Saturday Night Live And Philosophy edited by Jason Southworth and Ruth Tallman

The Blurb On The Back:

Is Weekend Update fake news?

How can we tell the difference between satire, smart-assert, and seriousness?

What is the benefit of jokes that cause outrage?

The Church Lady has a bad case of moral superiority.  How about you?

What can Wayne and Garth teach us about living a happy life?

Live from New York for over forty years, Saturday Night Live is seriously funny, and through decades of sketches, monologues, commercials, music acts, and a huge cast of recurring characters, NBC’s original late-night comedy sketch show has brought a touch of levity to everything that is laughable about modern life.  Many of the greatest minds in modern comedy – Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Chris Rock, Kate McKinnon and more – have honed their craft at SNL, finding fresh ways to highlight the ridiculous and absurd in our boardrooms, newsrooms, mailrooms, sorority houses, music studios, churches, schools, and everywhere in-between.  Politicians from Gerald Ford to Donald Trump have had their faults and foibles lampooned by SNL’s election sketches and satirical news segments, and all the while, Weekend Update has shown us that the medium is the message.

Of course, comedian-philosophers from Socrates to Sartre have always produced and provoked us, critiquing our most sacred institutions and urging us to examine ourselves in the process.  In Saturday Night Live and Philosophy, a star-studded ensemble cast of philosophers takes a close look at the “deep thoughts” beneath the surface of the award-winning late-night variety show and its hosts’ hijinks.  In this book, philosophy and comedy join forces with the strength of the Ambiguously Gay Duo to explore the meaning of life itself through the riffs and beats of the subversive parody that gives the show its razor-sharp wit and undeniable cultural and political significance.  

You can order SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE AND PHILOSOPHY edited by Jason Southworth and Ruth Tallman from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Jason Southworth is a philosophy instructor at several colleges and universities.  Ruth Tallman is department chair and teaches philosophy at Hillsborough Community College.  This mixed bag of 20 essays (part of a series on philosophy and pop culture) examines the elements of Saturday Night Live through various philosophical schools of thought but you need to be a hardcore SNL fan or an undergraduate philosophy student to get the most from it.

The collection is divided into 6 sections that roughly follow the structure of SNL:

– The Opening Monologue

– Some Political Sketches

– Some Sketches Featuring Your Favourite Recurring Characters

– And Now For Our Musical Guest

– Weekend Update

– The Absurd Stuff That Happens Near The End

This collection is part of a wider series published by Blackwell that aims to demonstrate that philosophy is relevant to everyday life by making you think about popular TV shows and computer games in a different and deeper way.  It’s an interesting idea and there is certainly. a huge variety in the shows/games covered in the series so that there’s something for literally anyone there.  However, it does require you to have a pretty thorough knowledge of SNL and as a Brit, I found this a difficult book to review from that side of things.  

This is because although some SNL characters are known over in the UK – e.g. Wayne and Garth were incredibly popular when I was a teenager in the 1990s – that was more due to the movie than to the original sketches.  SNL has never been on the UK’s terrestrial channels and certainly never been as iconic in the media space here as it in the US.  Even now, the show is only available via satellite/cable or streaming so unless a sketch has made the mainstream (e.g. during the 2008 election when Tina Fey’s impression of Sarah Palin made the UK new or the 2016 election when Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon’s impressions of Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton were discussed in UK shows), I didn’t necessarily understand all of the references (e.g. I don’t know who the Church Lady is).  In addition, SNL has been running for over 40 years so there’s a lot of ground to cover and while I knew of famous 70s sketches, e.g. Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford impression and John Belushi’s samurai, there’s still a lot that was obscure for me.  Saying this, for the most part, I could follow what the essayists were referring to because of the way they write about it but some essayists are better than others and there were a couple of chapters where I had to look for YouTube clips to understand what I was reading (e.g. the essay that refers to Eminem’s controversial 2013 appearance where he was accused of lip synching).

Similarly, I also struggled a bit at times with the philosophical ideas being discussed and how they link to the show.  I’m not a complete novice to philosophy as I’ve been reading up on it in recent years but each essayist does presume a certain familiarity with the ideas/theories being discussed.  As such, I do think you get more from this book if you’re studying for an A Level or doing an undergraduate class in it.  

