Each month, the average TikTok user watches about 24 hours of video. Considering that videos now top out at 10 minutes, that’s a bewildering amount of content and reach. TikTok hit 3 billion downloads in July 2021, becoming the first non-Facebook app to do so. As a global vehicle for a wellspring of DIY creators, it has saturated the cultural moment. Saturday Night Live knows this, and it keeps wanting to say something about the platform. But it doesn’t quite know what.
Last night marked the third time SNL has lampooned TikTok this season. Besides a cold open last month that took aim at TikTok creators’ role in combatting misinformation about the war in Ukraine, the show also spoofed the video-sharing app in December, when the pop star Billie Eilish hosted. Yesterday, the host and musical guest Lizzo, alongside nearly all available cast members, parodied TikTok again: There was a folksy rendition of the infuriatingly catchy Kars4Kids jingle, a wealth of acting and dance challenges set to music, and an older user (Cecily Strong) who didn’t fully grasp how to use the platform.
The sketch, which uncannily replicated the wormhole-like experience of TikTok, was immaculately produced, though the level of postproduction required to send up lo-fi content carries a certain kind of irony. But by being so on the nose with its imitation, SNL failed to say anything particularly meaningful. Like cast member James Austin Johnson’s eerily accurate Trump impression, it was clever but lacked insight.
Part of the problem stemmed from the sketch’s many targets. It didn’t know where to focus its efforts. Whereas December’s iteration appeared to make fun of creators (Eilish plays a nurse who’s too consumed with posting videos of herself twerking to tend to a patient who starts flatlining), last night’s punch line was fuzzier. Zoom out, and the show seemed to be taking a larger jab at TikTok’s evolving user base. The sketch took the perspective of a 27-year-old living at home who is scrolling through TikTok instead of studying for the LSAT—a notable change from the original segment’s teenage user, who needed to take the garbage out. Both versions deepened their initial observations by revealing how each user’s father is also embarrassingly active on the platform.
In taking aim at TikTok users, SNL is swiping at an audience whose attention it’s competing for. Although SNL became the overall top entertainment program in the coveted 18-to-49 age bracket last season, ratings for the current season premiere dropped by 35 percent compared with its predecessor. Metrics aside, SNL is far, culturally, from its high-water mark during the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, when its sharp-toothed political commentary and Tina Fey’s uncanny take on Sarah Palin regularly claimed the spotlight. Since then, as social-media apps have shifted the speed with which viewers consume information, and as attention spans have narrowed, the show has struggled to keep pace in the way that other, more viral-friendly platforms can. The amount of time it’s dedicated to TikTok this season could be viewed as an attempt at staying current, but it has come off more like jealousy instead.
Part of that tone could have something to do with the show’s underlying similarity to the platform, which became more evident during SNL’s remote episode at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Cast members performed sketches in isolation, from their respective homes, offering an array of character work and premises reminiscent of what TikTok creators do, though backed by a far more robust creative team. SNL relies on that writing and production staff, as well as its extensive budget, to develop and deliver sketch comedy. Absent some of those resources, the show veered closer to DIY territory. And although TikTok may not have the sketch show’s institutional legacy, it does have the twinned currencies of relevance and reach, and a clear interest in competing with YouTube. SNL knows as much—knows the seemingly endless distraction the app is capable of creating. Keeping up with TikTok, however, requires more than simply mimicking it.