Everyone’s talking about ‘Saturday Night Live’, but who’s laughing?

Saoirse Ronan’s Aer Lingus sketch shows SNL’s humour is trapped in a liberal-elite bubble

During her stint presenting the comedy show, Saoirse Ronan, participated in a skit based on an Aer Lingus flight. Video: NBC/Saturday Night Live

 

Think of all the things Americans love and we don’t: root beer, cheerleaders, Nascar, guns for breakfast. After decades of failing to travel, Saturday Night Live, which begins its 44th season this weekend, surely qualifies. It’s not just us. Even some former cast members have turned against the thing. “A whole generation of shitheads laughs at the worst f***ing humour in the world,” Chevy Chase told the Washington Post

Chase’s argument was – you’re way ahead of me – that the show was better in his day. He’s probably right. But Saturday Night Live was never subtle. Though the original cast members spoke about their affection for Monty Python, the sketches satirising Watergate now land with all the complexity of a counter-cultural Dick Emery (ask your dad). The depressingly macho John Belushi seemed to believe that comedy should be graded on the Richter scale: the shakier, the funnier. That era’s SNL did give us Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray. Eddie Murphy helped consolidate it in the early 1980s. Later decades helped the world to Will Ferrell, Mike Myers, Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig. We should be grateful. Yet no attempt to broadcast the show in the UK or Ireland has met with success. There is a sense of self-congratulation to the humour that turns sour a few hundred miles short of the Gulf Stream. 

The Aer Lingus thing Saoirse Ronan got caught up in was a staggeringly awful Oirish sketch that, if produced by the Brits, would have led to the withdrawal of ambassadors

Saturday Night Live has never been more central to the cultural conversation in the US. Every Sunday morning, Twitter and YouTube are alive with supposed highlights from the previous night’s show. This is good and bad for the producers. It gets the word out to the faithful. It also gives the wider universe a better chance to discover how tepid, un-engaged, elitist and – this is the real surprise – sentimental much of the material really is.

This sank home in our brave nation last December when the blameless (I’m saying that because I’m no fool) Saoirse Ronan got caught up in a staggeringly awful “Oirish” sketch that, if produced by the Brits, would have led to the withdrawal of ambassadors. This was the Aer Lingus thing with the jumpers and the twinkly accents and the running joke about dogs (beats me).

The publicity helped confirm the tone-deafness of so much SNL material, but, cultural insensitivities noted, the Aer Lingus sketch did little to seriously stain the brand. More worrying is the toothless, scattershot – and occasionally offensive – nature of their supposed satire. SNL still has the occasional hit. Melissa McCarthy’s take on Sean Spicer was funny for a spell. But Alec Baldwin’s version of Donald Trump (the real thing notoriously hosted the show in 2015) too quickly gave into a cosy buffoonery that let the imperial orang-utan off the hook. 

Even this seems tolerable when set beside the comedians’ shameless toadying towards their favoured politicians. There exists a persuasive argument that the best satire – South Park springs to mind – is the hardest to pin down politically. Harold Wilson’s office was, apparently, baffled when the nascent Private Eye, assumed to be on Labour’s side, turned nasty after he won the 1964 UK election. 

There is, nonetheless, a place for aligned satire. Saliva-drenched eulogies to the beloved leader (or challenger) do not qualify. If you can bear it, check out a “sketch” from early 2017 that finds Cecily Strong and Sasheer Zamata singing To Sir, With Love to a departing Barack Obama. “If you wanted the sky I would write across the sky in letters/That would soar a thousand feet high/To Sir, with love.” You keep waiting for a joke that doesn’t come. Only in North Korea are such panting tributes to leaders welcome on primetime TV.

Trump’s base reacted against an elite that views the working class as ignorant and uncultured. That elite does exist. It seems to be writing, directing and appearing on SNL

Don’t forget the famous sequence, broadcast after the 2016 election, that found Kate McKinnon, sad in Hillary Clinton’s white trouser suit, warbling the recently deceased Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. At the close she turns to the audience and says: “I’m not giving up and neither should you.” Excuse me while I gag. What is this doing on any sort of comedy show?

Then there was the breathtakingly appalling skit on Great British Bake Off that starred Emily Blunt and Cecily Strong as contestants from “the only town to vote unanimously for [sic] the Brexit”. Blunt’s hair is roughly tied back. Strong’s is a shaggy mess. They speak in varyingly competent approximations of regional accents. If you haven’t already got it, the joke here is that the characters are stupid poor people. The classism would be staggering even if Blunt and Strong weren’t both from hugely privileged backgrounds.

Allow me to drop into shouty caps just once: THIS IS WHY PEOPLE VOTED FOR DONALD TRUMP. His base reacted against a complacent elite that views the working class as ignorant and uncultured. That elite does exist. It seems to be writing, directing and appearing in Saturday Night Live.

Here endeth the rant.    

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