Why Does Saturday Night Live do Politics Better than the Church?

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You’ll be hard-pressed to find bigger fans of Saturday Night Live than my wife and I. The way the show has recast itself and re-envisioned itself over the decades is enigmatic to say the least and, truth be told, nothing short of a media miracle. The number of major comedic stars who got their big break there is remarkable, and for the last 25 years, I haven’t missed an episode. We even started watching the very first season with our kids (don’t judge us!)

Sometimes an episode is a total dud, while other times there are moments that you know immediately will be talked about for weeks – a reality only fortified in today’s sound byte and Youtube world (now, they even have the President’s tweets helping drive the show!) My experience with the show is similar to Matt Damon’s as he detailed in what I found to be one of the most heart-felt moments in the show’s history during his opening monologue for this past year’s Christmas episode. [Side note: Back in 2010, I surprised my wife with a trip to New York City for our anniversary and we actually got to go to a live broadcast of the Christmas episode that year – one of the highlights of our lives – sad, I know. I detailed the story here if you are interested.]

To say the show has been polarizing and has had its share of controversial moments would be an understatement. Many people reading this article are probably already rolling their eyes and have written the show off because “it used to be funny,” or “it’s gotten too political,” or “it’s just too crass.”

Political satire has always been at the heart of the show, and there have been too many times they have crossed the line to count (just one recent example is back in November cast member Pete Davidson was publicly rebuked for comments made about Texas politician Dan Crenshaw who was injured in combat). These moments are just too much for some people  – on top of the incessant ridicule-turned-baiting of the President, and I get that SNL is not going to appeal to everyone’s sense of humor.

At the same time, there have been moments when I have marveled at the way that they sometimes navigate controversial and polarizing waters with a tact, grace, and level-headedness that I, frankly, think the church could learn from. I’ve always felt that comedy is modern day prophecy. The best standup comedians can artistically weave through issues that no one else will (racism, classism, politics, etc.) regarding current events that is at the same time humorous and thought-provoking. And when they are really on their game, I’m not sure anyone does it much better than Saturday Night Live.

I mentioned the recent gaffe by Pete Davidson, and in one of those transcendent moments on SNL, they reminded us of what forgiveness and reconciliation looks like when Crenshaw appeared with Davidson the following week.

A sketch during a Thanksgiving themed episode a few years back has always stood out as a prophetic witness to me. The Presidential election season was really heating up and the rancor of polarization seemed to be at an all time high, and SNL seized on that climate and offered a gift to us. It’s hilarious, but like all prophetic-comedic messages, cloaked in truth. In the sketch, it’s Adele that saves us from division and helps bring us above our rancor. Clearly, it seems to me, the church is called to be Adele in this way (as weird as that sentence sounds – better watch the skit to make sense of it). [Furthermore, one moral of this article is the church needs to laugh more and relax! That would be a good first step.]

As we gather around the table of Christ, those political differences and opinions we have aren’t magically going to go away. Hatred is in all of us, and we – as Christians – are seeking to drive that out of our hearts. Adding to the challenge is that it’s often cloaked in subtlety and nuance and we tend to live our lives among others who look and think like us. Then, the youngest girl at the table gets up and reminds everyone what unites them – hopefully in our churches that something is more substantive than an Adele song!

Then there was the sketch that has risen above all others in the history of the show in my opinion. In the preview of this month’s theme on Wineskins, Matt wrote, “We’re going to go there.” Well .  . . a few years ago . . . SNL went there too – politics and racism all right there in a sketch called Black Jeopardy (and with almost 40 million views – I think it struck a cord).

Ever since the first time I saw this skit, I wished that I had had the foresight to create something like this in church. I love everything about this skit. It’s funny, it’s edgy, it’s not trite, it calls us to rise above ideology. Just the still picture there of the preview helps us question where it’s going to go. Two young African American women and an old white guy sporting a MAGA hat. There’s a tinge of emotion stirred in all of our stomachs as we see that image. And yet as the game plays out – the moral of the skit is that we are so much more alike than we are different. “Doug, you’re alright!” The problem is, when we hide behind our ideologies and code words all the while labeling and dismissing those who are different than us, we become separated as “other.”

What saddens  me the most about this skit is that this message seems to be ringing out more loudly in a late night comedy show than in the lives of our churches. THIS is what the church is supposed to look like! It seems to me that Saturday Night Live is doing politics better than churches are. What do we need? We need to come together and learn from one another, listen to one another, and find out that our life experiences are much different. We will find out that we have much in common. Until then, how can we ever hope to have substantive conversations with each other about the Gospel? Until we have neutralized the ideologies that divide us, how can we expect to have a seat at the table and share Good News? How can we learn from those who are different from us, if we never sit down and talk to them?


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