You may only read this site if you've purchased Our Kampf from Amazon or Powell's or me
• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

January 27, 2007

The Competition For Ugliest, Stupidest Material On SNL Is Ferocious

Yesterday I claimed to have identified the laziest, ugliest, stupidest, least funny material ever to appear on Saturday Night Live. However, I may have been too hasty.

Sam Husseini points out that on February 8, 2003—right after Colin Powell's presentation at the UN—SNL featured this cold opening:

Colin Powell: Distinguished colleagues, you have now seen the evidence. After twelve long years, the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein still refuses to honor its obligations under U.N. Security Council Resolution 687, and it is clear that, absent the threat of force, it has no intention of ever doing so. The time for delay has passed; it's time to act. Thank you.

Translator's Voice for German Delegate: Thank you, Secretary Powell, for a very compelling presentation. After hearing it, no member of this council can doubt the gravity of the situation in Iraq. Clearly, the most important thing right now is to do nothing. And the sooner, the better. Does the delegate from France wish to comment?

Translator's Voice for French Delegate: I, too, commend Secretary Powell on his program here today. Very enjoyable. And those weapons of mass destruction - so unnecessary. But, to conclude our business here today, my government would like to propose the following: That we adjourn this special session of the security council, and all go to lunch at an extremely expensive restaurant, with the U.N. picking up the tab.

The skit's not just that, of course. It also features the Chinese, Icelandic, Chilean, Russian, and Cameroon delegates saying exactly the same thing.

In any case, the show certainly did itself proud. Obviously the most fertile comedic territory regarding Powell's UN appearance was the way those cowardly foreigners all eat at expensive restaurants. Yes sirree, there was nothing else funny about it. Anyone who might think otherwise just doesn't have the talent to get those big checks from G.E.

BUT: To be fair, that wasn't the only political material on the 2/8/03 show. They also did a sketch about the way the dirty anti-war hippies were so hilariously disorganized.

Posted at January 27, 2007 10:20 AM | TrackBack

Jon, Sam -- here's one you missed. Another gem from Weekend Update.

Seth Meyers: Well, the results are finally in from the "Most Dangerous Race On The Planet" competition, and to no one's surprise, the Arabs won hands down.

Amy Poehler: Don't you mean, hands "off"?

Meyers: Yes, Amy, but only if they're thieves.

Poehler: But Seth, isn't "Arab thieves" redundant?

Meyers: Why, yes it is, Amy! Good point!

Poehler: So, in a way, you can say that the Arabs "stole" the title of "Most Dangerous Race On The Planet," right?

Meyers: I suppose you could.

Poehler: And then chopped off their own hands.

Meyers: And then blew them up with IEDs.

Poehler: And then ate goat meat and rice to celebrate.

Meyers: After raping several teenage girls to uphold their "honor."

Poehler: And then blowing up the girls with IEDs.

Meyers: Precisely.


Poehler: In other news this week, Donald Trump's hair called Rosie O'Donnell's hair "fat and un-combable . . ."

Posted by: Dennis Perrin at January 27, 2007 10:56 AM

I don't watch the show, but I wonder if they are doing any 'skits' about Iran's nuclear weapons program that the CIA, IAEA, and Mossad cannot detect? Those will be fun to watch on Youtube in 5 years after we off 600,000 Persians in another "good intentioned" foreign policy blunder.

Posted by: Justin at January 27, 2007 12:10 PM

Do the writers crib material from Jonah Goldberg and Michelle Malkin now? I used to stay up for the Weekend Update segment because that's when the show's smartest writing would get aired. Dennis Miller used to be funny. Colin was definitely worth watching. Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon and Amy Poehler would have their moments. Seth Meyers does not belong in that chair. He's third string.
Nowadays if I don't care for the musical guest and the first skit bombs (which is most of the time), it's off to bed.

Posted by: Lloyd at January 27, 2007 12:10 PM

Poehler: But Seth, isn't "Arab thieves" redundant?

