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A Long Post About SNL

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Seth Simons

Oct 02 2021

19 mins read

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Maybe you should start by explaining what’s going on here.

So, basically this week I had a few whacks at writing a column unpacking some thoughts about the SNL casting rollout, and everything came out sounding really academic and unreadable, and I thought maybe instead it would be better to just do it as a fake Q+A talking through everything in more of a casual manner, which is a tone I’m not great at striking in more conventional essays, and now that’s what’s happening. 

Great. So then to move on to the obvious: surely you’re not about to tell me you’re unhappy SNL cast Sarah Sherman and James Austin Johnson? 

I mean, look. Am I happy two of my favorite comedians, one of whom I genuinely think is one of the more original voices of our time, got hired by a show designed to entrap comedians during the most creatively formative years of their lives and force them to make sponsored content and power-flattering non-comedy? A show with a famously toxic culture run by a guy whose star talents have described him putting them through all manner of disgusting abuses and manipulations? A guy currently alleged to have looked the other way while a teenage girl was groomed, harassed, and assaulted in his workplace? Am I happy Sarah Squirm and James Austin Johnson get to work there now?

Yeah.

Well, yes and no.

It’s a huge platform that people like them don’t usually get. People like Sarah, at least.

That’s sort of the point. It’s a huge platform, and by nature of being huge it’s also corrupt, and by nature of being corrupt it corrupts the people who come into contact with it. At the most basic level the job of SNL writers and cast members is to make SNL hosts look good. Often those hosts are genuinely bad people; when you make bad people look good, you are helping them to do more bad things. We tend to see people in comedy rationalize this by saying it’s okay because comedy doesn’t actually have any power, which is one of many fucked up rationalizations comedy requires its workers to make. The other fundamental job of SNL writers and cast members is not to make SNL’s advertisers look bad. This necessarily blunts the type of comedy you can do there—I wrote in my review of Colin Jost’s memoir about how he had to cut jokes about Nazis and Hitler, because Volkswagen was worried it would make people remember the company was created in Nazi Germany. 

Obviously advertiser censor power isn’t necessarily the death of good comedy, but I do think it has a long-term effect on the psychology of the comedian. In that same book you see Jost go through various contortions to defend and praise McDonalds for censoring one of his jokes. Then he talks about how after the Volkswagen emissions scandal came to light, he wrote a short lampooning Volkswagen’s roots in the Third Reich—but the sketch never made it to air because NBC was about to close another ad deal with Volkswagen. Jost just sort of gamely accepts that he’s in bed with a company polluting the earth, ho-hum. I think that’s kind of messed up!

This sounds like it might be a problem specific to Colin Jost.

Yeah, maybe. Obviously these shows attract writers willing to make those compromises, and the more willing you are to make them, the higher you climb. But I really think they also, in a way, force you to become the kind of person who makes them. One thing about the casting announcement that I didn’t really see commented on is what it means that so many repertory players are staying onboard. 

What does it mean?

It was pretty heavily telegraphed at the end of the last season that Kate, Aidy, Pete, and Cecily were leaving. If you’ll allow some gossip, I’d heard before the pandemic that Kate wanted to leave that season—season 45? What is time—which clearly didn’t happen. Jost and Che also hinted two seasons ago that they were looking to leave soon. In August, Variety reported that Lorne was trying to get everyone to stay through season 50. My understanding from people who’ve worked in and around this show is that Lorne really, really doesn’t like you to leave before he wants you to. Jost gestures towards this at the end of his memoir, when he says he’s mentally preparing to leave and then as a quippy aside quotes Lorne telling him not to. When I look at that Variety story—which reads like a strategic leak from Lorne’s camp, to put pressure on talent—and then at the casting announcement, what I see is him winning the negotiation.

And you… think it’s bad they decided to stay on?

I mean, I think it’s all bad and the show should be canceled and NBC and Comcast broken up and nationalized. No, what I’m saying is that if we read between the lines, we see a cage. If you’re successful at SNL, best case scenario, it completely controls your life for six years or 12 years or longer, and even when you’re ready to leave they’ll pull out all the stops to keep you. And look, I’m sure they make it worthwhile—presumably Lorne won this negotiation in some capacity by offering the kind of money you wouldn’t say no to. But a cage is a cage, and this particular cage is designed to make you progressively richer and less in touch with the person you were when you went in. So no, I’m not inclined to celebrate artists I love making deals with the devil.

