Pete Davidson Criticized for SNL Skit: Unpatriotic or Just Bad Art?

Can outrage over a joke accomplish anything?

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Pete Davidson is drawing ire for a joke he made during Saturday Night Live's last "Weekend Update" skit.

The bit under fire is Davidson giving his "first impressions" of midterm candidates. His comments on Dan Crenshaw, Republican congressional candidate, have earned him rebuke from Crenshaw himself, Sean Spicer, and even SNL-costar Kenan Thompson.

Davidson gestured to a photo of the candidate, who wears an eyepatch from a permanent injury incurred from an IED explosion during his third deployment in Afghanistan as a Navy SEAL. "You may be surprised to hear he's a congressional candidate in Texas and not a hitman in a porno movie," Davidson said, laughing. "I'm sorry, I know he lost his eye in war, or whatever." Amid laughter, he repeated, "Whatever."

Outrage from politicians and viewers on social media call the joke "tone-deaf," "classless," and even "disgusting." But what is the goal of demanding apologies from satirists? Is their crime violating social mores or just bad art?

Initially, Crenshaw took to Twitter to share he didn't appreciate the remark.

A barrage of criticism followed on social media from politicians and viewers alike. Sean Spicer, former White House Press Secretary and an officer in the Navy Reserve, even called for SNL's creator Lorne Michaels' firing. "He approved of it; he watched it happen," Spicer said. "These people mocked a combat veteran, and this is what they think is funny these days? Lorne Michael should be fired."

Odds are that a Pete Davidson apology won't be forthcoming, let alone the firing of Michaels, SNL producer of 40 years. So is there a corrective purpose to outrage when it comes to comedy? The public balks when a joke "crosses a line," as SNL co-star Kenan Thompson agrees Davidson's joke did.

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On the Today Show, Thompson remarked, "Stand-ups feel like there's no real filters out there in the world, when they're trying to go for a great joke or whatever, and we try to respect that." He added a caveat, "But at the same time, when you miss the mark, you're offending people so you have to really be a little more aware, in my opinion." Thompson added that his own father fought in Vietnam and he would "never" go there in his act.

Yet much of Davidson's act as a stand-up comedian is based on dark humor addressing his father's death as a firefighter in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, his childhood suicide attempt, and his struggles with borderline personality disorder. More than a few of his jokes featured on SNL also cover these topics. With humor serving as both a coping mechanism and a dialogue about sensitive subjects, Davidson and comics like him often inject insult comedy, including self-effacement, into their observational humor.

So how far is too far? If anything, Davidson's joke falls short of serving the satirical purpose that originally made SNL's "Weekend Update," the longest-running sketch to recur on the show, such a worthwhile segment. The function of satirical news updates may mock political and pop cultural figures of the time, but satire has a long history of legitimate social function, from social commentary in Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" to political commentary in the The Daily Show. Social scientists and psychologists have long agreed that the functions of comedy span from generating open dialogue about taboo topics and encouraging social reform to aiding emotional processing and coping with absurd tragedy.

The problem, if any, with Davidson's bit is that it doesn't serve any of these purposes.

It was with that reasoning that Dan Crenshaw actually mitigated the outrage to TMZ. He stated in a video, "I want us to get away from this culture where we demand apologies every time someone misspeaks. I think that would be very healthy for our nation to go in that direction. We don't need to be outwardly outraged. I don't need to demand apologies from them. They can do whatever they want, you know. They are feeling the heat from around the country right now, and that's fine."

While Crenshaw doesn't want an apology, he does suggest that SNL, and probably all comedic acts, re-evaluate the intentions of their humor. He continues, "But I would like [Davidson] and Saturday Night Live to recognize something," he said. "Veterans across the country probably don't feel as though the wounds they received in battle should be the subject of a bad punchline for a bad joke."

"And here's the real atrocity in all of this," he concluded, "It wasn't even funny … It was just mean-spirited." Thompson agreed, stating, "Stand-ups, they're the ones that help us laugh through the most awful things in the first place," but "they're always fishing in weird places," he concluded, "and that was an unfortunate outcome."

Thompson notes that Davidson's joke "didn't land as hard as he wanted to," prompting Davidson's delivery to be even more brusque than his usual style. And while he conscientiously aimed jabs at Democrat Andrew Cuomo and even himself ("I look like a Dr. Seuss character went to prison!"), his attempt to ease tension over this week's high stakes midterm election failed to serve a function beyond punchline practice and playground bullying.


Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.


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