Affirmative Action comedy
Two titans of comedy made news this week for their candid comments about what they consider funny and why they choose certain people or issues for their fodder.
In an interview with “BuzzFeed Brews” which aired Tuesday on “CBS This Morning,” Jerry Seinfeld was asked why his latest project “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” didn’t feature more comics of color. The interviewer added, “I have noted the guests are mostly white males.”
Seinfeld’s response? “This really pisses me off.”
He continued, “People think it’s the census or something. This has gotta represent the actual pie chart of America? Who cares? Funny is the world that I live in. You’re funny, I’m interested. You’re not funny, I’m not interested. I have no interest in gender or race or anything like that.”
A similarly themed question to “Saturday Night Live” creator and executive producer Lorne Michaels came from a February 2nd interview in New York Magazine. The question to Michaels was about politics. Specifically, the interviewer noted “SNL” hasn’t done many political sketches this season.
“Republicans are easier for us than Democrats,” said Michaels. “Democrats tend to take it personally; Republicans think it’s funny.”
This was the take-away quote for many conservatives as if to say, “Ah-ha! We knew it! They like making fun of Republicans more than Democrats!”
But that’s not the news to me. Newsworthy to me were the comments that followed.
The creator of the show that informed so much of my appreciation for comedy and satire as a kid went on to imply that his audience – that’s you and me – doesn’t think Barack Obama or his policies are ridicule-worthy.
“This week, our cold open is about three big stories. We have Piers Morgan interviewing A-Rod, Chris Christie, and Justin Bieber. We’re doing more of that kind of thing than stuff about Benghazi or the new budget agreement. The country has lost interest in it. I can’t tell you why. It’s no less important, but in some way you can’t do health care more than twice, at which point there’s just nothing left.”
This is the news to me.
This is a man whose show is credited with shaping the opinions and perspectives of millions of viewers for 30-plus years about news events, pop-culture, and politics.
This is a man whose show’s “cold open” tells the country what the biggest, most relevant news story of the week has been.
And this is a man who just said the American public isn’t interested in the news anymore. Lorne Michaels just said that this president’s destruction, ineptitude, and 40% approval aren’t of any interest to viewers.
To me, Lorne Michaels has unofficially declared retirement from what made him a pop-culture icon.
In 2009, I wrote a column just three months into President Obama’s first term. At the time, I noted what I thought would be a short-lived oddity. After years of mocking the powerful, “SNL“ just wasn’t taking swings at this president.
I noted all the great “SNL” alums over the years and all their devastatingly effective impressions of past Commanders-In-Chief. Chase as Ford, Aykroyd as Carter, Hartman as Reagan, Carvey as Bush Sr., Hartman/Hammond as Clinton, and of course, Ferrell as G.W. Bush.
I listed all the bit political players, too. Classic impressions of Perot, Stockdale, Dukakis, Hillary, Cheney, Gore, and Palin, of course – the list goes on.
Yet, after years of campaigning, a vicious primary battle with Hilary Clinton, and a full three months into his first term – I concluded of “SNL’s” treatment of Obama:
“…the 44th President of the United States has managed to come away from nearly three years of high-profile coverage untouched and unscathed by the show made legend for mocking the most powerful players in the country’s capital. There is a palpable, labored delivery as the cast and writers of “Saturday Night Live” search to find something funny about Barack Obama.”
Five years later, I now know the truth. Lorne Michaels and the writers at “SNL” never have nor will they ever acknowledge everything there is to ridicule about this president.
Last year, a truly gifted impressionist and “SNL” cast member, Jay Pharoah visited my radio show. After years of Fred Armisen’s luke-warm Obama impression, Lorne Michaels found Pharoah in 2010.
He can knock an Obama impression out of the park!
But in four seasons, we haven’t seen much of him in that role. Compare that to nearly weekly “cold opens” during the “Ferrell as Bush” years.
I asked Jay what that was about. I asked him if is it true that he or others have “trouble” making fun of President Obama. (I was trying to be delicate.)
Pharoah responded, “As far as stand-up goes, I have no problem whatsoever. As far as putting it out there in front of the world, now that’s kind of political. They’re very cautious with the roll out of President Obama because he’s such an elevated public figure.”
Translation? Pharoah is perfectly comfortable mocking the President during his own stand up routine. But the guys that write his scripts at “SNL?” “They’re very cautious.”
Now, you can interpret that statement any way you choose. But here’s how I interpret it. “SNL’s” staff of comedy writers and performers views something about this president differently.
They bury their heads on purpose and assume viewers won’t notice that they’re ignoring President Obama’s lack of popularity these days.
They’re hoping you’ll forgive them for treating the destructiveness and failings of this president differently than they have in the last 30 years of presidents.
Could it be that they’re intimidated or afraid of mocking such an authoritarian in this highly charged political environment? After all, Michaels did say, “Democrats tend to take it personally.”
Could it be their cast and crew are not simply partisans, but predominately white partisans?
Could it be the headlines they’ve been making about FINALLY hiring a single black woman to the cast?
Yes, I think it’s all of those things.
I wish I didn’t have a body of evidence to prove it.
I wish they weren’t so afraid, or partisan, or guilty, or – whatever – and just did what was funny. But they can’t, or won’t.
I wish they wouldn’t do to their show what Jerry Seinfeld refuses to do to his.
Instead, they’re practicing affirmative action comedy.
And I agree with Seinfeld. It pisses me off.