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.
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.
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.
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.
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