Saturday Night Revive: Aziz Ansari’s monologue jolts show to life
Jimmy Kemper | Wednesday, January 25, 2017
“Saturday Night Live” (SNL), for better or worse, is a fundamental institution in American political comedy. No other late-night show has received as many Emmy nominations, covered so many topics or introduced so many comedians to us as SNL has over its 40-year-plus run.
This history of great comedy has made it disappointing over the past few seasons as the show has lost its bite, specifically in relation to the 2016 elections. SNL’s relationship with Donald Trump is, for lack of better words, a mess.
Sometimes, the need to make a joke about the latest bit of news that’s coming out leads to simplification of complex issues or parodies that lack a punch. For weekly shows like SNL that constantly have to produce content, this led to Alec Baldwin’s uncertain characterization of Trump that put his absurdity on equal footing with other candidates. The portrayal ultimately failed to portray him as the extremist demagogue that he is.
At times, this characterization seemed to be a result of SNL’s symbiotic relationship with Trump. The more that SNL made lightweight jokes about Trump, the more he tweeted inane responses, and the more attention that SNL got in the media. SNL then benefits from a Trump presidency and the continued spotlight it places on their programming.
Moreover, SNL (and, for that matter, its parent network, NBC) has been largely complacent in enabling the rise of Donald Trump. From inviting Trump as a guest on “The Tonight Show” to retaining Trump’s executive producer credit on “The Celebrity Apprentice” and even allowing Trump to host an entire episode of SNL, few networks have done more work than NBC to normalize a man whose violent rhetoric represents a major threat to Muslims, Mexicans and other marginalized groups on the fringes of American society.
It comes as a surprise, then, in the first episode since the inauguration — and one of the first since the election that did not feature Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump impersonation — that SNL took on the new president with an unprecedented clarity. Or rather, host Aziz Ansari did.
Ansari’s now-viral opening monologue digs into the reasons that people voted for Trump without giving in to the simple “everyone is racist, homophobic and misogynistic” excuse that plagues numerous internet forums. Instead, he approaches the matter with a nuanced mixture of reason, criticism and optimism that has been seriously lacking since the election.
He emphasizes the outsized role that media organizations, like NBC, have had in alienating white America and propagating hatred of minorities, going so far as to suggest “Homeland” replaces its ominous music with “Yakety Sax.”
He preaches a level of understanding toward the majority of those who did vote for Trump, referring to a number of them as the equivalent of Chris Brown fans who want to enjoy the tunes without dealing with “the extracurriculars.” Simultaneously, he holds that pocket of Trump’s voting population that is actually racist accountable for their actions, referring to them as the “lowercase KKK” that engages in “casual white supremacy.”
Underlying all of this, however, is a subdued anger at the America that failed him. He sarcastically pines for a time when George W. Bush was president and didn’t hold all Muslims accountable for 9/11.
His jokes are sharp, accurate and most importantly, funny. Despite all his criticisms of how bad things have become, Ansari’s entire monologue is laced with the sort of hope that America needs right now. He ends his speech talking about the impact of the Women’s March that had just happened around the country, and argues that real change within America comes not from the individual actions of a single president, but rather from “large groups of angry people.”
Regardless of whether Ansari’s brilliant monologue is simply a product of his personal views or representative of the whole institution’s take on the matter, the fact remains that SNL provided an important national platform for comedians to engage with political commentary. Comedy like this is paramount when times get tough.
As long as Saturday Night Live continues to showcase comedians like Aziz Ansari, Dave Chappelle and Kate McKinnon — all of whom have presented powerful takes on the current political order — then the show is fulfilling its important role as a disseminator of critique, hope and even plain-old honest news when we need it most.