PART I: THE OPENING MONOLOGUE

Chase’s Forde vs Belushi’s Samurai: Why Is It OK To Punch Up But Not Down? by Ruth Tallman is a strong opening essay that does set the tone for the rest of the collection.  It applies radical autonomism, radical moralism, moderate moralism to look at why it’s considered acceptable to make jokes about people with political and religious power and why it’s unacceptable to make jokes about people who aren’t powerful at all and why that should be.  It’s clearly written, easy to follow and gets across the idea with some pertinent examples and was one of my favourites in the book.

Mr Mike: The Dark, Existential Vision of Michael O’Donoghue by Erich Christiansen was an essay that, for me, was a bit difficult to follow.  It really requires you to be familiar with the dark humour of SNL’s first head writer, Michael O’Donoghue and his sketches “Least Beloved Bedroom Tales”, which Christianson considers through the lense of John-Paul Sartre’s existentialist writings on meaningless, suffering and death.  This was one of those chapters where I had to look up the sketches on YouTube in order to understand the points being made.

How Do They Get Away With It?  Pushing Boundaries With Offensive Material On Saturday Night Live by Michael McGowan is an interesting, albeit very US-centric look at offensiveness, pushing the boundaries of taste and whether the right to cause outrage should be restricted or censored.  I say this is US-centric because it views the legality through the prism of the First Amendment but I found it interesting because my jurisprudence course at university examined arguments around censorship so I found McGowan’s arguments very familiar and thus easy to follow (I don’t say that in a dismissive way, it’s just that this was a chapter where I had more familiarity with the topic).  He uses some interesting examples from SNL history, from a Larry David opening monologue to a very famous sketch involving Chevy Chase, Richard Pryor and racist language from the 1970s.  I did think that there were some areas where McGowan draws artificial boundaries, e.g. he talks about Chase’s use of the ‘n’ word in his sketch with Richard Pryor to contextualise offensive language but his contrast with Martin Luther King’s use of an alternative ‘n’ word was done as a conscious and direct counter to the derogatory term given the standards of the time.  I also think he misses the point that outrage depends on the social norms of the time and prevailing public opinion and that it’s not so much a case of someone ‘getting away’ with an offensive or outrageous act – they point is that Larry David and Tina Fey (in the context of her comments on Charlottesville) were called out on the acts and language they used and what matters is the reaction of the individual to that calling out and whether it brings about a change.

SNL, Satire, And Socrates: Smart-Assery Or Seriousness by Joshua J. Reynolds argues that SNL tends to focus on smart-ass and silly comedy rather than philosophical and satirical comedy.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t get the point of this essay and given that it seems to argue that the Aristophanes play CLOUDS led to the death of Aristotle (despite this having 20 years later), I can’t say that I found it particularly convincing re the strength of satire.  However, Reynolds does cover a lot of SNL material from a variety of decades to analyse which are satire, which are parody etc, which I enjoyed.

PART II: SOME POLITICAL SKETCHES

Saturday Night Live And The Political Bubble by William Irwin is one of those essays that you can tell is written by a libertarian even before the essayist says that they’re a libertarian.  It’s a shame because it’s about whether there’s a liberal bias to SNL (Irwin thinks that there is) but Irwin seems to think that comedy has a duty not to distort opposing viewpoints and to challenge the viewpoints of its audience.  The focus here is on SNL’s shows during the Trump presidency, with Irwin arguing that by contrast Obama got pretty much a “pass” from the show during his presidency.  Such an argument overlooks what actually happened during both presidencies and I think it would have been interesting for Irwin to use examples from Clinton’s or Carter’s presidency (both of whom got their fair share of criticism).  Ultimately though, he seems to lament the most the lack of out-and-out conservatives on the show, which quite aside from the state of US conservative politics right now also makes an assumption about the politics of the writers and cast members.  It’s a shame because I think Irwin does have a point to make about liberals not wanting to have their own views mocked, but this essay fails to make its case in my opinion.

Saturday Night Live And The Production Of Political Truth: Foucault Explains The Danger of Late Night Comedy by Kimberly S. Engels uses Foucault’s work to explain how viewers interpret comedy as reflecting a level of truth about political candidates and their shortcomings and how this can be dangerous.  Again, the focus here is on the 2016 political campaign, which is a shame (I would have been interested to see it contrasted with the 1992 Bush/Clinton campaign or the 2000 Bush/Gore campaign) but Engels does make interesting points about how SNL portrayed the various Democrat and Republican candidates during the primaries and how that potentially shaped the public’s view of the same – notably in its reference to the 2008 election and the attention put on Sarah Palin after Tina Fey began to impersonate her.

