Angry viewers complain that Saturday Night Live is “too political.” But is it really? We take a look at SNL’s role in our culture today.
Ever since the 2016 election, the 43-year-old show is boasting the highest ratings in 22 years, as American viewers tune in to see the week’s news play out in comedic form. And with the rollercoaster that is the news today, there’s always plenty of great material.
After each episode airs, however, another phenomenon takes place: YouTube and Twitter become saturated with complaints from viewers denouncing SNL as “too political,” and saying that they should “stick to comedy.” They claim that the show isn’t as funny as it used to be, and that its political stances have “ruined” the show.
Although these comments might seem needlessly inflammatory at times, it is worth asking: Are the politics on SNLat the expense of its comedy?
Social issues aren’t always political
Let’s be clear: not everything is politics. And not everything that people complain is “too political” is political at all.
Sketches like the “Dinner Discussion,” “Welcome to Hell” and “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black” shed light on the attitudes surrounding some of society’s current dilemmas — often issues like feminism or racism. But while they were well received for being so on the nose, that didn’t stop people from calling them political.
It’s important to not conflate every issue we have as a society with politics. By doing so, we risk watering down the more widespread impact these issues have. Politics generally implies something related to the governance and the legislation of a country; and while issues like gender and racial equality do play a big role in today’s politics, as they are being systemically undermined, we can’t be so quick to dismiss conversations surrounding sexual harassment and representation as being political.
SNL deals with American culture, and unfortunately American culture does have some uncomfortable truths. It’s not political: it’s all-encompassing.
‘SNL’ isn’t as biased as you think
However, there are segments on SNL that solely focus on politics. Weekend Update seems to have new relevance with the breakneck speed of the news cycle today, but it’s actually the show’s longest-running sketch. The entire premise of it is to cover news of the week in a funny and ironic manner. And in an era when most of our news involves politics, ignoring political news would make the segment meaningless.
A big complaint on the part of viewers is that SNL’s coverage is biased or one-sided. The writers, after all, seem to mostly be liberal, and the writing reflects that. But Weekend Update isn’t actually news; it’s comedy, and therefore has every right to be one-sided. We shouldn’t be going to SNL for the news — although it seems that a lot of people are (more on that later.)
But in issues outside of the election, SNL isn’t necessarily as outspoken about their political beliefs as one might believe. They’ve famously skirted making statements about divisive subjects, and caused outrage by bringing Donald Trump on the show during his presidential campaign despite his racist remarks about Mexico. They also have put effort into making sketches that poke fun, or at times undermine, the messages they’ve given in the past—such as “Levi’s Wokes.”
‘SNL’ hasn’t suddenly changed overnight
While new viewers might have just begun watching the show during the 2016 election campaign, SNL hasn’t really changed its vision from the way it was in the years leading up to it. This is how it has always been, with comedians impersonating politicians and ruthlessly making fun of them; with sketches based on political situations that are affecting Americans.
And it’s not just an anti-Republican thing. Before President Trump, there was President Obama, and he was also mocked when the opportunity arose. Of course, there may not have been as many opportunities then as there are with the current administration, but still — SNL has always made fun of politicians, no matter what party they’re from.
One thing has changed, however. Recently, the show has received increased attention because of President Trump’s mention of the show on Twitter, bizarrely becoming a part of political discourse through the election and the first year of the presidential term. It puts the show in an uncomfortable position: while their main priority is ratings and being funny, it’s impossible to ignore that what they are putting out into the world will affect Americans’ perceptions of what’s happening in the country.
Comedy has become a part of America’s democracy
According to a Public Policy Polling poll, Americans believe that SNL has more credibility than the President. And back in 2014, a study by the Brookings Institution showed that Americans tend to trust The Daily Show more than actual journalists.
Is that a good thing? Should comedy play such a pivotal role in the way people perceive the government’s decisions? Does it sometimes detract from the gravity of what’s happening? Maybe. But while Americans continue to find comedy more trustworthy than news media, and while comedy shows continue to put effort into news coverage, that’s the way things will remain.
For many, watching TV on a Saturday night is a time to relax and escape from the stress of the week–not a time in which they want to think about the very serious issues America is dealing with right now. But not everyone has the luxury of ignoring the news, and good entertainment can never truly be isolated from the issues affecting us. It has become, oddly, a way in which we hold our government accountable.
And in a society obsessed with instant gratification that uses entertainment as a form of escapism, maybe it’s a good thing that SNL is keeping the country’s struggles fresh in our minds.