If you're a huge fan of sketch comedy, then you probably already have the time between January 28 and February 15 blocked off. Why? Because VH1 will show an exhaustive 433 hour marathon of Saturday Night Live. If you're still asking why, the answer is that it's being done in celebration of the show's four decades. That's right, kiddies, it's been 40 years of laughter, but within all that biting social commentary and bold parody there's more than the occasional controversy.
The thing is, Saturday Night Live is a satire show, first and foremost, and satire is a tricky thing. Bad satire, you see, very often comes from gross over-generalizations of a particular aspect of culture, and, in making those, you could churn out things that come across as a bit offensive. I consider myself a satirist AND an intersectional feminist, and both of the identities are at war with each other constantly. It means that while I can giggle at certain SNL sketches, I can also acknowledge that there's side-eye-worthy elements in it that make it problematic. Be it an unnecessary and casually racist vocal tone, or the dismissal of sex workers as functional human beings, people are quicker to point out tasteless matters in the show than they were 40 years ago.
I mean, I can only wonder how John Belushi's deli Samurai would have gone over if it debuted in 2015. Here's a handful of controversial modern skits that touched a nerve when it came to social issues.
1. Ex-Porn Star Commercials
One of the most popular recurring sketches involves brain dead ex-porn stars Brecky and the other one trying to sell luxury items, botching names and the basic English language all the way through. I'd be lying to you if I sat here and said I didn't think that this sketch is hilarious. I literally laugh every time. But it still comes with a mean-spirited view of sex workers.
Writer, model, and yes, adult film star Stoya penned a blog post to critique the negative connotations the sketch displayed, essentially noting that every industry comes with a spectrum of intellectuals and idiots. Specifically, she talked about how the larger matter at hand was that oversimplification of the more negative, dumb porn star stereotype.
...even the very few performers in the adult industry who actually are barely functional loons exhibit more anecdotal variety and depth of character than the Swarovski Crystals girls do. This variety and depth of character is probably due to the fact that they are actual human beings.
See, SNL? Sex workers are people like you and me, and plenty of them can string together words eloquently.
2. Starbucks Verisimo Commercial
This SNL commercial parodied the then still-new Verisimo machine, which had plenty of jokes about the inefficiency of Starbucks. It was cool at first, until you noticed that Verisimo talked with a stereotypical black vernacular. And just when you felt like you could dismiss that discomfort, they introduced Verquonica, a larger, sassy non-functional machine that talks smack and wears hoop earrings. Hmmm.
Pieces sprung up working to determine if the commercial was racist. Gothamist was quick to point out that with Starbucks's definitive, extensive culture, the skit could've done fine without those questionable voices, noting:
The scattered sugar packet milk mess is a start — let's say Verismo also conjures up grad students and tourists on your couch who steal your WiFi and refuse to purchase anything. And maybe it creates an insanely long line for your bathroom (that now constantly reeks of feces), and the machine also pipes Christmas songs performed by Death Cab For Cutie into your kitchen. And sure, the machine screws up your name and order but there are a variety of machine voices doing so (and they're not named "Verquanica").
There are MANY ways Starbucks disappoints me on a daily basis. So: racism? Lazy writing? Who knows.
3. Jewelry Party Skit
On the surface, this skit has an underlying feminist message: it features a group of women at a jewelry party skewering a Men's Right Activist. EXCEPT, the MRA is the boyfriend of a Marisol, a clueless Venezuelan and ditzy Latina stereotype. It turned feminism into an exclusive club for savvy, business suit-wearing, middle-class white women, which is sort of what we're trying to avoid right now. That aside it only acknowledges the lack of overall diversity within the SNL cast (Cecily Strong, who plays Marisol, is notably not Latina).
It's Marisol's language barrier that allows her to unknowingly date an MRA in the first place, and, contextually, that makes sense. Overall, any sketch that takes on MRAs is, like, a good thing. But watching Lena Dunham and friends condescend, and explain what's going on, to poor Marisol, yeah, that's a little cringe-worthy.
A bunch of men and their fedoras were also pissy about it, but I consider that a plus.
4. Everything With Sarah Palin
But this particular early sketch, which featured Tina Fey's iconic turn as Palin, is incredibly important to note. In this SNL cold open, Fey as Palin and Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton address sexism in the 2008 election race. "Palin" urges the press to "stop using words that diminish us! Like 'pretty,' 'attractive,' 'beautiful'" and "Clinton" chimes in with "harpy," "shrew," and "boner shrinker." Wonderful.
Ironically enough, Fey's portrayal of Palin was considered by some to be sexist itself. Carly Fiorina, a spokeswoman for the McCain campaign, told MSNBC:
The portrait was very dismissive of the substance of Sarah Palin, and so in that sense, they were defining Hillary Clinton as very substantive, and Sarah Palin as totally superficial.
If this was any other woman on the planet, I would probably be willing to back this up. But given the legacy of Palin, it's a bit harder to defend.
Later on, Fey addressed the matter in her book Bossypants, implying that critiquing the Palin impression as mean-spirited was, in fact, sexist:
There was an assumption that I was personally attacking Sarah Palin by impersonating her on TV. No one ever said it was 'mean' when Chevy Chase played Gerald Ford falling down all the time. No one ever accused Dana Carvey or Darrell Hammond or Dan Aykroyd of 'going too far' in their political impressions. You see what I'm getting at here. I am not mean and Mrs. Palin is not fragile. To imply otherwise is a disservice to us both.
What could be more feminist than that?
Image: NBC (2)