Perhaps they should sell the show to Fox. As far as I'm concerned the only funny thing on SNL in the past 20 years was the car-driving cat.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at January 27, 2007 12:42 PM

As far as I'm concerned the only funny thing on SNL in the past 20 years was the car-driving cat.


Well, I thought there certainly have been a few excellent Weekend Update jokes from time to time.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at January 27, 2007 12:58 PM

Toonces! Watch out for that cliff! Nooooo!

Posted by: buermann at January 27, 2007 01:07 PM

During the Muhammad cartoons affair, I read an essay on a blog arguing that proper satire is directed against the powerful in one's own society. Thus, it's legitimate for an American to mock the President, or for a Catholic to mock the Pope.

On that basis, the Muhammad cartoons were not legitimate satire, since they were directed against something outside the satirists' own society (Islam) and against people less powerful than the satirists (the Muslim world, as opposed to the wealthy, powerful Western world to which Denmark belongs).

In other words, real satire speaks truth to power, and comes from the people who live under that power. The Muhammad cartoons, on the other hand, spoke power to the powerless. They were bullying masquerading as satire.

According to this argument, then, the Colin Powell sketch is not proper satire. Instead of questioning the claims made by Powell, who speaks for the most powerful country in the world, it mocks the other Security Council members, all of whom are by definition less powerful than the most powerful country in the world. Like the Muhammad cartoons, it's just bullying.

Posted by: Gag Halfrunt at January 27, 2007 01:24 PM

At the risk of getting flamed, I'd just like to say that looking to SNL, and anyplace like SNL, for a nuanced--okay, well-informed--okay, fundamentally correct--take on US foreign policy is a waste of righteous anger. The entire US government, as well as huge swaths of the corporate media, have been pumping out a fantasy narrative for decades now. (You could argue that doing so is why they exist.) Whether we like it or not, two-line news jokes are going to reflect the dominant narrative; you can't educate with a set-up line, and trust me, I've tried. Even educating with a sketch, while theoretically possible, is diametrically opposed to the catch-phrase/repeating character stuff they aim for at SNL.

SNL has never--and yes, I've watched and loved the first five years--been significantly out in front of its audience as far as politics are concerned. Perhaps at the beginning it reflected the beliefs of a tighter demographic (Boomers 18-30) and that made it SEEM progressive, but truth-telling's never been its goal. Nor could it be, given who owns it. People on the show might try to convince Tom Shales of all sorts of happy horseshit, but it's not backed up by the material.

Instead of lambasting SNL, a better idea would be finding (or founding) some sketch comedy on the Web that does a better job of reflecting reality. Bitching about SNL being ignorant and reductive is like bitching that Coca Cola doesn't have enough vitamins.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at January 27, 2007 01:41 PM

Coca Cola has too many vitamins!
See my revealing piece on the news!
i said tonight!


Posted by: Benhart Germanschroterfolden at January 27, 2007 02:38 PM

Thomas Frank has a book or two out explaining about how it became "cool" to be pro-corporate and otherwise support the powerful. I don't recall him mentioning SNL, but obviously he could have.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 27, 2007 02:42 PM

Mike of Angle --

You're largely right about "SNL" and politics, though in the first few seasons, some of the political humor was much sharper and deeper than most stuff you saw on TV at the time -- or even now. Came with the period (Vietnam, Watergate, etc). Still, it's amazing that in a war world that is much, much worse than the Vietnam era, there's so little actual satire. Stewart and Colbert are great, but even they err more on the "good natured" side of comedy, esp Stewart. There's really nothing that I know of that really goes for the throat.

"Mr. Show" had some really fine political/cultural satire, but that was in the Clinton era. "Fridays" was much more political than "SNL" ever was in its Golden Period. Jesus, they did sketches set in Salvadoran refugee camps in 1981! Imagine SNL today doing a piece set in Gitmo, Basra, or heaven forbid, Gaza!

