The Mainstream Effect of SNL

In 1975, 32-year-old Lorne Michaels, known for his deadpan humor and intimidating stature, created an industry-defining dent on live television. Saturday Night Live succeeded greater against live television programs that began to peak in the 60s. The Carol Burnette show featured mainly goofy comedy bits with conventional musical performances, while the funky vibe that encompassed the Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In introduced us to iconic talents like Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin. Although these programs drew in millions of audiences, it didn’t cater to a diverse demographic or age group, and their comedic legacy didn’t age as well. Who knew at the time that Laugh-In writing alumni Lorne Michaels would go on to challenge industry norms? Saturday Night Live isn’t just a mere cultural significance that disappeared into nostalgia, but a steady icon continuing to deconstruct popular culture and sociopolitical disparity.

Bringing Race and Gender to the Dinner Table

Aside from the news stations, television programs before Saturday Night Live didn’t touch on controversial topics, at least not enough to bring them into mainstream discussion. Issues that didn’t come across as politically correct during the early 20th century were usually a risky move for television comedy writers. The only shows that touched briefly on race and identity politics were All in the Family, Good Times, and a few other notable sitcoms. However, these shows didn’t take it to the extent SNL would. Saturday Night Live was blatantly political and challenging to the American viewer’s psyche. During a time when politicians were involved in corruption scandals, the Vietnam War was met by a serious backlash, following the tumultuous decades of political controversies surrounding the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton and Bush Jr. administrations. It was the jackpot for a comedy writer on SNL. The 70s were a revolutionary beginning for civil rights, the women’s liberation movement and conversation regarding economic justice for the working class. SNL brought the tense topics of race and gender to the dinner table while you were forced to watch the spot-on and depressingly realistic depictions of racial and gender disparity.

In 1984 Eddie Murphy played a caricature, Mr. White where he disguised himself as a white man to experience the racial disparities throughout New York City. The skit hilariously tackled white privilege. The bit gets more humbling when Murphy requests a 50,000-dollar loan without any credit, ID, or proof that he’s even a real human. It was probably one of the first comedy skits on live television that overtly scrutinized post-Jim Crow racial disparity on a mainstream platform.

Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph in the 2002 skit, Kotex Classic

It’s impossible to ignore the many iconic female comedians who brought women’s issues and perspectives to a mainstream television platform. Who could forget the hilarious Kotex Classic skit that Tina Fey had to fight for to get on the air because her all-male producer counterparts didn’t understand it? AKA, that women can use their embarrassing and old-fashioned experiences to make jokes depicting them in an unsexy, goofy and discomforting way too, as their male counterparts often do. The skit is still one of the funniest moments in the show’s history and it brought in demand for female-centered jokes. Predominantly around all the ridiculous, sexist and patriarchal-driven commodities women feel they need to purchase to ensure society isn’t uncomfortable knowing that women too, like all people, have bodily fluids and hair.

Political Polarization

Since its debut, Saturday Night Live typically tends to poke jokes geared towards the conservative side of the political spectrum. And it’s no question which political party the writers and actors associate themselves with. But like many of the sitcoms that came before SNL’s mainstream success and influence, the funniest parts are the ones most relative to our daily lives as Americans. Whether it’s your subtly racist grandfather, neoliberal baby-boomer in-laws, or subconsciously misogynistic co-workers, SNL broadcasts and analyzes the hilarious ignorance hidden inside all of us. Regardless of your political affiliation, there are certain aspects of everyone’s beliefs that are problematic when you dig deeper inside your political views.

Election Night, 2016

Take the skit featuring Dave Chapelle and Chris Rock after Trump’s “unpredictable” victory in 2016. The bit wasn’t just hilarious because of the shock the Democrats felt when their goofy and offensive opponent won by a landslide that night in November, it was funny because regardless of how educated and better Democrats believe they are, they will never understand the true prevalence of racism and discrimination in the United States that influenced many voters to cast their ballots in for Trump. They live in a world where segregation is illegal in print and racism is something in the past—however, of course, for many black Americans, this is has been an existential experience that never really denigrated into history, which is why Chapelle and Rock, the only two minority characters in the skit, seem less than surprised about the election results constantly bringing in a reality check to their optimistic and somewhat clueless friends. Chapelle stabs jokes like “Don’t forget, it’s a big country”, or “Ya’ll haven’t been around this country before?” meanwhile their white counterparts are obliviously clinking their champagne glasses cheering “To Latinos!” as the electoral college swayed closer towards a Trumpian defeat. This was one of those rare skits on SNL where the fun was poked at many modern Democrats. The Democrats that use anachronistic liberal notions of political and social equality that is often an illusion guarded by their privilege. The skit completely deconstructs the conventional beliefs held by institutional Democrats, and the conventional challenges and criticism to their beliefs are being dismantled by more “radical” leftists like Bernie Sanders, and alt-right traditionalists like Donald Trump and crazy frog connoisseur Alex Jones. Sorry conventional Democrats, your framed portrait of Obama in front of your office doesn’t make up for the centuries of enframed racism and disparities that continue to plague many minorities. The 13th amendment is still a thing.

