“Saturday Night Live’s” fall premiere was bookended by a comedic rendering of the latest Brett Kavanaugh hearing and a performance by Kanye West. One of them was actually entertaining.
It’s not as though the show botched its parody of Kavanaugh’s testimony on Thursday. The cold open, which featured Matt Damon’s depiction of Kavanaugh as an emotionally unstable frat star, was funny enough. But SNL’s quality should be higher than that of amateur improvers on YouTube.
The Kavanaugh sketch was a good example of the easy, edgeless humor that characterizes much of SNL’s political comedy. After a summer of politics at its weirdest, the show’s best foot forward amounted to five minutes of mediocrity. For the best in the business, it’s inexcusable— but it’s not inexplicable.
The mediocrity is inexcusable because fodder for political comedy abounds in the Trump era, perhaps more than ever before. But it’s explicable at least in part by SNL’s tunnel-vision leftism, which prevents the show from finding humor in our current bipartisan state of absurdity. The extent of the Kavanaugh cold open’s criticism of Democrats, for instance, was a benign swipe at Sen. Cory Booker’s facial expression.
Another sketch from Saturday’s episode, “’80’s Party,” was much funnier precisely because it mined an interesting new consequence of bipartisan absurdity for comedy. But bits like that are few and far between.
SNL does not have to be fair and balanced to be funny. But to avoid subjecting its audience to lame Pod Save America advocacy humor, acknowledging the absurdity driving both pro- and anti-Trump forces is essential. Good comedy is necessarily rooted in disdain for the establishment, which is why it’s mutually exclusive with political advocacy, and doesn’t involve carrying water for partisan causes. That’s just never funny.
All this is why the most memorable SNL sketch of the Trump era is still “Election Night,” which captured the left’s shell-shock after President Trump’s victory. It’s no coincidence the host that week was Dave Chapelle, who’s always been able to find as much humor in the left as in the right.
The flaccid Kavanaugh opening contrasts instructively with Kanye West’s closing performance, in which he donned a “Make America Great Again” hat and rapped “Ghost Town.” After the song, West segued into a surprisingly lucid off-air critique of liberal media bias and anti-Trump groupthink, calling for a “dialogue and not a diatribe.”
“If someone inspires me and I connect with them, I don’t have to believe in all they policies,” West said.
Since 2015, he’s been one of the few artists who’s had the courage (or business savvy) to engage with the Trump era from an open-minded place. He’s producing more interesting art for it.
Videos of West’s post-show speech revealed the visible discomfort of SNL’s cast members, who stood behind him on stage looking like athletes forced into a school play. What world are we living in where artists who’ve made it to the top of their industry don’t revel in the opportunity to engage with polemics, controversy, absurdity, and anti-establishment ravings?
Video evidence of the speech was published on Instagram by Chris Rock who, tellingly, could be heard laughing at West in the background, while his SNL successors succumbed to the paralysis of their discomfort. If artists never end up really engaging with the Trump moment, and we are subjected to the torturous banality of jokes about Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein eating soup for lunch, it will be a tragedy for the entertainment industry.