In a tweet posted at 4:52 a.m. Feb. 18, President Donald J. Trump issued a polite and tactful criticism of the late-night variety show Saturday Night Live (SNL).
“Nothing funny about tired Saturday Night Live on Fake News NBC,” Trump tweeted. “Question is, how do the Networks get away with these total Republican hit jobs without retribution? Likewise for many other shows? Very unfair and should be looked into. This is the real Collusion!”
The criticism followed an episode broadcast Feb. 16. The opening sketch featured actor Alec Baldwin, reprising his role as Trump, in a satire of Trump’s announcement of a proclaimed “national emergency” at the southern border.
While SNL’s live audience enjoyed the sketch, Trump clearly did not. Yet Trump seems to misunderstand the very nature of the sketch as a social critique, one that is protected by the very set of laws that give him authority. After all, the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees the right to free speech, and no tweet from Trump can take that away.
Trump’s attack continues a tradition of him complaining about SNL, which he has described as “totally one-sided” and repeatedly characterized as a “hit job.” Yet Trump misses that these “hit job” jokes overwhelmingly derive themselves from reality, a fact that lends them credibility and comedic power. As much as Trump wishes otherwise, comedy can be used as a means of social critique.
However, a fine line exists between comedic criticism and unprotected speech in the form of libel and slander. Therefore, it’s important to ground comedy, especially the critical kind, in both reality and good judgment. SNL’s run of Trump-related sketches succeeds because they take actual events — Trump’s emergency declaration, for example — and critique them to expose their inherent absurdity.
An example of this appeared in Trump’s declaration of the national emergency,in which he anticipated the legal challenges awaiting his declaration.
“We will have a national emergency, and we will then be sued,” Trump said. “And they will sue us in the 9th Circuit, even though it shouldn’t be there, and we will possibly get a bad ruling, and then we’ll get another bad ruling, and then we’ll end up in the Supreme Court, and hopefully we’ll get a fair shake and we’ll win in the Supreme Court.”
In response to Trump, SNL offered its own rendition of the quote.
“So I’m going to sign these papers for an ‘emergency,’ and then I’ll immediately be sued,” Baldwin’s Trump said. “And the ruling will not go in my favor, and then it’ll end up in the Supreme Court, and then I’ll call my buddy [Brett] Kavanaugh, and then I’ll say it’s time to repay the Donnie…”
It’s difficult to interpret SNL’s criticism as a “hit job” when, for all intents and purposes, the joke accurately reflects what Trump said; he knows that he will get a “fair shake” in the Supreme Court because the majority of the court supports conservative ideologies and will likely side with him and his goal of constructing a wall. Furthermore, a study by political scientist Lee Epstein and law professor Eric A. Posner suggests that Supreme Court justices support the president that nominated them. So when Baldwin’s Trump states that it’s time for Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh — and other Trump court-appointee Neil Gorsuch — to “repay the Donnie,” his words do not stray far from reality. SNL’s jokes do not constitute the hit jobs that Trump decries, but rather reflect fair criticisms of the political situation. After all, the sketch points out that the President of the United States himself expects his own declaration to be declared unconstitutional, only for his appointees to display bias and “repay the Donnie” in order to save it.
Critics of humorous critiques will likely argue that SNL’s brand of comedy problematizes real-world issues by literally making them matters to laugh at. For example, just last year SNL parodied Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation hearings, which focused on allegations that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted several women in his youth. While the sketch itself thankfully did not make light of the alleged assaults, it certainly broached the very serious and real issue of sexual assault. Had SNL’s writers not displayed tact in writing the sketch, they could have very easily invalidated the experiences of actual survivors of sexual assault by reducing the issue to a punchline delivered by actor Matt Damon as a rabid Kavanaugh.
In response to this, I offer that comedy can provide catharsis in response to the emotional weight of real-world issues. According to an overview of medical literature by the Mayo Clinic, laughter can actually provide health benefits in both the short and long terms, both easing stress and improving one’s mood. While that cannot make up for the fact that the president actually declared a national emergency while at the same time stating he “did not have to, ”laughing the pain away provides some consolation.
Furthermore, people need to recognize that shows such as SNL are not legitimate sources of news such as the New York Times or the Washington Post. If you watch SNL for authentic coverage of real-world events, then you likely have more pressing issues than whatever SNL happens to be parodying.
If people want to levy humorous critiques, whether at the Trump administration or elsewhere, they must be based in fact. If you want to make political critiques — or any critiques, really — start by staying informed on issues by reading and watching credible news sources. You can still enjoy satirical takes on the news, but shows like SNL or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver should never replace the reporting done by the likes of the New York Times, for example. However, comedy at the true detriment of others — especially those with traumatic experiences — isn’t really comedy; it’s an insult. Critical humor can be good, legal fun — and good for one’s health — but it requires caution, respect and grounding in truth to succeed as criticism.
Pablo Nukaya-Petralia is a junior politics and art and art history double major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.