On social media leading up to Saturday’s season premiere of Saturday Night Live—and we’ll admit one’s timeline can be an echo chamber—we noticed an expressed uneasiness over the inevitability that the episode would tackle the Senate testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh surrounding her allegation of sexual assault.
Their testimonies became a news event that captivated the nation, during which politicians’ egos were exposed, one privileged man’s behavior barreled through the standard for histrionics and hysterics, and a kangaroo court juggled the future of our country like a hot potato. Of course Saturday Night Live would tackle the hearings. It’s what the show does.
But this is new territory for the country and our culture’s discourse. A conversation about sexual assault is taking place on a wider national level than ever, exposing raw nerves on all sides. Watching Dr. Ford deliver her testimony was a watershed moment, but also a painful and traumatizing one for those forced to relive their own experiences through watching her share hers—and then see it be so cavalierly dismissed by some of the most powerful people in politics.
This was a time for rage, sure. But maybe not a time for satire.
SNL’s handling of the hearings this weekend earned mixed reviews. Making headlines from the starting gun, the show cast Matt Damon as Kavanaugh. The Daily Beast’s own headline proclaimed that “Matt Damon Absolutely Nails Brett Kavanaugh in Season Premiere.”
“Damon, sporting just a hint of gin blossoms and a mobile, sniffing rage-mask as Kavanaugh, brought the appropriate fratboy ire to the sketch’s version of the judge,” The A.V. Club said in its review. “More importantly, though, Saturday Night Live’s contentment to pick the easiest jokes on any subject is especially ill-suited to what, for a whole lot of people, was one of the most illuminating and wrenching events in recent memory.” In the end, the reviewer called the approach “dismayingly pedestrian, settling for impersonation, exaggeration, and stunt casting.”
But regardless of how the performance was received, it’s almost unbelievable that Damon was cast in the first place. It’s one of a series of gripes with an episode that proved the show either inelegant or incapable of dealing with issues surrounding sexual assault with nuance, hindered by its own reckless pursuit of headlines over responsibility.
Late last year after the Harvey Weinstein investigations launched the beginnings of the #MeToo movement, Damon found himself at the center of controversy for decrying the “culture of outrage” and arguing that allegations of sexual misconduct should be analyzed on a “spectrum.”
“You know, there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation,” he said.
Following that controversy, Damon gave another interview in which he said we’re not paying enough attention to the men who don’t commit acts of sexual misconduct—a seriously?!? if there ever was one. In an apology for his insensitive remarks, Damon said that he learned that he “should get in the backseat and close my mouth for a while” while women’s voices are heard.
We wouldn’t necessarily call playing an accused sexual abuser in the premiere of SNL sitting in the backseat.
Perhaps Damon and SNL thought that having him play Kavanaugh in a sketch meant to expose the judge as a hypocrite and a liar puts the actor on some path to atonement for his previous remarks on the issue. Or perhaps they both thought it too innocuous to consider.
But these things matter. Even celebrity casting on a sketch comedy series matters. If we are to judge this on a spectrum, casting a man who once insinuated that the #MeToo movement has gone too far as Brett Kavanaugh falls somewhere between tone-deaf and triggering at a time when women who come forward continue to be dismissed, vilified, mocked, targeted, and not believed.
In many ways, the show was in a no-win position with how to handle the news.
It’s easily valid to criticize the show for casting one of the biggest stars in Hollywood as Kavanaugh in a sketch about the hearings while not featuring Dr. Ford at all. At the same time, thank god the show did not attempt to turn Dr. Ford’s brave testimony into satire. And yet, there’s an uncomfortable dissonance in the level of attention given to the different sides of the story when an A-list celebrity brings headlines to one party, while the other isn’t given a voice at all—even if the sketch, as a whole, is meant to mock the former. (Like we said, no-win.)
But maybe it would be easier to excuse the problematic casting as an oversight, or as us being too sensitive and trigger-happy with complaints, had the show not also featured a “Weekend Update” bit in which Pete Davidson and Colin Jost giddily laugh over a joke Davidson cracks about switching fiancé Ariana Grande’s birth control out with tic tacs, in order to “keep her.”
We get it. It’s a joke. But also, it’s an uncomfortable, lazy, antiquated one. It’s also a joke about reproductive coercion, which is a form of domestic violence. Maybe now, given the important conversations regarding sexism and abuse going on in the country, is not the time to make that joke. Or, hey, perhaps it never is.
The whole episode culminated with Kanye West performing over the credits in a MAGA hat, and then apparently delivering a pro-Trump rant after the show’s credits finished rolling. Obviously Kanye is going to be Kanye and no one has control over that. But you do have control over whether to book Kanye West for your massively popular TV show.
SNL boss Lorne Michaels has said West was a last-minute replacement for Ariana Grande after the singer withdrew from her slot as the musical guest, leaving bookers in a bind. But you know who else would probably have made themselves available for the kind of showcase SNL gives musical acts? Literally almost anybody in show business. You can’t control what Kanye West does, but you know what you’re getting when you’re booking him. So maybe don’t.
Again, this is a time for rage, and that can certainly happen through laughter. We need shows like SNL to get us through times like these. But anger was largely missing from Saturday night’s show, which instead played like a shrugged business-as-usual when it comes to staging political sketches when, in fact, there’s nothing usual about what we’re going through.
There has been great, cathartic late-night comedy that has dealt with these hearings, for example Samantha Bee’s entire Full Frontal episode that aired the day before Dr. Ford and Kavanaugh appeared before the Senate committee. (Would you guess after watching Saturday night’s episode that all three of SNL’s head writers are male, and only 5 of its 28 writers are women?)
It’s not just comedy, to be scoffed at or dismissed when it doesn’t get it right. The President of the United States cares deeply enough about the show to tweet about it. But more than that, it’s a reflection of larger cultural attitudes and, in some cases, ignorance about issues that affect and define us.