That's a bit cynical, calling a high-paying job a cage. 

Show business is cynical! SNL is cynical! Two years ago it tried to appeal to conservative audiences by hiring a guy whose credits were a racist podcast and a Comedy Central set titled “Why White People Like Country Music.” Now it’s clearly gunning for younger, liberal-left audiences who live and watch it online. I may happen to consider this a more reasoned strategy that will result in better comedy, but it’s still a strategy. And so long as we’re talking about cynicism I’ll add that it takes a good deal of cynicism to go work for the defendant in a child sex abuse lawsuit. 

We’ll get to that soon, but I want to dwell on this. If we accept that all show business is cynical and that succeeding within it requires compromising your ethics to some degree or another, then we should consider the practicality of those compromises. Wouldn’t you say it’s practical for more alt-y comedians—people who don’t do the most marketable work—to take jobs that 1) expose their work to larger audiences, and 2) functionally guarantee them jobs for the rest of their lives? I mean, success on SNL is basically a ticket to go make your own show, where you can hire whomever you want and run things however you like.

This is something I talk about a lot with my friends in comedy, who do genuinely wrestle with their ethical duties as workers in an abusive system whose output is often, how do I say this, garbage that everyone involved knows is garbage. I have a few thoughts. The first is that yes, I do generally think that if no one’s getting hurt, nothing’s getting whitewashed, the money’s not coming from Jeffrey Epstein or whoever—yeah, take the job, do whatever, I don’t give a shit. The second is that I don’t think “exposure to larger audiences” is ipso facto a good thing. The longer I write about show business, the more convinced I become that fame is really, really bad. Very few people seem able to gracefully withstand its pressures—that’s not a failing, it’s just a fact. The thing changes people and those changes aren’t always good.

SNL’s a great example of this. The show has a long history of cast members struggling under its spotlight. It also has, frankly, a history of exacerbating those struggles. I can think of a few obvious recent examples but I’ll just point to that John Belushi documentary on Showtime last year. Lorne talks about this one time in 1979 when Belushi had been partying too hard and was in bad shape before a show. His doctor told Lorne there was a 50% chance he’d die if he went on that night. Lorne was out of sympathy for Belushi; he was angry at Belushi. He told the doctor he could live with those odds. 

Some might argue he’s changed since then—didn’t Pete Davidson say Lorne fully supported him when he was in and out of rehab?

Yeah, and last year he made his cast and crew do indoor shows at the height of a pandemic because he didn’t want to do comedy without a live audience, which he paid to be there. But that’s all beside the point. What I’m saying is “exposure to larger audiences” isn’t necessarily a positive outcome of getting this job or any job. It’s just another set of conditions which themselves can yield positive or negative outcomes. Yes, more people get to see your art, but at a certain point you also stop being a person to the people profiting from it and the people consuming it. You become a commodity to them, a fiction loosely based in reality. Obviously it’s hyperbolic, but this is what The Other Two is about. And look, everyone has the right to take that gamble and go down that road. Do whatever the hell you want, maybe you'll be one of the few who come out on top. I’m just resisting this idea that “exposure” is always a net good.

Okay, but what about this idea of SNL as a door-opener?

It unquestionably is a door-opener, probably the most powerful door-opener in comedy, and I really think the appropriate reaction to this fact is rage. We should all be furious that pretty much the only way to achieve steady, meaningful employment as a writer and/or performer of short-form comedy is to sell your soul to one of a handful of late night shows. I mean, Jesus Christ. It’s like if the only way to break into web development was by working at Facebook for ten years, or if the only way to break into journalism was by working at Fox News. It’s nobody’s fault who takes those jobs, good luck to them, but fuck if I’m gonna be happy that you have to go work for Jimmy Fallon or James Corden if you want consistent access to a budget and audience for sketch comedy.

Yes, we’ve established that the system is cynical. Isn’t it still good to take practical steps to advance yourself within it?

