Late Saturday night, early Sunday morning, Preet Bharara, former United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York and current podcast host/professional Trump opposer, and me, a pop-culture journalist and host of a podcast that one commenter described as “where humor goes to die,” were doing the same thing: tweeting about Saturday Night Live. Where he tweeted: “I’m old enough to remember when SNL made me laugh. #pizza,” I applauded the show for a wonderfully stupid episode, specifically thinking of the sketch that set him off — “Za” — which was maybe my favorite of the season. We disagreed. In this case, and likely only this case if we ever disagree on anything else, I am right.
Bharara’s tweets seem to perfectly articulate — to me, at least — the most prominent logical fallacies in how people criticize SNL. First, and this is the big one: that because the show isn’t funny to you right now that means “it is not funny.” This is obviously not true. I think SNL is funny or, more accurately, I think it can be funny. Like, for example, the pizza sketch we seem to be split on. In October, Bharara tweeted, “Question: Is SNL still a comedy show?” The truth is, it never really was. SNL is a variety show by design. This means there are musical performances, but also that it’s meant to display different types of humor. This is different from what I’d called comedy shows like Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer, and Chappelle’s Show, which are articulations of a singular point of view. No one should like every sketch in an episode of SNL.
Now, Bharara doesn’t seem to like any sketches, and I hate to say this, but that might have to do with age. Though to be fair, he brought it up — “I’m old enough to remember when SNL made me laugh.” Comedy is a form, like any other, that evolves, until sooner or later it evolves past you. Tweeting that you remember when SNL made you laugh is akin to saying, “I remember when SNL used to have good music with guitars and long hair, not this hippity hop, where I can’t understand what anyone’s saying. And their outfits!”
I think it’s very fair to want SNL to be better. However, that desire is part and parcel to watching the show. Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t, sometimes it sucks, sometimes it freaking rules: It’s exciting to see what will happen. And that’s always been the case. The best proof of this is the fact that show is still on the air. Sucky shows don’t stay TV. (Yes, [insert show you think sucks] stayed on the air for [amount of time show you inserted last one the air], but that can be chalked up to a lowbrow flavor of the year/decade — SNL has been on for over 40 years.) The show isn’t getting great ratings because millions of Nielsen families were paid off. People like it! I rest my case.
But first, let me offer some good old-fashioned humor-killing: I want to explain what makes “Za” funny, since the sketch seemed to vex Bharara and I don’t want him to be distracted as a busy important man. To quote the top comment on the YouTube for the sketch: “I can’t believe SNL made a skit on the pronunciation of Suh in Pizza and Za in Lasagna and the difference between them.” It is dumb to talk about how lasagna should be be abbreviated as “za,” not pizza. And it’s very silly that it’s happening in a courtroom, at a murder trial, no less. Pretty classic high-low stuff. Like if the Queen of England slipping on a banana peel, to pick one scene from the Mr. Bean reboot I’m working on. It’s an example of the benign violation theory, which to quote its Wiki: “Humor occurs when three conditions are satisfied”:
1) something threatens one’s sense of how the world “ought to be”
2) the threatening situation seems benign
3) a person sees both interpretations at the same time
In this case:
1) a murder trial is serious
2) pointing out that “za” should be the nickname for lasagna is stupid
3) especially as a counterargument at a murder trial
But that’s only the textual incongruity. It’s funny to do something so stupid on SNL, a sketch show that recently has been taken so seriously. It’s funny to think of a writer — in this case, Gary Richardson, who used to perform the bit live — whose job it is to be smart comedy man, thinking of this as such a good idea to bring up to Oscar-nominated actor James Franco. It’s funny that Oscar-nominated actor agreed to work on something so silly. It’s funny how committed he was to it. And the great irony of Bharara’s tweet is it makes the sketch even funnier, because it gives a tangible example of a person expecting one thing — something “smart,” whatever that means — and instead getting something simple and goofy.
I re-rest my case.