9/11 Al Qaeda

SNL, ISIS, and the Vision of Humor

6:00:00 AMJulia Premus

As my high school English teacher Mr. Lindblom once said, "The first people to be targeted by a tyrannical regime are always the comedians."  Initially, this remark shocked me.  Could an institution like Saturday Night Live really wield as much influence over the American psyche as a terrorist regime like ISIS?  

Actually, yes - and dangerously so. 

Tyrants tell us they are gods, or as Dietrich von Hildebrand described them, "egospasms." (1) By parodying these tyrants, comedians tell us they are humans.  In this light, the Comedian must be regarded as a hero, a fundamental mark of civilized society.  

The issue of parodying such tyrants, however, begs the question: How can we justify laughing at a parody of a real genocidal regime that ruthlessly kills innocent men, women and children on a daily basis?  

Consider what Mark Twain, master satirist of the nineteenth century, once said:
 "The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow." (2)
Through humorous commentary, comedians grant an oppressed population the ability to see through the present evil and conquer it. 

The brilliant English comic actor Charlie Chaplin achieved this effect when he parodied Hitler in his 1940 film The Great Dictator. "The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed," Chaplin said, taking his hat off and breaking character. "The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish."(3) The Great Dictator was immensely well received, adored by American audiences and ranked the second most popular film in 1941.  

Over this past Valentine's Day weekend, two headlines dominated social media: a gruesome ISIS video showing the beheadings of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians near a Tripoli waterfront, and the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live (SNL). 

As a child of New Yorkers and an affectionate fan of SNL, its 40th anniversary was a sentimental moment of cultural identity for me.  However, seeing its timing coincide with the release of ISIS's latest video gave me pause.  SNL had recently parodied ISIS, but the sketch received poor reviews and was met coldly by American audiences.  In the sketch, Chris Rock and the cast portray ISIS members pitching the Islamic State to the judges from ABC's entrepreneurial business show Shark Tank.  While intended to generate a comedic comfort akin to Chaplin's The Great Dictator, the Shark Tank sketch only disturbed American audiences.  

Why is this?  

Why did Americans take comfort in a parody of Hitler, but not of ISIS? Is SNL simply suffering from some kind of artistic deficiency? Are Americans more easily offended in 2015? Is the problem something else entirely?  

What makes a parody therapeutic rather than offensive? 

I think the answer to that question lies in the idea of implied reverence. 

In his final speech of The Great Dictator, Chaplin deeply understood the need for implied reverence. By having a moment of vulnerability in which Chaplin acknowledged the grave seriousness of the Nazi regime, his audience felt comfortable enough to laugh along with him, retain their sanity, and communally conquer their fear.  

A good comedian must be rooted, as Chaplin was, in a genuine grief for the sufferings of other human beings and in a painful awareness of the world's present realities.  

The "Shark Tank" sketch differed from The Great Dictator in that it failed to couple its parody with such a sensitivity. In the past, SNL's cold openings and monologues have been a place for hosts to create an atmosphere of implied reverence. Consider this: SNL's first airing after 9/11 featured Mayor Rudy Giuliani standing united with members of New York's Fire, Police, and Port Authority Departments for the show's cold opening. An attitude of irreverence post-9/11 could have potentially shut down SNL forever. Instead, this moment was an intensely real and vulnerable one in which SNL affirmed both its awareness of the outside world and its desire to console it, using humor as "tonic for the mind and body," to quote author Grenville Kleiser. (4)

Consider also Adam Sandler's "Opera Man" character mocking Bin Laden on October 20, 2001. Sandler knew that, in order for people to laugh, he'd have to open by paying homage to the great Mayor Giuliani and honor all the "lonely firemen" who had lost close friends and compatriots in the tragedy. Only in this vulnerable and sensitive introduction did Sandler gain the pathos and trust needed to make his audience comfortable to laugh during his roasting of Bin Laden. That night, Sandler's audience didn't just laugh. They roared.  

However, recent hosts have failed to follow this form, treating the horrors of ISIS as merely another pop culture reference and stream of viral videos. This ignorant detachment from reality leads SNL's audiences to feel uneasy about laughing at sketches like "Shark Tank." These same audiences once laughed hysterically at post-9/11 parodies of Al Qaeda simply because they were assured beyond doubt that SNL's cast members shared their authentic grief for the sufferings of reality. The current absence of this assurance may be purely accidental, as SNL writers may imagine that their audiences assume this sympathy.  However, after the failure of the "Shark Tank" sketch, it's clear that SNL needs to reassess how explicitly its sympathy is expressed.   

Good comedians must start by demonstrating an awareness of reality's evils, then guide the audience to see through those evils. SNL must always strive to keep to this form. It must never lose the beautiful humanity, relatability, and vulnerability that has thus far led it to shape the American psyche.


(1) Dietrich von Hildebrand: Fundamental Moral Attitudes: Reverence. Chapter 1, Page 9.
(2) Mark Twain.
(3) Charlie Chaplin: The Great Dictator, 1940. Film.
(4) Grenville Kleiser.


Julia Premus
I can't seem to read enough Ray Bradbury.  When I'm not reading, I'm playing violin, Super Mario, or Super Mario songs on violin. 

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  1. I remember Lorne Michaels asking Mayor Giuliani if was "OK to be funny" and Giuliani responded so appropriately with "Why start now?" The audience loved it.

    I also remember David Letterman's first opening monologue post 9/11. I have never so deeply felt the connection between a comedian and the emotions you so eloquently say are necessary to tap into the sorrow which feeds the humor (Twain).

    Loved the article - thanks!
    Joe P.
    West Hartford CT


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