Saturday Night Live had a notorious reputation through the first two decades of its run for being a “boy’s club,” a show dominated by male cast members like Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Chris Farley, and Adam Sandler, among others. There were a few female stars who were able to work with the men — Gilda Radner, for one — but there were plenty of female cast members who weren’t able to break though until after they left the show (Julia Louis Dreyfus and Janeane Garofalo, for instance, both of whom had fairly unpleasant runs on SNL). A shift began to occur, however, with the 1995 arrivals of Molly Shannon and Cheri Oteri, and soon, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, and Kristen Wiig were able to push SNL’s reputation for being a boy’s club to a tipping point. By 2016, female cast members — Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, Leslie Jones, Aidy Bryant — had become the show’s focal point.
Except on “Weekend Update,” where the boy’s club vibe of the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s lives on under anchors Colin Jost and Michael Che during an era — and an election season — where it couldn’t feel more unwelcome.
That was never more apparent than over the weekend during the SNL season premiere. Any hopes we might have had that “Weekend Update” would help to undo the damage that SNL had done to normalize Donald Trump last year by having him on as a host were immediately dashed when Colin Jost opened the segment by suggesting that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were equally unappealing choices. “The first debate is over,” Jost said, “and it’s official. We still have to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.”
The choice is basically between “Tang and prunes,” Michael Che continued. “It didn’t even feel like I was watching a debate. It felt like I was watching a divorced couple fighting over custody of a kid who hates them both.”
Jost even added that it was the first debate where Americans were asking if both candidates “were on drugs,” as though Clinton’s behavior was in some way comparable to the unhinged remarks of Donald Trump.
“No matter who wins,” Che added. “This is going to be a rebuilding season for America.”
This line of comedy was more akin to the jokes Colin Quinn might have delivered on “Weekend Update” in 2000 when Al Gore and George Bush were seen pre-9/11 as equally unappealing, uninspiring choices:
“Frontrunners Al Gore and George W. Bush now have nothing standing between them and their party’s nominations. And after all, what better candidates to run this year than a couple of zeros?”
This is not 2000, and the contrast between Clinton and Trump could not be more stark. However, by playing into this line of comedy, Che and Jost are effectively encouraging their audience to do the most dangerous thing they could do this year: Sit this one out. Why even bother voting, they seem to suggest, when the candidates are a couple of zeroes?
For Colin Jost — who attended a private high school in on Manhattan’s upper east-side and later Harvard University — this is the approach of someone who has no real stake in the outcome of the election. This is peak male, white privilege. A Trump presidency wouldn’t affect Colin Jost, because he’s a wealthy white dude from New York, something that Michael Che likes to remind him of at least once an episode.
Che, on the other hand, shares a misogynistic streak with the GOP nominee. Here’s a guy who lectures women on what to do if they are raped, a guy who rationalizes asking if a woman is “on her period, ” a guy who stubbornly, defiantly insists that it’s OK to harass women on the street because it’s a compliment. Che’s public comments about women are not that different from Trump’s about Alicia Machado, and even when Che has some salient points to make about black people protesting the National Anthem, he compares the issue to a nagging girlfriend who steps in front of the TV while you’re trying to watch the game.
Conversely, compare what Jost and Che are doing to what their predecessor, Seth Meyers, is is doing every weeknight on Late Night, reminding us that the choice between Clinton and Trump is not an equal one. Or what Samantha Bee and John Oliver do every week, or even how Stephen Colbert has become more forceful in drawing a distinction between Clinton and Trump.
In Che and Jost, SNL could not have found two guys more out of step with the rest of the political comedy world. They couldn’t have found two guys more out of step with their own cast, which is promoting hilarious anti-feminist feminist anthems, while Jost is smugly writing long-form jokes about slapping people and Che is joking that Women’s History Month is a good time for ladies to bake a cake.
Historically, even when Saturday Night Live is not operating at its best, we could rely on “Weekend Update” to salvage a bad show by delivering the kind of topical, progressive political humor for which Meyers, Poehler, and Fey were known. Poehler and Fey liked to remind us that “bitches get stuff done.” Conversely, Che and Jost are like clueless, tone-deaf throwbacks to the fratty boy’s club era of SNL. Kate McKinnon, Alec Baldwin, et. al, may yet deliver some potent political comedy during the remainder of this election season — as they did this weekend in covering the first Presidential debate — but there was a time when “Weekend Update” was leading the charge. Right now, it’s holding the rest of the show behind.