Word Associations, Black Jeopardy, And Mr Robinson’s Neighbourhood: SNL Tackles Race by J. Jeremy Wisnewski looks at how comedy and SNL is comparable to philosophy in challenging assumptions about race and racial identity.  I found this a really interesting essay, partly because it takes a look across SNL sketches across the last 40 years but also sees Wisnewski question his own premise by pointing out how Chris Rock left the cast because he didn’t have the opportunities to explore racial issues (albeit he thought this was due to the numbers of people with good material rather than an explicitly racial bias).

John Belushi, Chris Farley, And Stuart Smalley: Drugs And Recovery On Saturday Night Live by William Irwin and J. R. Lombardo examines why some people rely on drugs and alcohol for their creativity by focusing on Belushi and Farley (the two SNL cast members most famous for premature deaths following addiction) and asks what lessons can be learnt from the same by bringing in the Al Franken character Stuart Smalley to examine recovery programmes.  I think this is an even-handed essay that doesn’t seek to diminish the dark behaviours exhibited by either man while also conveying what made each man so good at what they did and what a tragedy their deaths were.

PART III: SOME SKETCHES FEATURING YOUR FAVOURITE RECURRING CHARACTERS

Dana Carvey vs Darren Hammond: What Does It Mean To Be “Spot On”, And Does It Matter? by Tadd Ruetenik is, for me, one of the most interesting essays in the collection.  It’s about how the best impression is not necessarily the most accurate impression with Ruetenik focusing on Dana Carvey (who performed as George H. W. Bush and the US news anchor Tom Brokaw) and Darrell Hammond who had a reputation as one of SNL’s most accurate impressionists, especially as TV announcer Don Pardo.  He draws in the philosophy of pragmatism and how creative impersonations can convey more to those watching them by revealing something about the subject.  I would have liked to have had more consideration of Hammond’s work because the essay does skewer towards Carvey’s work (with a detour on Chevy Chase’s impression of Gerald Ford) but it did make me think about impressions in a different way.

SNL’s Blasphemy And Rippin’ Up The Pope: “Well Isn’t That Special?” by David Kyle Johnson focuses on one of the most notorious episodes in SNL history, when the singer Sinéad O’Connor finished her performance of “War” by Bob Marley and then tore up a picture of the then Pope John-Paul II while singing the word “evil”, concluding with the words “Fight the real enemy!”  This was one of those events that made the news in the UK at the time and I remember the fury that surrounded it and how vicious the tabloid press in the UK were towards O’Connor.  Such was the storm that SNL’s broadcaster, NBC, agreed to never repeat the performance and O’Connor’s career in the US was effectively ended by it.  Johnson uses this to examine the idea of sacrilege and blasphemy, comparing what O’Connor did to SNL’s anti-religious (or at least, poking fun at religious) sketches and comments.  This is a very thoughtful and extensively footnoted essay that takes a variety of examples from SNL’s history and how some of them appear to slip under the radar and he also makes an interesting point about O’Connor’s actions and how they were foreshadowed by some changes she made to the Bob Marley song she performed before.  Ultimately, it also has to be said that the discovery of subsequent events in the Catholic church and John-Paul II’s knowledge of them meant that she wasn’t wrong.

“Wayne’s World” And The Philosophy Of Play by Jason Holt uses the Wayne’s World sketches on SNL and the accompanying movies to explore the philosophy of play and leisure to explore the intrinsic value of play.  Holt clearly has a lot of love for the sketches and the essay is itself playfully written, utilising the catch phrases of the characters and drawing in philosophers such as Bertrand Russell, Johan Huizinga and Ludwig Wittgenstein in an informative but at times heavy-going read.

Bulls, Bears, And Beers: Da Philosophy Of Super Fandom by Robin Barrett examines the spectrum of fandom through a number of sketches, including the Bill Swerski Super Fans (which is one of those sketches that I had to look up and is very much a US sports thing) but also includes a number of SNL Star Trek sketches, which I was more familiar with.  Barrett makes interesting points about identity and how people can move through different phases of fandom and the positives and negatives of fandom.

