You know Saturday Night Live has done something out of the ordinary when conservative commentators such as Ben Shapiro are caught praising it. Filmed entering an airport by TMZ, Shapiro was asked what he felt about comedian Pete Davidson’s apology to Republican Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw on the latest episode of SNL. Calling the segment “Fantastic”, Shapiro commented that, “I thought it was great. I thought it was the best political moment that I’ve seen in politics for a couple of years.” Hoping that this kind of material could help build a bridge between Democrats and Republicans, he argues that the segment showed “a level of tolerance from right to left, and left to right that I think is necessary if the country is going to be ok.”
To put Shapiro’s remarks in context, in SNL’s previous “Weekend Update”, Davidson had made some light jabs at Crenshaw’s eyepatch, which he has worn since losing his eye while fighting overseas. In one swift quip, Davidson had made two major mistakes: one, making fun of people’s physical appearances is rarely received well, especially if they have been injured and are relatively unknown. Secondly, don’t make fun of military veterans, especially when they were injured fighting overseas. In many ways, Davidson couldn’t have picked a worse target.
In response to the outrage over Davidson’s material, SNL responded in the following “Weekend Update” on November 10th by inviting Crenshaw to appear alongside the comedian onstage. After apologising for his remarks, he jokes that, if “any good came of this, maybe it was that for one day, the left and the right finally came together to agree on something: that I’m a dick. [Laughter.]” Politely introducing Crenshaw to the stage, Crenshaw was invited to make a number of jokes about the comedian’s physical appearance, much to the audience’s delight. In one particularly funny moment, Crenshaw’s phone goes off, with his ring tone set to singer Ariana Grande’s “Breathin”, who is also famously Davidson’s ex-girlfriend. However, this segment is complemented by Davidson’s warm introduction of Crenshaw as a military hero, and Crenshaw’s respective response to Davidson, who lost his father during the September 11th attacks. In a particularly American ending, Crenshaw reminds the audience of importance of being able to disagree over issues in a civil way and forgive each other for making mistakes. It’s a powerful segment and you can tell that Davidson and Crenshaw have a lot of respect for each other.
While not long ago this would have seemed like pretty standard political rhetoric, it felt particularly powerful to see it evoked during the scorched earth tactics of Trump-era political comedy, and particularly on SNL, which has become something of a cultural Nosferatu among many in the Right. Perhaps in response to the amount of criticism the show got for its handling of Trump during the 2016 election, much of which I critiqued in my research on Trump’s 2016 campaign, the show’s writers have made much more of an effort to critique coastal liberal assumptions about American politics and American life. This is exemplified in sketches such as “Election Night” with Dave Chappelle, which lampoons the Clinton landslide expectation of many American liberals on the night of the presidential election, and how this hilariously contrasts with Chappelle’s far more cautious expectations as an African American and his own more sceptical reading of the health of the nation. Another great sketch is “The Bubble”, which imagines a utopian city filled exclusively with smarmy liberals, and where “life continues for progressive Americans as if the election never happened”.
While far from the kind of political and cultural soul-searching I’d like to see on a more regular basis, it’s good to see SNL produce these kinds of sketches that at least have the potential of reaching out to people beyond typical left-wing demographics. While these moments can be often lost in the more aggressive political comedy seen from the likes of Samantha Bee, it does show that there are elements of political comedy in the United States that recognise the danger of launching too readily into a cultural knife fight at any given opportunity. While there is a huge amount of rightful anger in the United States, translating this into a vicious hatred for half the country, while initially satisfying, will do nothing to solve the issues at hand. If the popular reading of the United States is that it is irreconcilably divided, there have to be more intelligent political and cultural means of doing that. Pete Davidson’s apology to Congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw gives us some form of pathway for doing just that.