I know people have this idea that yes, they’re working for bad people, but they’re also taking money from those bad people, so they’re winning too. And again, if no one’s getting hurt, if you’re not making Exxon ads or writing jokes for Andrew Cuomo, all power to you. But the thing is that these relationships go both ways. You’re extracting value from the bad guys and they’re extracting value from you. It looks good for late night shows, which do PR for neoliberalism, to have young leftists working for them, especially if those leftists bring fanbases that wouldn’t otherwise watch. It looks good for SNL to have hip young alt comics in its ranks. They help a show whose core values and leadership haven’t changed in decades look like it’s evolving with the times. 

Obviously it’s no entertainment worker’s fault that this business is feast or famine, and the price of admission to the feast is some portion of your soul. I certainly grant that some portions are smaller than others, and some portions grow back. There are degrees to these things. It’s not necessarily bad to make these trade-offs, although I do think it tends to be, because once people reach a certain level of comfort they tend to lose interest in anything that might risk it, and by some crazy coincidence wealth seems to have an inverse correlation with comedic insight. What I’m saying is we should at least have the decency to get pissed that these trade-offs need to be made. We should at least make a practice of demanding better. There’s no rationalizing any of this stuff away. 

The other thing is that you’re absolutely right: these days success at SNL is a pass to make your own show. Who produces that show? Broadway Video. Whose name gets plastered all over it? Lorne Michaels. You go through the doors SNL opens and for the rest of your life this man will have his fingers in your pockets. His kids will be in your writer’s room and on your production staff. You can never speak ill of him. You can never honestly, publicly engage with the reality of his role in this system, which I really think too many people are too happy not to think about. 

This is the deal our faves make. Chris Kelly, Sarah Schneider, Simon Rich, John Mulaney, Julio Torres, Bowen Yang, Anna Drezen, Sarah Squirm—for all the wonderful, incisive, important comedy they can now make for the entire world, they will never be able to say—just hypothetically speaking—Huh, it sure looks like my boss might’ve facilitated some child sex abuse. 

Is it really that bad if a few people don’t publicly address unproven allegations against their employer?

The problem is at scale. We’re dealing with a whole industry of people in that position. 

Okay, let’s talk about the lawsuit. Do you think it might be premature to make a fuss about a case that was just recently filed by a single anonymous plaintiff?

I really reject this idea that we don’t know anything yet. We know a lot. We know SNL has long had a sexist workplace culture in which male stars could harass powerless women while their male colleagues and supervisors laughed about it. We know the boss, who maintains an army of young blonde assistants, one of whom he married, has a long history of mistreating his employees. We know he’s had his writers go easy on sexual predators like Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein. We know he himself was accused of pressuring one of his stars to sleep with a director. We know Horatio Sanz cultivated a young fanbase whom he called “Horatio’s Kidz,” and we know he solicited feet pics from them on Twitter. We know it would be very, very stupid for someone to subject themselves to the rigors and injustices of the legal system if they had no evidence of their claims. 

So no, I don’t think it’s jumping to conclusions to say this lawsuit should be taken seriously, that it should be dominating every conversation about SNL and Jimmy Fallon. These are very disturbing allegations about people who are right now in positions of power and prominence. Anyone who gives a shit should be demanding answers. 

But what does that mean, practically speaking?

I mean, I’ve written about this, but my beef here is really media criticism. I think it’s total malpractice that this lawsuit got a single round of coverage that mostly failed to describe its breadth. Every outlet that covers TV should be seeking comment from everyone remotely touched by the allegations. A lot of these people have other projects they’ve been promoting in the last couple months—there was no shortage of opportunities to ask. If they refused to answer, their refusals would be news. There could have been think pieces, deep dives into SNL and Fallon’s fandoms, analyses of the history of abuse at SNL and NBC. These things would serve the dual purpose of informing readers while building pressure on SNL. This show is very sensitive to bad press and public backlash. I earnestly believe it can be forced to respond. 

“Respond”?

I mean, yeah, I imagine it would be a long process of denials and incremental admissions under mounting pressure that provides cover for sources to come forward with more information for actual investigative stories. Look, you got me, I’m not proposing a one-time wave of negative coverage, I’m proposing a paradigm shift. There’s this really weird thing with SNL where everyone seems to know it’s bad and unfunny and run by a weird old man who likes and acts like Donald Trump AND YET every move it makes gets gushing coverage by pop culture outlets that dutifully write up each sketch and transcribe each announcement. Somehow “SNL sucks” has become the lazy, unsophisticated position, and the nuanced take is actually to find reasons to enjoy the show that made Pete Davidson apologize to Dan Crenshaw for a joke it also made him tell. I was about to say it’s like Stockholm Syndrome but I don’t really believe that. I think it’s the product of a captive media apparatus.

