In an age when the President of the United States can take to social media to insult diplomats, veterans, and immigrants alike, our comedians are simply held to a higher standard.
Facing backlash over Pete Davidson's joke about newly elected Congressman Dan Crenshaw, Saturday Night Live welcomed the Lieutenant Commander himself to appear on the most recent episode in order to accept Davidson's apology in person.
The rescinded joke was part of last week's "Weekend Update's" gimmick of giving "first impressions" of candidates. Davidson commented on Crenshaw, who wears a right eye patch after incurring an injury as a Navy SEAL in Afghanistan, "This guy is kinda cool. … You may be surprised to hear he's a congressional candidate from Texas and not a hitman... in a porno movie." Davidson delivered the punchline glibly, adding, "I'm sorry, I know he lost his eye in war, or whatever."
The comedian's brusque delivery, paired with unfortunate timing one week before Veteran's Day, made the joke seem especially crass and sparked outrage online.
Fast forward to this past weekend and Davidson's fine-tuned apology: "In what must be a huge shock for people who know me, I made a poor choice last week," Davidson said. "I made a joke about Lt. Com. Dan Crenshaw and on behalf of myself and the show, I apologize… I mean this from the bottom of my heart, it was a poor choice of words. The man is a war hero and he deserves all the respect in the world. "
Davidson added, "For one day, Republicans and Democrats agreed on one thing: I'm a dick." Here Crenshaw himself rolled his chair onscreen in a surprise cameo and quipped, "You think?"
After accepting Davidson's apology, Crenshaw was given his own attempt at a comedy set, beginning with an "accidental" phone call with a ringtone set to Ariana Grande's "Breathin'." Crenshaw feigned naivety by asking the comedian, "Oh, do you know her?" He was also invited to mock an image of Davidson as a gesture of quid pro quo, featuring very Davidson-esque one-liners like, "He looks like if the meth in Breaking Bad were a person." His parting shot was a comparison between the comedian and a Martin Short character, to which he added, "By the way, one of these people was actually good on SNL." The studio audience mixed laughter with uncomfortable groans.
Initially, Crenshaw took to Twitter to show he didn't appreciate the joke, stating, "Good rule in life: I try hard not to offend; I try harder not to be offended. That being said, I hope @nbcsnl recognizes that vets don't deserve to see their wounds used as punchlines for bad jokes."
Then in last week's interview with Fox News, Crenshaw described himself as having "thick skin." He cited his fellow Navy SEALS often jesting each other, but his "rules" for what humor is appropriate are simply this: "It has to be original, it has to be witty, and it has to be actually funny." In a video with TMZ, he specified, "Here's the real atrocity of all this: It wasn't even funny. It was not original … It was just mean-spirited." Crenshaw even articulated a thoughtful criticism of outrage culture, stating, "I want to get away from this culture where we demand apologies every time someone misspeaks...We don't need to be outwardly outraged. I don't need to demand apologies from them."
Yet the internet (as well as former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who demanded that Lorne Michaels be fired for allowing the skit to air) supplied enough outrage to fill Crenshaw's stead.
His appearance on SNL didn't just appease those who called for an apology, because he also flipped the tone of the skit to deliver a sober message to viewers about forgoing partisan outrage. In a flat address to the camera, he stated, "There's a lot of lessons to learn here. Not just that the left and right can agree on some things, but also this: Americans can forgive one another. We can remember what brings us together as a country and still see the good in each other."
Afterwards, Crenshaw took to Twitter to thank the show for its time to spotlight veterans, referring to his closing sentiment to "never forget" veterans' sacrifices and those who died on September 11th, including Davidson's firefighter father.
Overall, the segment combined playground comebacks with sincere moralizing in abrupt tonal shifts that were clearly well-intended — but awkward. In truth, Crenshaw's jokes at Davidson's expense weren't particularly funny themselves, and it's difficult to spin a televised acceptance of an apology into a message about not demanding apologies.
However, it's historically rare for SNL to give straightforward, on-air apologies for its jabs at public figures, suggesting that Davidson's apology is in recognition of the fact that the public's barometer for offense is obviously sensitive right now. That it was awkward and tonally dissonant highlights another obvious fact: we don't know what to do with apologies.
As outrage fades, is there much difference between silence and an alleged offender's apology? Or by then have we moved on to the next outcry? Reactions on Twitter to Davidson's apology spanned from laudations of Davidson's class to lamentations that comedians have to apologize for jokes, while President Trump name calls more than he governs.
On that note, Crenshaw did imbue the SNL segment with notions of forgiveness and unity, speaking against "imaginary barriers" between social strata and urging people to be "connected together as grateful, fellow Americans." His own vacillation about the need for apologies reflects that we're not sure how to bridge those connections, but we're very loud about needing them.
Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung
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