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I’ve fallen into a pattern of going to sleep early. Sometimes as early as 9 p.m. So, staying up until 11:30 p.m. to watch the season premiere of “Saturday Night Live” — even though I love the show and have been eagerly awaiting its return for months — was a commitment, an action of intention.
When season 46 kicked into gear on October 3, I was anxious to see the cold open, which would no doubt satirize that week’s presidential debate. The debate had been beyond chaotic, providing an abundance of material to draw from. And indeed, Alec Baldwin’s President Donald Trump interrupts the moderator a lot. Jim Carrey’s Joe Biden struggles to hold back his seething anger and disdain. Trump says something stupid; Biden loses his train of thought. We’ve seen these bits before, and honestly, we’ve seen them done better. The scene comes to a close with a humorous but not so covertly sincere plea to the viewer to vote. For Biden, of course.
At this point I thought, Okay, the cold open fell a little flat, but the monologue can’t possibly disappoint. This is Chris Rock we’re talking about. One of the funniest comedians out there. He starts his monologue, but his use of pronouns is kind of strange, isn’t it? “We’ve got to take it serious,” he says about the election. “You know, like I watch, the Republicans take it serious.” We: himself and the viewer at home. But then, a group that is not so we. The Republicans: a they.
Conservatives are the outsiders here, and Democrats are the in-group. Liberals are a part of this community — they are the “us.” Conservatives are some strange collective out in the ether that couldn’t possibly do something as normal as consume primetime media.
Chris Rock, your Hollywood is showing. It seems you’ve spent too much time away from the political diversity that exists in this country, sheltered among your high-rolling friends. You must have forgotten that tens of millions of Americans identify as conservative. Surely some of them watch SNL and are part of the “we” you are talking to.
Begging audience members to vote for a specific candidate is not funny. Excluding Republicans from the joke doesn’t just narrow SNL’s audience. Allowing a small group of joke writers to decide who’s allowed in popular culture creates further divisions in a country that’s already pulling apart at the seams.
Humor is more than lightheartedness. It can powerfully deliver political messages in a digestible, persuasive way. Humor is subversive. It is a means of survival. It makes a statement and sets a cultural tone.
As philosopher Henri Bergson claims, laughter is distinctly human and social. Laughter finds amusement in all things relating to human life: mobility and its malfunctions, interactions and their blunders, the non-mechanical nature of human existence. This connects directly to laughter’s social nature. Humans are social creatures. We bond over the mishaps we all encounter, using laughter to react, heal, and brave the challenges we face. We laugh along to show support and camaraderie.
However, there is a dangerous flip side. Humor can draw boundaries between factions. Who finds what funny can pull people together, but it can also create tribes and leave some people on the outskirts.
Humor finds its cruel edge when we laugh at and not with. Malice seeps into jokes far too often and leads to a laughter that harms. As a society, we should be striving to move away from willful debasement of those who are not like us. We should seek to be inclusive, open-minded, and respectful — even in our jokes. Or if we lose a little bit of that respect, at least we should prevent ourselves from directing distaste and anger at one group alone. It is possible to keep comedy subversive and entertaining while simultaneously preventing it from being plain mean.
SNL has been beloved by Americans for decades. It should continue to be an American staple. But that means it has to be accessible to all Americans. It should be critical and sharp, witty and boundary-pushing. Backing one political candidate and writing off the party you find inferior is none of those things. It’s the easy way out for people who don’t want to challenge their perspectives or reach outside their bubble.
So show us Trump’s aggression in interrupting the moderator, but make us rethink what it means to have an aggressive president. Show us Biden’s resentment, but comment on the broader significance it has for voters who share this view. Comedy’s role is not to take jabs for the sake of taking jabs. It is to reveal the parts of issues that hide beneath the surface. There are greater implications to what happened at the presidential debate, and laughter is the first step to understanding. If we can laugh at the forces that divide us, we take away their power. Only from there can we proceed to remedy what ails this nation.
Romy Dolgin ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Linguistics concentrator in Lowell House.
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