What does that mean?

Go to whatever your go-to entertainment publication is tomorrow morning and you’ll see just a stream of aggregations of SNL sketches, each with maybe a paragraph of meaningless text before or under the video. I posted some of these myself at an old job; the idea was to hop on whatever’s going viral and get some clicks out of it. If your pop culture website is in any way dependent on advertising revenue, odds are your editorial strategy is to make content for fans of whatever you’re covering. You want to write headlines fans will click for posts fans will share. One surefire way to reach large numbers of fans is to publish articles designed to attract the eye of their subjects—an actor, a writer, a comedian, a TV show’s social media manager—so they share it on their own accounts. It’s possible to achieve all of this with negative or adversarial content, but in aggregate the strategy incentivizes friendly coverage. I believe there’s a place for friendly fan-serving coverage, to be clear, but I start to question it when I see all these entertainment publications becoming secondary distribution platforms for billion-dollar corporations. 

There’s another prong to this. At a party a few years ago I met a writer for one of the bigger TV verticals. He said he was working on a piece about SNL, an oral history, and he’d had no trouble getting connected with all these insiders thanks to his publication’s deal with NBC Universal. “What deal?” I asked. He said he didn’t know the specifics, just that it was an arrangement where it made sense for NBC to provide access to SNL writers and cast. As best I could tell the publication had never publicly disclosed this deal, whatever it was.

These websites, they're dependent on access. Their bread and butter is profiles, oral histories, exclusive clips, interviews with X star about Y project that’s about to come out, fun insidery chats with Z new pop culture sensation. If this is your business, you’d better have friendly relationships with publicists at all the major networks. If you want to maintain those relationships, you’d better not write anything that gives those publicists a bad day. Maybe they’ll tolerate the occasional piece of critical coverage as a professional courtesy, but again, in aggregate the strategy disincentivizes real adversarial journalism. 

It sounds like you think the paradigm shift you’re calling for is structurally impossible.

No, I do think it’s possible. The people in charge just have to be willing to take the leap. In my experience there’s a very real hunger out there for thoughtful critical writing about comedy. I’m not just thinking about my own writing, I’m thinking about the MEL piece about late night, I’m thinking about Jack Allison’s piece about his feud with Michael Che. These pieces absolutely dominated the discourse for days after they were published. That speaks to the rarity of substantive comedy criticism, of course, but I think it also speaks to a real, powerful sense that this shit actually sucks.

There are important conversations to be had about the way comedy works in our culture. People want to have them. In theory it’s the job of comedy journalists and critics to give people the vocabulary to have them. I really don’t think this is happening yet. We know how to talk about comedy in aesthetic terms, sort of, barely, but absolutely not in structural terms. And those structures are the whole ballgame. They shape what gets made and who makes it and what they have to sacrifice. Maybe this is a romantic notion, but I do believe that if people had a better understanding of the conditions that produce their favorite comedy, they’d be happy to demand those conditions improve. 

Really?

People want to be ethical consumers! We see this in the waves of support for digital media unionization, for the Amazon union effort, for the IATSE strike authorization, for food. The nasty little problem in comedy is that all the people best-positioned to speak to the systemic problems have convinced themselves the system is good—because they made a lot of money enduring it—or they can’t criticize the system without biting the hand that feeds them. Now, I do think a lot of people in that latter group should just suck it up and do the right thing, but what this broadly means is that it’s the media’s job to foster the conversations that aren’t happening. The alternative is to protect the status quo, which I think the silence around the Horatio Sanz lawsuit demonstrates quite effectively.

This should really be an “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” moment for everyone in comedy and media, but then again I could’ve said the same thing about SNL recording in-studio during the pandemic. I dunno, man. At some point something’s gotta give.  

Well, we should probably wrap this up. Did you see anything that made you laugh this week?

Yes—everyone’s probably watched it by now, but I really really enjoyed this compilation of jokes by Benny Feldman. I also enjoyed this short, "Nicole," by Edy Modica and Ian Faria.

Great. I liked those too. Well, have a good one.

You too.



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Header image via Rosalind O'Connor/NBC.

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