In a piece for the New Yorker, entitled ‘Lessons from Late Night’, Tina Fey succinctly described the hiring policies of Saturday Night Live as ‘a blend of hyper-intelligent Harvard boys (Jim Downey, Al Franken, Conan O’Brien) and gifted, visceral, fun performers (John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Jan Hooks, Horatio Sanz, Bill Murray, Maya Rudolph).’ A footnote adds the detail that the Harvard boys are indeed always boys, although it would also be worth adding that by and large they’re typically white. This process is described favourably by Fey as one of Lorne Michaels’ greatest skills. This blend of intellect and spontaneity will apparently give you the perfect way to mix commentary with jokes. ‘Ultimately’, Fey says, ‘you will do whatever it takes to win the audience over.’
It’s questionable as to whether this Lorne-patented formula is truly the best of both worlds for comedy in general but especially for SNL, a show that has the term ‘uneven’ sewn into its very fabric. There are good years and bad ones; genius cast members surrounded by filler; the handful of voices in the writers’ room that make the punchlines fly while everything sinks. Getting this in a historically write and male field is its own problem, particularly when your Harvard Boys plan yields only people who look like Lorne Michaels.
Where SNL differs from comedy counterparts is in two areas: Its staggering longevity and its ability to shoehorn itself into the ongoing dialogue of the nation. SNL will forever remain on the air, even if it hits a dry patch that lasts longer than half the comedies on NBC. The series is a Legend, and therefore it cannot be put out to pasture. Lorne Michaels will also go down with the ship, if it ever hits that iceberg. Their symbiotic relationship has allowed Michaels to become a self-styled king of comedy, a titan of spotting talent and indomitable star-maker (which coincidentally overlooks the work of casting directors and producers like Lindsay Shookus). Even if you don’t want to be on SNL, you want to be good enough to make Lorne like you.
Because it’s stuck around for so long and because of its format - a writers’ room feverishly working to a weekly deadline, able to make changes seconds before airing - SNL has been able to make itself a pop culture milestone and satirical giant. Presidential impressions became feared, entire careers were rewritten through sketches, and stupid o’clock on Saturday night was redefined as water cooler entertainment. Sarah Palin did not need Tina Fey to be seen as a national joke, but ‘I can see Russia from my house’ was certainly a sturdy nail in the coffin of her political legitimacy. SNL has made an indelible impact on comedy, satire and the intersections between entertainment and politics, but it’s also coasted off that reputation for a long time. The Harvard boys became more numerous, even though the real talents came from the improviser communes, and stars were made simply because the real world made it way too easy for the jokes to come.
And that long winded introduction brings me to Colin Jost and Michael Che.
Jost is a Harvard boy and former president of the Harvard Lampoon who was hired for SNL’s writer room at the age of 22. Che is a performing arts kid and stand-up guy who came to SNL through The Daily Show and the comedy circuit. The pair became the anchors for ‘Weekend Update’ in 2014, a job they shared with illustrious SNL alumni including Dan Ackroyd, Norm Macdonald, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers. This is the first time the ‘Weekend Update’ anchor pair has been exclusively male, and unfortunately, that’s the most exciting part of it. In December 2017, Jost and Che were made the head writers of SNL, in a move our former colleague Joanna Robinson characterized as the show’s ‘most baffling move yet’. This year, the pair will also host the Emmys.
Jost told Vanity Fair, ‘It is kind of fun for us to do something that is not political. The exciting part is to do things about television and that particular awards ceremony and make it, in general, less political than normal.’ When asked if #MeToo would feature in the show, Jost joked, ‘I think that by [the Emmys], people are going to be desperate to give men a chance, finally. It’ll probably be #HeToo by then.’
And therein lies the problem with SNL today. This pair aren’t the root of the problem; they are merely its most obvious and exhausting symptoms, like dull testicle pain.
Jost and Che have been political before, both off the series and in ‘Weekend Update’, often to good effect. They’re also the kind of comedians who seem to believe that anything outside of directly commentating on Trump is apolitical and just good for a laugh. That would be okay if they at least had the decency to make us laugh with ‘Weekend Update’, the most obviously political element of their jobs and the ones that require them to face the camera and tell the jokes.