At the end of the day, regardless of whether you laugh at the mockery, or vow to never watch the show again, SNL turns the ridiculous nature of politics and polarization on all of us to ponder. You think you’re a woke male because you voted Hillary Clinton and label yourself a feminist? Watch the Girl at a Bar skit. Do you think you have nothing in common as a Democrat with a Trump supporter? Watch your perception deconstructed by Tom Hanks’ hilarious portrayal in Black Jeopardy.

The Legacy of SNL

Controversial, hilarious and satirical, as Saturday Night Live lives on with its historic 46th season. The program’s reflection and symbolic use of popular culture through comedy is an inevitable contribution to American political thought and social justice issues. The show functions as a mirror on all of us and our collective psyche as Americans. Saturday Night Live made controversy mainstream, it bred a unique form of political incorrectness through its witty comedic style and legendary comedic icons.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Hilal has a B.A. in political science & philosophy.

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  1. Hasn’t been funny since Norm MacDonald did his fake news.

  2. Great article. Although it has gone downhill since the old days of John Belushi and Chevy Chase and the rest of the crew.

  3. SNL evolved out of North American improvisational comedy troupes (still the recruiting ground for its’ talent). If you don’t understand, think vaudeville sketch comedy. Generally broad characters, repetitive punch lines, sketches that are uneven and/or go on too long. Mostly, you look for character renditions. And remember, it’s LIVE, written over a one-week span, so it’s rarely polished work. As for improvisational talent, my favorites were the late Phil Hartman and the late Jan Hooks, who often worked together.

  4. There would be no SNL if they hadn’t got the idea from Britain’s That Was The Week That Was back in the 1960s.

    • Easterling

      Very true, After all we’ve stolen rugby and transformed it into the thing my countrymen call football, we stole the game rounders and we call it baseball, we stole a popular show which I can’t recall and rebranded it “All in the Family”… what’s new?? Ain’t we exceptional?

  5. My main gripe about SNL is that the sketches go on for too long and lose their impact. Hard to keep standards up when you are writing topical stuff under a tight deadline, I know, but they could learn from things like the Fast Show where the characters don’t usually overstay their welcome.

    • Lawerence Linville

      They always look like they’re reading the sketch from an autocue. Are they? It seems a bit naff.

  6. IMHO…it’s funny , about 10% of the time in each show. very hit n miss.

  7. PETE DAVIDSON. Take a bow. What a character.
    SNL has been epic. I binge watch it on YT. One of the best. Amazing thing about SNL is the wide range of topics it makes skits on. Plus Pete Davidson.

  8. Tajuana

    SNL is one of the few TV shows that promote the US in a positive way around the world. Along with Nascar & Basketball it gives the rest of the world a vision of us that says we are not all selfish asses who exploit others for personal gain.

    • For someone living in the U.K. to criticise basketball as boring is actually funny, in a way that SNL rarely is. The English gave the world cricket, an excruciatingly painful dullfest and a waste of a sunny afternoon, which seemingly now is played by thugs, cheats and drunk students.

      But you were just being sarcastic, right?

  9. Commercials are my favorite. They are so funny. i can’t remember one that I did not laugh hard at one. Over my life Saturday night live has never been a must watch show for me. Thought It might have been a good idea to have made it a one of my must watch shows because I enjoy watching comedy. Maybe I need to start watching Saturday night live every time its on television. Of the episodes I have watched I have found some not so funny and other hilarious. I like that it has different guest hosts every show instead of one regular host. I think Saturday night live is a good show and I hope I keep watching it.

  10. i have not watched the show in 20 years now… I have a lot to catch up on!

  11. I haved loved SNL since its first show in 1975 but it just isn’t funny anymore. Not sure if its the comedians or the writers but I hardly ever laugh at the skits now. I tape it now and just watch the talent (if it like them) and weekend edition. The host’s spot usually sucks, the intro is good sometime love the political satire.

  12. We’ve got some pretty healthy comedy writing going on with this show!

  13. Carmelita

    The SNL skits that parody Trump should be freely released around the world.
    Let the world see what the majority of Americans really think of president Trump.

  14. Napoleon

    This show is my sixth favorite skit comedy of all time. I got into this show when I was near the end of my adolescence and a time, I was still getting into the parody genre.

  15. The episodes are inconsistent. Some episodes are amazing all the way through. Some episodes are just terrible. Some of the sketches make me cry laughing. Others I can only watch a minute of before I fast forward.

  16. If you don’t get the punchline, don’t worry they’ll smack you in the face with it repeatedly to make sure all IQ’s can chuckle along. 😀 But I do love it still.

  17. Munjeera

    SNL has kept up with the times. Kate McKinnon is unbelievably talented. Her range of characters hilarious. I also like how Republican men are being played by women. A genius play! I will never forget the singing of “Hallelujah” after the 2016 election. Collective conscious unity brought together. Definitely a Kumbaya moment for me in Canada feeling it with my American sisters and brothers.

