‘SNL’ Completely Misses the Point of the College Protests

The Saturday Night Live cold open is usually a place for the series to do its most topical, often political, material. But an awkward sense of obligation hung over , about campus protests surrounding the conflict in Gaza. The activism at colleges across the U.S. has been dominating the news, especially as the university and police responses have . SNL seemed compelled to acknowledge this in some way, but all it gave its audience was uncomfortable, limp material that failed to make any real point about the urgent subjects animating protesters.

The show opened with a fake NY1 community-affairs panel featuring parents of New York City college students. Even the cast seemed ill at ease. Heidi Gardner’s Hunter College mom spoke of the strain the protests had put on her relationship with her daughter. Mikey Day’s New School dad said, “I want to let my son make his own choices, but to be honest, it’s a little scary.” Kenan Thompson, playing a Columbia dad named Alphonse Roberts, appeared to be fully supportive of the protests—“Nothing makes me prouder than young people using their voices to fight for what they believe in”—until it was implied that his daughter might be out there. “I am supportive of y’all’s kids protesting,” he said; “not my kids.”

Thompson’s delivery is routinely one of the most delightful things SNL has to offer, and that was the case here. Yet the sketch was underdeveloped, with little discussion of the reason students are demonstrating, and that tension hung in the air. There was some loose commentary on class and race in the divide between the concerned white parents and Alphonse, a Black man who works multiple jobs to pay Columbia’s exorbitant tuition. It turned out that Alphonse didn’t really care about the protests, as long as his daughter “had her butt in class,” pursuing the degree he was paying for. By the time Thompson got to the close and yelled, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!,” he looked both surprised and relieved the moment had come.

It was as if the writers felt moved to say something but ended up reaching for the most potentially inoffensive angle. The ultimate joke was less about the protests and more about how expensive it is to attend college—a fact probably anyone in the audience would agree with. The sketch certainly didn’t have the boldness of Ramy Youssef’s opening monologue earlier this season, a about how “complicated” his prayers are these days, in which he also said, “Please free the people of Palestine, please,” and “Please free the hostages, all the hostages, please.”

In general lately, SNL seems to be struggling with the most newsworthy material. Regarding Israel and Gaza, that makes sense. The war is nearly impossible to joke about, especially for a program trying to be broadly appealing. But even in a sketch last night on a lower-stakes topic—the between Kendrick Lamar and Drake, featuring host Dua Lipa as a clueless southern morning-show reporter with limited knowledge of Black culture—the gags were labored.

The sketches that hit were the most bizarre and absurdist: Sarah Sherman’s riff on The Elephant Man, titled “,” in which a 19th-century woman, played by Lipa, falls for Sherman’s monstrous playwright, who turns out to be a major player and is cheating on her; and “,” in which Bowen Yang played a tiny, naked doll hooking up with Lipa’s character, a woman with a fixation on her “little boyfriend” toys.

One sketch late in the night perhaps unintentionally captured SNL’s predicament. In a fake ad for the “,” the writers mocked celebrities who were too afraid of taking a stand to wear a normal-size pin on the red carpet. “It’s wrong to stay silent, but it’s also wrong to say too much,” Gardner said. “I just wish there was a way to split the difference.” The joke was supposed to be on wishy-washy famous people—but SNL might as well have been sending up itself.

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