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The Rise Of Activist Comedy Explains ‘SNL’s’ Pathetic Premiere


It’s easy to beat up on “Saturday Night Live.” The show’s inability to produce sharp political satire is getting really old, and is almost entirely rooted in partisanship. That is to say, a show that used to lean left is now effectively an organ of the Democratic Party because anything less is perceived as support for Donald Trump. And it’s not funny. At all.

Like the infamous “All I Want For Christmas Is You” sketch directed at Robert Mueller, “SNL’s” 46th season premiere put this predicament on full, pathetic display last week.

Either out of genuine commitment or fear, SNL now avoids treading into Jimmy Fallon territory, metaphorically ruffling Trump’s hair instead of, I don’t know, ripping it out and feeding it to Bo Obama. When it was announced that Jim Carrey would be Joe Biden this season, Jeff Daniels urged his “Dumb And Dumber” costar to “go easy” on Biden. “We need him,” Daniels texted Carrey. That should be an embarrassing request from an artist, but in 2020, Daniels gladly offered up the anecdote on Stephen Colbert’s show.

It should not be lost on any of us that Donald Trump and Joe Biden are running against each other for the presidency. Trump, whether you love the guy or hate him, is hilarious. The same goes for Biden, who keeps insults like “lying dog-faced pony soldier” on the tip of his tongue to berate voters and does television interviews while obviously glued to notes.

On SNL, which should theoretically employ the country’s best comedic talent, Trump-Biden is being depicted by Alec Baldwin and Jim Carrey, and it’s such a waste. Baldwin’s Trump impression is one of the worst in the business, and has even become exhausting to the left at this point. Carrey’s version of Biden is basically just an elderly Jim Carrey. His impression bore no resemblance to the former veep, other than a passing physical one, which renders the whole exercise a massive missed opportunity. Again, Joe Biden, the self-describe “gaffe machine,” deserves better. The man is a goldmine. Even he knows it.

Instead, “SNL” deploys two non-cast members to distort the hilarious match-up beyond recognition because they’re breathless partisans who’ve committed to activist comedy. Kate McKinnon’s impressions of Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren suffered for the same reasons. But the problems don’t end with SNL’s election parodies.

Saturday’s premiere included jabs at a hospitalized Trump that were too lame to count as edgy. There was a TikTok bit that took more swipes at America than the Chinese tech giant. Musical guest Megan Thee Stallion integrated an audio clip into her performance of Tamika Mallory, noted fan of the bigoted Louis Farrakhan, calling the black attorney general of Kentucky, “no different than the sellout Negroes that sold our people into slavery.” The words “Daniel Cameron Is No Different” were illuminated behind her.

And it all went down under Chris Rock’s watch. Rock is among the most effective comedians of our time, skewering reliably without fear or favor. His monologue was anti-Trump, but it was also legitimately provocative. “We gotta renegotiate our whole relationship to the government,” Rock argued, addressing the audience as the show returned from a summer of upheaval, pinning blame on the “dukes and duchesses” of the political class.

As the lukewarm cold open melted into Rock’s monologue, the show’s present stood in stark contrast with its past. Rock was hardly at his best, but he didn’t pull punches to drag Biden across the finish line or avoid a public relations headache for violating the rules of wokeness. That’s not his job because it’s not funny. His job, of course, is simply to be funny. That’s also the job of SNL.

Beyond the election, we’re living through the bizarre mainstreaming of radical cultural leftism, which is completely incoherent and ripe for parody. Ryan Long’s smart, challenging, and hilarious parody of woke racism is something SNL should be able to produce regularly. What’s worse is that SNL’s inability to engage in this kind of mockery reinforces the restrictions that are making the show mediocre. Long’s video is an instructive example because it should be seen as an answer to the argument that political correctness merely protects marginalized people from discrimination. When those boundaries are challenged within reason, nobody actually gets hurt. We just have a better debate.

Saturday’s premiere scored big ratings, likely in large part because we’re conditioned to expect great election-season comedy from SNL. That’s not what the show delivered. Given the show’s recent direction, it probably won’t live up to those expectations all season either. In this strange year, that’s an incredible waste. To be fair, SNL is still great when it comes to parody commercials and poking fun at Drew Barrymore, so all hope is not lost. But if they can’t make Trump vs. Biden funny, we’ve lost something big.

The weeks ahead will surely bring some of the most difficult and most hilarious challenges in recent history, as two Boomer Kings desperate to be president fight like hell in the midst of the strangest cultural moment many of us can remember. We need good satire, both to relax and to bring us perspective. We’re clearly not going to get it from “Saturday Night Live.” YouTube is probably a better place to start.