Posted by: Dennis Perrin at January 27, 2007 02:43 PM

Dennis, Johnathan, and friends,

You guys are brilliant. There is a new day coming in media, namely IPTV. It will take years to shake out. Why not in the mean time stake out your own claims and start producing comedy skits for the internet. I'm sure with a modest budget you guys could totally own a week-end update format, show. You probably would generate a million page views and could piggie back on google and or other banner services to generate revenue.

Would it pay as well as SNL? Not initially, but long term you would gain thought share across a very very wide audience which would create more fame and recognition than would otherwise be possible in the monopoly controlled cable/SNL world. A constant following of a million people while not TV huge is more than enough to make quite nice money. And the beauty is you own your own vig instead of begging for scraps from someone else's table.

You guys are more than capable of being your own show.

Posted by: patience at January 27, 2007 04:17 PM

Interesting, Dennis. It's always struck me that SNL was born during a rare period of US citizens WANTING to know the real deal instead of a pleasant fantasy. That having been said, the show was just as pandering in '75 as they are now--but for a time, SNL's audience supported blunt, angry satire; the information for that satire was appearing in mainstream papers, where it could be accepted as consensus; and advertisers wanted to reach that demo badly enough to hold their noses and pay for it.

SNL's original audience--let's say during the first couple of years, before O'Donoghue left--knew in its bones that believing lies today can kill you tomorrow. Vietnam taught 'em that. Then they forgot. (You can see this in how SNL changed between '75 and '80. Seventies-era Steve Martin is the antithesis of a satirist.) But even that original satire-loving audience had its own cherished lies. I'll take your word about Fridays, but it's interesting to think: if you put all their satirical sketches on one side of the ledger, and all the cocaine they probably hoovered up on the other side, did they help or hurt the Third World? Just an interesting thought.

I don't look to mainstream comedy to reflect sound opinions about the Middle East; I go to places like ATR for that. These clips are only notable if you expect the knuckleheads cloistered on 17 to be wise and compassionate and dedicated to expressing both in their comedy. And even if they were right on about the Middle East, they'd be off about something else. A more highly evolved (and evolving) comedy may be possible, but you're not going to find it on a corporate-owned, advertiser-supported, mainstream American show.

Apologies for the ramble folks.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at January 27, 2007 04:34 PM

Patience, Jon and I have pondered that very idea for YEARS, after writing a crapton of jokes for WU/SNL during the 90s.

Perhaps the time is right, with YouTube...If I could just finish all these books...

Posted by: Mike of Angle at January 27, 2007 04:37 PM

To Gag Halfrunt: There are so many things wrong with that concept. If those under the thumb of a particular power are the only ones who are allowed to speak to that power... no one can help each other? If something is worthy of criticism, I'll criticize it and point out what's wrong with it. I don't want it abusing the people who adhere to it, and I don't want it getting out of hand and abusing me, too (like it pretending it has the right to abridge my free speech.)

In a global community, satire can come from any of us, directed anywhere that is flawed. We need each other's help.

Plus, Denmark was the one who was bullied by the Muslims throwing their tantrum over the mirror the paper held up to Islam.

Posted by: balance at January 27, 2007 05:11 PM

Dennis - are you making that up?

On Powell - The amazing thing about the context of the other security council's comments regarding Powell is that there were never significantly aired. CNN, ABC, NBC, et al broadcast Powell's comments in full and then cut away; you only saw in full what the others said if you watched C-Span, though of course some very selected excerpts got into CNN and other news casts. So SNL was "parodying" something very few of its views actually saw. There should be a name for that.

This tactic continues from the networks, they all showed what Bush said at the UN, but not what the general assemby president and others said immediatly before and after; Lula (of Brazil) called for an international conference on the Mideast; Bush heard it, but the networks made sure the US public didn't. Only exception is if you call Bush the devil, long story....