Take Jost referring to Tinder’s increased options for gender identification as the reason Democrats lost the election. What is the punchline here? That trans and gender rights are a frivolity that Trump was smart enough to dispose of? That not wanting to be boxed in by smothering gender roles is a bad thing? It’s not just that the joke punches down and repeats old Reddit talking points: It’s a weak joke in general, and ‘Weekend Update’ is littered with this kind of odd smarm that clearly makes Jost and Che laugh but not much else.
It doesn’t help that Che has a long and extensively documented history with sexism, not just in his comedy but in his petulant responses to criticism. He’s sicced his social media followers on women journalists like Samantha Allen, who wrote about his transphobic language for the Daily Beast. He shared her email address over Instagram stories in a post that read like an invitation to his followers to bombard her with hate mail. Jezebel wrote up further examples of Che’s inability to shut up whenever women publicly criticize his comedy. One infamous example included comparing women experiencing street harassment to him being recognized as a famous comedian. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why his targets seem to be mostly women, although it does certainly add a foul taste to one’s mouth when we think of how desperately he and his partner-in-crime want their high-profile comedy gigs to be apolitical.
Patton Oswalt recently argued that comedians no longer have the luxury to be apolitical in their work. The days of airplane food jokes are over, he said. It’s debatable as to whether or not this is true. Who can blame anyone for wanting to step away from politics for an hour and just watch a great stand-up set? John Mulaney does it well. Netflix is full of stuff like this. However, it’s also true that comedy is evolving at light speed in the internet and streaming age. The audience is bigger, the work is more accessible, and tastes have changed. We are in a post-Nanette world and comedy will have to evolve or die (it’s also not that surprising to hear that Che has a big problem with Hannah Gadsby’s breakout show, although it’s unclear if he’s actually seen it).
Comedians can choose the route they take, but if they’re the head writers on the most prominent sketch show on American T.V., one that has prided itself on its satirical prowess, and they’re also hired to host a major awards show at a time when the entertainment industry has experienced a political exodus, it’s questionable whether they get the right to claim all they do is tell jokes. You can’t fire back at critics for not getting the joke when the jokes are weak, and you skirt around the basic requirements of your job. You can’t punch down then say politics aren’t involved. Even South Park had the self-awareness to know that their cowardly avoidance of Trump jokes post-election wasn’t apolitical.
Che doesn’t want to deal with the power he has and lashes out at those who hold higher standards, while Jost coasts by on a basic inability to read the room. They’re able to do this partly because they have done great work in the show but also because SNL is bulletproof. There is a man in the White House who takes the show so personally that watching it feels like a minor form of creative retaliation. Alec Baldwin can do the world’s worst Trump impression and publicly attack critics then still be applauded at the Emmys because the man he mocks is made so mad by it. The show is bolstered so much by its new reputation as the satirists-in-chief that they’ve been able to almost completely whitewash how they partly helped soften Trump’s reputation by having him guest host. That new power means they can withstand endless mediocrity because one sketch in ten will land and it will elicit angry Trump tweets.
In that context, Che and Jost aren’t just able to skate by: They’re more powerful than ever. They’re immediately labelled comedic authorities, regardless of merit. The current era calls for comedy that does more than make you kind of laugh now and then, especially if you’re in front of millions every week and you’re expected to provide a guiding light of funny. A #MeToo era of comedy and the implied truth telling it provides probably isn’t best suited to two men, one of whom has made a sport out of publicly attacking female critics.
Jost and Che don’t have to make their Emmys hosting political. Hell, Stephen Colbert would have saved himself a lot of trouble if he’d sat out some of his political jokes last year, like making an adorable comedic pal out of Sean Spicer. The issue is that there are only so many of us who have the luxury to make that call, and even fewer who do it on the foundations of being part of satirical history. SNL paved the way but it also closes the gates behind itself. The Harvard boys and the classic stand-up bros will always be at SNL, although one wonders what they’re doing to deliver the jokes.
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