Road Rage Is Relevant Again. SNL Just Proved It.

A seemingly throwaway sketch set a scene that captured the age of social media: people, stuck in their cars, gesturing furiously at one another.

Quinta Brunson with the cast of "SNL"
The skit suggested one of the fundamental questions of the social-media age: Would people treat each other this way if they were standing next to each other? (Will Heath)

Here’s one more piece of evidence that the ’90s have returned: Road rage is back in style. Stories of people who turned traffic frustrations into acts of violence were mainstays of that decade, rendered in news and in pop culture. A little bit true crime, a little bit morality tale, they captured the moment’s creeping suspicion that life was much less stable than it might have seemed.

Last night’s episode of Saturday Night Live featured a new take on the old story, this one a matter of satire, and a comment on its era. “Traffic Altercation” featured the episode’s host, Quinta Brunson, and the cast member Mikey Day. Set in a traffic jam, the scene played out as a series of insults was lobbed from one driver to the other—and rendered, primarily, through pantomimes. Brunson’s character cut him off, Day’s character claimed, with the help of scissor fingers. She signaled, she retorted, her hand mimicking a flashing blinker. They never established who was right or wrong; part of the joke was that neither cared much. They were stuck in traffic, they were probably bored, and trolling each other was a way to pass the time. The road-rage story, whether it’s real or fictional, will typically involve some form of unnecessary escalation: a minor affront spiraling into something major. “Traffic Altercation” reflected that idea and mocked it. Its characters’ game of charades became ever more elaborate, and ever more ludicrous—and, in that, ever more poignant.

The sketch was most clearly a takeoff on Beef, the new Netflix show co-starring Ali Wong and Steven Yeun, which applies dark comedy to a road-rage incident that spirals into off-road struggles. As with Beef, “Traffic Altercation” used cars to convey insights about drivers. And, also like Beef, it considered how the road itself can shape drivers’ behavior. In actuality, though, “Traffic Altercation” was really satirizing the age of social media. Online, people interact in roughly the same way they do in their cars: anonymously, from a distance, with speed and swerve and stakes that tend to be very high. The decade that brought all of those stories about road rage was the same one that found people acclimating to the web; they called it a “superhighway.” We are still caught in its traffic.

In SNL’s skit, the characters were both protected by their anonymity and emboldened by it. “Why don’t you roll down your window and say that to my face?” Brunson’s character said. Day’s character refused, choosing instead to mock the cranking motion she made in the era of the push-button car window. The pair’s furious gesturing, as they remained safely in their seats, suggested one of the fundamental questions of the social-media age: Would they treat each other this way if they were standing next to each other? The simple setup—two cars, just a little too close to each other—conveyed claustrophobia. These people were stuck, both in their cars and in their argument. They couldn’t escape each other.

And then came another escalation: Their shared inescapability became … possibility. They were yelling at each other, and then they were yelling with each other, and then they were simply having a conversation. They were both divorced, the back-and-forth revealed. They were both, maybe, a little bit lonely. Maybe they were not just arguing but also flirting. Maybe this wasn’t a fight, the sketch hinted, but a rom-com in the making: road rage as meet-cute.

For a moment, it looked like these two avatars of online insult mongering might find a better way. But they didn’t. The insults won. It was Brunson’s character who wouldn’t budge, in the end, and that made the sketch’s conclusion all the more effective. Brunson created and stars in a sitcom that is an exploration of squandered possibilities. Abbott Elementary is a traditional sitcom, lighthearted and heartfelt and casually quirky. It is also an ongoing argument about a country that claims to love its children but neglects the schools that shape their days. Brunson ended her monologue last night with a plea: to treat teachers better, and thereby to treat students better. It was an idea that was echoed, in a roundabout way, in “Traffic Altercation.” Road rage has endured as a cultural preoccupation because it captures the fragility of the most seemingly basic social compacts. Whether the matter at hand is a commute or a conversation or an education system, it can all go so wrong, so quickly. Roads are tidy metaphors. Everyone’s trying to get somewhere. The question is how they will accommodate all of the other people who have their own places to go.