  18. Never forgive them for kicking Andy Kaufman off the show.

  19. It would have been nice if SNL could have been exported to the UK in the 70’s during the classic Belushi / Ackroyd / Radner / Chase years…

  20. I have been a fan of Saturday Night Live since it first began and I still like it.

  21. I think the reason why SNL has been so popular for such a long time is the consistent dedication to making culturally accurate satire that the public can relate to.

  22. Great Article!

    I feel as though the show needs some new directions. Remember MADtv and how different and innovating they were then their network rivals. SNL barley caught consistent viewers during FOX’s hit sketch show.

  23. Honestly, with the amount of criticism SNL gets from, basically everyone these days, it’s nice to read a new take on the show, regarding the legacy it’s so obviously carved for itself.
    My almost 60-year-old dad has his criticisms of the show, but never fails to ask if a new one is on this Saturday.

  24. Interesting take, particularly the discussion SNL’s role in mainstreaming the discussion of race and gender. I do wonder if comedy is the best platform for moving these social issues forward. In some ways it helps to refine social movements by pointing out hypocrisies that might ultimately undermine them if left unaddressed. In others, it can trivialize the serious nature of social ills. Regardless, I think it’s important to take this comedy stuff seriously!

  25. I love the contribution SNL has made to shifting politics and social justice from a taboo social topic to a more commonplace conversation. Conversely, it has fueled a lot of conservative backlash for targeting individuals. Though, that very well may be a sign of success as well.

  26. Joseph Cernik

    An enjoyable essay on a show I’ve enjoyed for decades. It sounds odd to think in terms of decades but that is what it has been.

  27. John Wilson

    An enjoyable piece, but poorly fact-checked. Lorne Michaels was 30 when the show premiered, not 32. Getting something like that incorrect makes me question a writer’s credibility, unfortunately.

  28. Nice article..!! thanks for sharing..

  29. I have to admit that part of the reason why I am so sad that Bernie Sanders left the Democratic Primary Race is that Larry David would no longer be impersonating Bernie Sanders on SNL. Not that I have a vote.

  30. SNL is my favorite show. The thing I love about it is it’s always reinventing itself. Not every sketch is going to be funny to every single person. Comedy is all about perspective and I think the show has endured this long because Lorne knows that not everyone is going to like it at the same time. And you’re absolutely right in pointing out that when SNL gets something right – especially politically – it can be an amazing, almost teachable moment that goes beyond being just funny.

  31. Nice read. I think it id an interesting conversation to have about privilege and parody. Often the community surrounding popular parody sways liberal – and I think that parody at its best is reflective. It’s easier to mock the “opponent.”

    I also think that in recent years SNL has gone a bit derivative. The characters and players have fallen to stereotypes and come of the most creative original elements have gone missing.

  32. I like how you noted the nostalgia attached to SNL. Being a younger person, my first experience with the show was it’s 40th anniversary special. The special reminded me of my time as a stage dancer and brought back nostalgic memories of simply being apart of a live show, like what SNL is.

    Politics is no doubt one of the main factors that powers the show and keeps the controversy going. Although the current state of comedy not might be up to the level of comedy the show used to display, I think that however the show progresses says quite a bit about how society is today. Like you mentioned, there is a great political divide pretty apparent with cast members and writers of the show, but I see this as not that much different than any other media outlet, because they all have political biases. Great read!

  33. Dr. Vishnu Unnithan

    The few episodes of Saturday Night Live I have seen were quite interesting. Crisply written article. It makes me want to check out some newer episodes too. I haven’t seen any in the past two years.

  34. Good article. I believe that SNL hit its high water mark in the 90s, and this article references this. I think that, as our country has become more polarized, we have seen SNL attempt to use humour to reveal the nature of the human condition more poignantly. And while sometimes the attempts have hit very well, many have been massive misses.

  35. Jess Nacki

    SNL helped to shape how commercials were made. Now most commercials are parodies themselves.

  36. Interesting article, not the same without Phil Hartman

  37. Very good article!
    SNL is one of those things that’s “only good” up until whichever era was you’re favorite. I grew up at the tail end Sandler, Spade, and Farley, with upcoming Ferrell, Fey, Rudolph, etc. in the mix. That said, SNL has largely always been funny, but every few episodes/seasons they strike gold. I vividly remember Tina Fey returning to play Sarah Palin and how impactful her performance was. People still misattribute Fey’s satirical quotes as actual Palin quotes, I love it!
    One of the earliest skits I remember seeing was the commercial for Schmitt’s Gay beer with Sandler and Farley. Some of the presentation is pretty dated, but to satirize sexually charged beer ads aimed at heteronormative men in this way was brilliant.
    SNL is still as funny as it always has been, which is to say they usually strike gold a few times a season. I’m sure it won’t be around forever, but looking back on older seasons can really show examples of people’s attitudes regarding pop culture. and politics of the era.

  38. SNL is definitely an American staple. It is amazing to see how much it has changed with the times. I think that is why it has lasted so long.

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