On one side were those who insisted that Fey’s satire was brilliant, and that those who disliked it had missed the joke. You see, according to this narrative, Fey was playing a character: She was mocking herself and other white liberal women who turn to stress eating when situations are overwhelming. Her encouragement for people to stay away was meant to be ironic, part of the overall act. Her literal eating of cake was meant to invoke Marie Antoinette’s famous (and misattributed) “Let them eat cake” line, as a nod to the way in which she’s often criticized for being an elitist, overeducated, coastal liberal.
On the other side were those who felt that Fey’s comedy was a cheap cop-out. It was presented as a Saturday Night Live segment, even though SNL is on summer break and even though Fey herself is not a regular cast member. In this perspective, Fey is exactly what her apologists claim she’s mocking: A tone-deaf, protected white woman insinuating herself into a significant cultural conversation at the expense of the truly oppressed and endangered in order to say little of value, while casually tossing out jokes about rape and racial boogeymen.
Liberal Stephen Colbert broke through in his career by playing a hyper-conservative character named Stephen Colbert. That was brilliant satire. The people who didn’t get the joke were most often the people being satirized by the joke. In contrast, the people who most loudly claim to get Fey’s joke are the people allegedly being satirized by it.
For me, this feels a bit like a re-run. A few months ago, I wrote about Bill Maher’s use of the n-word. At the time, his apologists also insisted that critics didn’t get it: He wasn’t really using that word as himself, he was instinctively responding to Sasse’s reference to working in the fields. A black comedian might have responded to Sasse with an even more over-the-top “Yes, massa, I sho’ be doin’ that!”
There are differences: Maher was off-the-cuff; Fey was scripted. Maher overstepped with a single word; Fey’s apparent tone-deafness ran through most of the skit. But the pattern of apologetics has been similar.
I could write some of this off as cognitive dissonance on the part of supporters: They recognize that lines were overstepped, but their love for Maher and Fey is resolved by pretending that the overstep was part of some greater humor that outsiders just don’t understand. I don’t think that is what’s going on here, though. I think it has more to do with the nature of comedy than with cognitive dissonance.
When Ice Cube says he’d long figured that Maher would overstep the line at some point, Maher gets defensive and self-righteous. Cube struggles to provide a specific example of what he’d meant, so Maher dismisses his position. One reason Cube struggles, I think, is because Maher’s skirting of the edge of racism isn’t anything specific, it’s a general spirit based on who he is and what he does with his platform.
One of the lines I’ve seen often from the Fey defenders is that I just can’t get the humor of the sketch because it’s not addressed to me. It’s addressed to all the white liberal women who are acting the way she’s portraying. Fey is being ironic, goes the argument: She’s trying to spur that group to action by showing them how silly they’re behaving.
The common thread: You don’t get it because they’re not talking to you.
This is fair enough. Maher has been around in a single conduit for long enough (by far) that his viewers have filtered themselves out. If you don’t like Maher’s comedy, you don’t watch it. If you like Maher’s comedy, you seek it out.
Fey’s material hasn’t been delivered through a single program consistently, but she’s still well-known: There are people who like what she does, and people who don’t. Prior to her cake eating, her public recent work has revolved around being a creator of Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, for which she’s gotten similar criticisms about tone-deafness on key issues. Over a decade ago, Fey was accused of racism for some of the portrayals in Mean Girls.
By this analysis, these controversies speak to a weakness of comedy. Comedy is written for an audience, and when it bleeds outside of that audience, it leads to outrage and needs for explanation. In this case, it shows that SNL and Tina Fey were indeed in error.
All entertainment is written for an audience. That’s why representation matters so much. “Wonder Woman” and “Gifted” encourage girls in a way that “Superman” doesn’t. “Hidden Figures,” “Fences,” and “Midnight” are about black characters, and are most meaningful to audiences from a similar background.
But drama that’s designed for a specific audience need not be inaccessible to people outside that audience. I’ve seen most of the films in the last paragraph (and plan to see “Wonder Woman”), and learned from each. It could even be argued that drama has two audiences: The people the story is about, so they can explore their identity, and the people the story isn’t about, so they can learn different perspectives.
Not so comedy: If you’re not part of the joke, comedy simply isn’t funny. The more rarified the audience for comedy, the more likely it is to be misunderstood by people outside that audience.
The most common argument I’ve seen from people defending Fey’s sketch is: You’re not a white liberal woman. You’re not going to get the joke. She wasn’t talking to you.
Great. Fine. So why was she talking at all? The events of White Nationalists in Charlottesville weren’t targeting white liberal women. This wasn’t a routine weekly sketch on Saturday Night Live. This was a special production.
Representation matters, and a lot of social change is driven by whoever has the loudest megaphone (in comedy, this had even already been dubbed the Fey Effect). Saturday Night Live has a pretty loud megaphone, particularly on the heels of one of their most consistently popular and biting seasons in a long time. What did they do with their megaphone?
There was a white man, a white woman, and a black person on stage. The white man, rightfully so, had little to say. The black person, meanwhile, also had little to say, and was the immediate brunt of Fey’s liberal white woman shtick (genuine or not).
The sketch used the SNL megaphone to give voice (ironic or not) to a white person, while muting a black person. This is part of a long pattern on SNL, which has been criticized for its general lack of cast members of color (Asians fare even worse than blacks).
Had this been the weekly show, big deal. It wouldn’t stand out, and the show has been far worse. But this was a case where SNL deliberately chose to interrupt a national conversation to make sure it was heard. That’s a problem, if what’s being done with that interruption is to speak exclusively to an audience that’s not a main target.
In short, it’s not necessarily the skit itself, it’s the timing. But, as any comedian will tell you, when it comes to comedy, timing is everything.
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