weak. Still very weak. It needs to get a lot stronger before it can claim a right to land.’
Liebovitz says, “Cohen wasn’t just telling the audience to stop rioting; he was about to give them an alternative.” The story goes on and gets better, particularly if you know the back story to “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy.”
But wouldn’t it be great if our elite artists understood we were a large nation, but weak, and need to light a match so we can locate one another?
What “Saturday Night Live” did was the opposite. It didn’t tell people to come together and stop feeding off all the negative energy that’s being put out. Instead, it told half the country that their anger and sorrow at the other half was justified. It told the other half that they were disdainable grocers of deplorability. SNL writers should follow Chappelle’s lead instead.