Saturday Night Live tried really, really hard to go full “kumbaya” this weekend, beginning with Tom Hanks’ preciously earnest attempt at healing the nation during his monologue, offering Dad-like advice to Americans caught in the throes of the presidential election.
It was followed by another edition of “Black Jeopardy!” in which the increasingly watered-down late night sketch show seemed to suggest that African-American women have much in common with racist, poorly-educated, slack-jawed Trump supporters. I’m generally disinclined to deconstruct comedy, but since this sketch appears to be the big social media takeaway from the latest episode of the show, I thought I’d weigh-in to say that while I get what the sketch tried to achieve, I thought it was both ill-conceived and poorly executed.
Yet The Washington Post‘s Dan Zak called it “SNL’s best political sketch this year.”
Not even close.
In case you missed it, the sketch featured two black female contestants pitted against Tom Hanks as “Doug,” who represented a typical Trump supporter, complete with goatee, marble-mouthed accent and red “Make America Great Again” hat. Each question had to do with an observation about black culture and, over the course of the sketch, we learn that both of the black contestants and “Doug” have many things in common. The commonalities, according to the sketch, ended at “Final Black Jeopardy!”, when the answer was “Lives that matter.”
On the surface, this seems like an intriguing notion. President Obama has preached similar ideas, suggesting that there isn’t a red America and a blue America — that we’re one nation with more in common than we’re willing to acknowledge. In theory, this is quite true. In practice, however, it rings as more idealistic than practical. At least in an age when Trump has risen to power based upon voters who are not just racist, they’re simply too proudly ignorant to understand what’s acceptable at the presidential level.
I’ll concede that I have a lengthy roster of issues with 35-40 percent of American voters who see Trump as somehow worthy of the presidency; who are incapable of grasping how completely destructive his presence on the national stage has been, simply as a candidate; and that his presidency would pose an existential threat to our entire system. So, there’s something offensive about comparing any “normals” with the rage addicts whose mascot is the white-supremacist “Pepe the Frog” character — whose chief political goals include deporting tens of millions of immigrants while rolling back by 50-plus years civil rights for women and minorities. If there are relatively inconsequential things in common, like hating skinny women, evidently, these similarities are significantly overshadowed by the reality that “Doug” in real life would prefer that African-Americans, with their welfare checks, their obscene Beyonce music and irritating political correctness, were re-segregated, if not legally persecuted or, in some cases, driven back into neo-slavery or similar.
Yes, I suppose there are a few Trump supporters and African-Americans alike who, for some reason, don’t think skinny women are of any use. And I suppose no one likes high gas prices. But to conflate these two groups was insulting to African-Americans and especially African-American women who, in reality, have lined up in record numbers to reject Trump, his misogyny, his racism and his people. Furthermore, if “Doug” was portrayed as a normal-looking, somewhat well-spoken grandfather, or a more mainstream suburban white guy, the likes of which we’ve seen in more than a few Trump rallies, it might not have been an insulting comparison. Instead, “Doug” was a very specific kind of low-class white American. A cracker. A seemingly racist, rural yokel who, we’re told by SNL, has much in common with typical black culture. In other words, these two black contestants are, in a way, culturally similar (though not identical) to the embarrassing dregs of white America. This doesn’t ring true, and satire is supposed to be about exposing truth.
A better set-up might’ve been to feature two “Black Lives Matter” protesters lining up against a white “All Lives Matter” counter-protester, making the comparison more of a one-to-one ratio. Something more specific. Instead, “Doug” was a very specific breed of white guy, while the black contestants were more generalized. Forgive the cliche, but it was very much an apples-to-oranges scenario.
Along those lines and generally speaking, it’s true that white culture and black culture have much in common, politically, socially and otherwise. Obviously. It’s fair to question, though, whether broadstroke black culture, as it was portrayed by SNL, has anything meaningful in common with the laser-focused pro-Trump, alt-right subculture.
The sketch was also typical of modern, toothless, Millennial-driven SNL niceness. While it’s a warm and fuzzy sentiment on the surface, “Black Jeopardy!” was not unlike cable news pundits twisting themselves into pretzels in order to logically suggest that both sides are the same — that, for example, Trump’s nefarious behavior is similar to Bill or Hillary Clinton’s negatives. Or that Bernie Sanders’ populism is the same as Trump’s. Or that Rachel Maddow is the same as Bill O’Reilly. In doing so, SNL seemed to elevate the stature of otherwise deplorable pro-Trump whites, while simultaneously dragging African-Americans down to that level. It’s as inaccurate and unfair as it always is. And the upshot is that rural conservative white men who control around 23 state governments aren’t so bad because look at how similar they are to typical black people.
I’m old enough to remember a time when the kinds of self-congratulatory cranks who compose Trump’s white nationalist cabal would’ve been routinely and mercilessly hammered by SNL. Not any more, apparently. Sure, subversiveness hasn’t been exorcised from SNL entirely, but it’s no longer the driving force behind it. Perhaps real satire is too mean for younger audiences, so it’s been mostly driven out of the show. Nevertheless, satire is best when it’s unrelentingly, though cleverly eviscerating the powerful — the misguided majority.
Indeed, racist white guys have dominated America for 240 years, nearly destroying it on several occasions, most notably between 1861 and 1865. Are we to believe a sizable group of whites, whose organizing principle has been to oppress minorities, escalating this goal to the point of civil war, followed by Jim Crow and its Voter ID ancestors, has tons in common with the black culture it’s sought to destroy? And even if there are scant touchstones (hating skinny women, etc?), is that enough to fabricate commonality despite massive cultural atrocities that’ve endured for centuries — nearly 100 percent of which have resulted in the extreme villainizing of blacks, both culturally and legislatively? No way.
In this regard, the “Black Jeopardy!” sketch was simplistic and toothless. While it provided a superficial level of “the feels” due to its unity theme, it was so poorly executed that any meaning beneath the initial warm-fuzzies was scrambled and lost.
UPDATE: If the intention was to satirize false equivalences in the media, then I’d completely embrace the point of the sketch, and I’d retract everything I wrote. As near as I tell, though, that wasn’t the point. It should’ve been.