PART IV: AND NOW FOR OUR MUSICAL GUEST

Liveness And Lip-Synching: Andy Kaufman And Eminem by Theodore Gracyk uses the lip-synching accusations levelled at Eminem’s performances on SNL in 2004 and 2013 to examine why it matters, contrasting it with Andy Kaufman’s very obvious lip synch performance to examine the nature of performance and especially live performance.  Again, this is a really thoughtful essay that made me think about what a performance is and how it should be viewed and how lip synching itself can be a performance with specific meaning.

PART V: WEEKEND UPDATE

I Hate Applause: Norm Macdonald And Laughter by Jeremy Fried examines the firing of Norm Macdonald from SNL (where he had served as the respected host of the Weekend Update segment) to look at what we’re trying to do when we make someone laugh as a way of exploring the reasons for his firing.  I’m perhaps a little biased in having found this to be a strong essay because I was a big fan of Macdonald’s work and read this shortly after his death, which gave it an added poignancy.  However, it is an interesting piece that goes into SNL’s workings to examine Macdonald’s approach to comedy as compared to what SNL’s producer, Don Ohlmeyer specifically wanted from the segment to explore what comedy is for and what it’s trying to do.

Saturday Night Live’s Citizen Journalists And The Nature Of Democracy by Kati Sudnick and Erik Garrett looks at the use of citizen journalist characters on Weekend Update to examine how and whether society should trust citizens to understand complex issues and to what extent citizens should cede to expert opinion.  Given the hot topic of “fake news” and the rise of anti-vax content, this is a timely essay that makes good use of characters like Drunk Uncle and Stefon to explore expert thinking and public misconceptions of complicated issues to make interesting points about the difficulties of modern debate in political discourse.

Fake News As Media Theory: SNL On TV Journalism by Gerald J. Erion looks at the satirical “fake news” segments in Weekend Update through the work of Neil Postman to explain how it reflects the influences and biases of television itself.  It’s another thoughtful essay that looks at the ‘entertainmentification’ of news and how this is reflected in Weekend Update and as someone who is new to Postman’s work, I thought that it made some pertinent points.

“Look Children, It’s A Falling Star”: David Spade And SNL Family Disloyalty by Jason Southworth And Ruth Tallman takes a controversial moment in a 1995 Weekend Update when David Spade used the title line in a dig at former cast member Eddie Murphy, whose film career was at that point on the wane. For me this was a bit of a missed opportunity and quite indulgent because it looks at SNL’s self-professed “family” element and how cast members tend to use familial terms when speaking of their time there and defend each other during times of controversy.  I say missed opportunity because I think there was a chance here to look at bonds and why people choose to defend each other and form close bonds and how those bonds can be challenged but instead there’s a more superficial look at some of the show’s sketch families and how they relate to family obligations.  For me it was all a bit meh and lacked any real insight or bite.

PART V: THE ABSURD STUFF THAT HAPPENS NEAR THE END

The Simulated Reality Of Saturday Night Live by Edwardo Pérez looks at how reality is presented on SNL, how the audience perceives it and whether SNL resembles or relates to reality in a meaningful way.  This is primarily done through reference to Plato’s cave and looks at how the show creates fake realities to show the real world back to us.  Pérez uses a variety of philosophers and examples from SNL shows to make his points but I have to say that some of his talking points were addressed in other essays, which affected the essay’s overall impact for me.

Deep Thoughts About Deep Thoughts: The Existentialism Of Jack Handey by John Scott Gray focuses on the short sketches written and performed by Handey (with Phil Hartman).  Again, I wasn’t familiar with these so I had to look them up but Gray uses it to look at absurdity and meaning in philosophy, using Sartre and Camus as accompanying thinkers.  This is one of those essays where I think you get the most from it if you’ve got more familiarity with the underlying SNL and philosophical subject matter.

The Ladies Man And “President Bush”: Can Someone Be Too Stupid For Moral Responsibility by Jason Southworth uses SNL characters such as the Ladies Man, ‘Burt Reynolds’ (as portrayed by Norm Macdonald) and Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush to explore moral responsibility and how philosophy defines the same.  Again, you need to know the sketches in order to get the most out of this, but Southworth does a good job of explaining the different philosophical takes on moral responsibility so the arguments are clear to follow.  

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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