Posted by: osama -- err -- sam at January 27, 2007 06:09 PM

"Dennis - are you making that up?"

No Sam -- "Fridays" really was that political.

Posted by: Dennis Perrin at January 27, 2007 06:46 PM

Lazy seems the right word.
If SNL were honest they'd start the season with the official "code."

Toilet joke is A, French cowards joke is B, Muslim terrorist joke is C; etc.

Then for the rest of the season they would just flash cards to the camera:
A, B, B, A, C, C, A, B, A.

This way they'd have more time for the commercials.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at January 27, 2007 07:54 PM

JS: Ok, ok...I don't really remember the weekend updates very well, I hate to admit-- so perhaps I shouldn't make such a sweeping statement.

as far as Donald Johnson's comment about Thos. Frank goes, I (also vaguely) remember reading an article a few years back about how postmodernism/coolness/hipness was a form of projection borne of despair at a world where social progress was no longer possible. Now I'm wondering if it was by Frank, or a review of one of his books. Does that ring any bells for anybody?

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at January 27, 2007 07:55 PM

Speaking of SNL and YouTube, does anybody have any links to some of the good skits from the early days of SNL?
Here’s Frank Zappa with a timely reminder that The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing
from back when SNL was good:

Posted by: Jay Hawkers at January 27, 2007 08:22 PM

Had O'Donoghue left yet when Eddie Murphy did the Weekend Update report on poor people eating dog food? -- You know, the one where it turned out that the top-selling brand in black neighborhoods was "Cadillac"?

Posted by: Simbaud at January 28, 2007 02:29 AM

Thomas Frank's claim (it's been a few years since I read him) as best I can recall is that corporations moved in and co-opted coolness. That's obvious, but he said it more cleverly and with detail this was back in the 90's, when Thomas Friedman's inane cheerleading for corporate globalization was everywhere and he was the leading "liberal" on TV talk shows.

SNL strives to be cool, and cool people are above taking unpopular stands and caring for the oppressed and making fools of themselves. It's much cooler to stay in the center of the herd and make fun of the French, if that's what the jingoist herd want's to hear.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 28, 2007 01:22 PM

So, to what extent (if any) does this reflect Mr. Michaels' politics? Damn Canadians...

Posted by: abb1 at January 28, 2007 03:06 PM

The piece you linked to a while back, the one that involved a broken broomstick...maybe there was humor there, I don't know. I couldn't get through the first paragraph without feeling sick to my stomach.

But this script about the disorganized protesters...that was Bwa ha ha funny. No accounting for taste, I guess.

Posted by: New Day at January 28, 2007 07:32 PM

hey Johnathan,

Your blog referred to an economic text that was put on the web in its entirety for free, which talked about the Upper Classes in the US rigging the game against the lower classes. I can't seem to find it in your archives. Could you provide a link to the entry, or the name of the author and the title. I think he did an NPR interview at the time you featured him.

Posted by: patience at January 28, 2007 08:59 PM

yer looking for the conservative nanny state by dean baker:

Posted by: buermann at January 28, 2007 09:25 PM

As Johnathan would say,

Thank you internet overmind, or in this case buermann.

Posted by: patience at January 28, 2007 10:52 PM

Even though they have stolen talent from Second City since the very beginning, SNL has never been its equal. However, mindless pap always draws the highest ratings and this will continue as long as a corporate driven America clings to being THE lowest common denominator in the world.

Posted by: JLaR at January 29, 2007 07:25 AM

I haven't watched the show in years. Even at the beginning it was hit-and-miss, so having an unfunny bit isn't the issue. Since I haven't watched the show, I can't comment on whether the humor is just unfunny making fun of "leftist" positions or SNL is generally unfunny now.

I did see most of one bit about Wendy Murphy's insane position on the Duke lacrosse case that someone posted. That wasn't funny either, but I don't think either the left or right is now claiming Wendy Murphy.

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at January 29, 2007 09:01 AM