Michael Phillips: About that ‘SNL’ student protest sketch — and a lousy time for political satire

Political satire, it wasn’t. The headlines from CNN, The Hollywood Reporter and many other media outlets — “‘SNL’ Takes Aim at Pro-Palestine Campus Protesters in Cold Open” reported The Daily Beast — framed it all wrong. It’s not political satire if you leave politics as well as satire out of it.

The sketch presented a community affairs panel TV show on NY1, featuring worried, conflicted parents talking about their confusion regarding the protests, police and administration retaliation, and encampments nationwide on higher-ed campuses.

“SNL” veteran Kenan Thompson, playing the father of a Columbia University undergrad senior, was the Black exception to the white panelists, busting his Uber-driving hump to cover the near-$70,000 in tuition charged by his daughter’s school. “Nothing makes me prouder than young people using their voices” for dissent, Thompson’s character said. Then, the punchline: Not his daughter, of course! Protesting the war on Gaza, or the Hamas assault on Israel, or anything, really — those are white-people problems, which of course they’re not, but …

Topical humor? Sort of. Satire? AWOL. And in 2024 America, says Anne Libera, associate professor of comedy writing and performance at Columbia College Chicago and Second City’s director of comedy studies, “satire is not a useful tool. When we create comedy, we’re using recognition; pain; and some form of psychic or temporal distance.”

Libera told me Monday that with student protests preceded by the worst of a pandemic, preceded by the first of potentially two Trump administrations, “what we have is the pain. But no distance.”

Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Anne, about that “SNL” cold open — I don’t know if it’s even possible to find anything funny in Gaza or Israel or even campus responses right now.

A: That is correct (laughs). The sketch wasn’t particularly good. If I had to guess, I’d guess that Kenan’s character was originally going to be part of “Weekend Update,” and then they thought, huh, maybe we could do something with this for the cold open. The frame for it, and the way people weren’t quite on their lines, suggests to me they rewrote it as a cold open after it was conceived as just a monologue.

I’m directing one of the Second City touring shows right now, and we’ve got a lot of original material. So I’m in the theater, watching comedy being improvised in front of audiences on a regular basis. I can tell you these audiences respond really strongly to absurdity and silliness, and when we become a little more direct about things that are happening in the world, they just seem a little exhausted.

Steve Martin has talked about when he started to change his stand-up act, and got into the ridiculous, wild-and-crazy persona. It came out of a feeling that the audience was getting really tired of the world (after Vietnam), which was serious and complicated and dark. People were ready for absurdity.

Right now, for better or worse, I don’t know if “SNL” is doing political satire particularly well. It’s a difficult time for that. We’re exhausted from the last few years. And let’s be really clear on this: Trump is in fact a satire of himself. It’s no use exaggerating Trump behaving like a mafioso because he’s already the exaggerated version of a mafioso as president.

The real American heyday of political satire happened earlier than the Vietnam War era. We didn’t have great political satire during Vietnam for the same reasons we don’t have it now. Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Nichols and May, they all came up in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when there was this tremendous focus on conformity in America, and on what everybody was afraid to talk about. And now? There’s so much talking.

Satire is meant to afflict the comfortable. And I don’t know if any of us are comfortable.

Q: Back to the “SNL” sketch: To me it felt closer to some generation-gap father/daughter comedy from the ’60s like “The Impossible Years.” Thompson is skillful enough to have gotten every available laugh he could. But was there any satire?

A: If there was, it was very faint. I suppose there’s a satiric point to be made about the space white privileged children and parents have that allows them to protest, versus students of families of color, where the idea is there’s no room or time for them to protest in a student encampment. But that element wasn’t teased out at all.

Q: The film critic Pauline Kael wrote this back in 1970, after the major Hollywood studios flopped with campus revolt movies like “The Strawberry Statement” and “R.P.M.” and one success in that subgenre, Elliott Gould in “Getting Straight.” She wrote that student unrest “should have been a great subject: the students becoming idealists and trying to put their feelings about justice into practice; their impatience at delays; the relationship between boredom and activism; and what Angus Wilson has called ‘the mysterious bond that ties gentleness to brutality.’ To your point, Anne, about audiences feeling beaten down by the news, every time one of those films got to its campus riot/police assault climax, it must’ve felt like: Another one?

A: And think about this: Around the same time, on TV you had “The Carol Burnett Show,” “Laugh-In” and “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” Carol Burnett just ignored (the issues of the day) in favor of parodies of movies from the 1940s and ’50s. ‘Laugh-In’ is just cringe-y now. The attempt to make jokes about ‘what’s happening,’ Goldie Hawn, in a bikini, dancing with PROTEST NOW! written on her midriff — that’s not satire. That’s not even parody!

Q: Just referencing.

A: Right. The Smothers Brothers did actually address what was going on, and their show was the most popular of those three. And then they got taken off the air because they wouldn’t censor their material (at the CBS network’s demand). It really comes down to who’s making the movies, or the TV shows, and why. In TV they’re making it for the customer, which means the advertiser. Not the viewer.

Q: Is that another way of saying “SNL” guru Lorne Michaels has every reason to offend as few people as possible?

A: In many ways he has the one last spot available for semi-topical sketch comedy. And he’s not going to rock that boat. He is the establishment.

There was space for satire in the student protest sketch we’re talking about. But they couldn’t find it, or couldn’t get there. It was comedy. But no teeth. Maybe because these days, everyone’s teeth are already bared.


Anne Libera’s book “Funnier: A Theory of Comedy with Practical Applications” will be published by Northwestern University Press in early 2025.