“It’s been a terrible 18 months,” P.J. O’Rourke said in October, speaking of the marathon presidential campaign. He explained: “I am a political humorist, and it’s been impossible to be funnier than Hillary’s pantsuits; and I’m a political commentator, and I simply can’t get a word in edgewise with Donald Trump around.”
This—the difficulty of satirizing campaigns that so often satirized themselves—was a common complaint as comedians and other commentators tried to apply humor-as-usual to a situation that was neither terribly funny nor terribly usual. And as the reality TV-driven logic that animated the election has settled into the soft grooves of reality itself, the conundrum has only expanded and amplified for O’Rourke and his fellow comedians: How do you make jokes about the new administration in a way that moves beyond simple parody? How do you convert humor into satire? How do you make jokes about a politician whose defining feature is the fact that he is avowedly not political?
One way: You satirize not (just) the person, but the politics themselves. You satirize not (just) the candidates, but the people who supported and/or spurned them. The most remarkable sketch to come out of this weekend’s Saturday Night Live was, to that end, not the show’s cold open—which featured, predictably, “Trump” (Alec Baldwin) coming to terms with his own unpreparedness for the presidency (“Siri, how do I kill ISIS?”)—but rather one of the show’s classic fake ads, pre-produced for the occasion. It was a commercial for a community called “The Bubble.”
“The Bubble is a planned community of like-minded free thinkers—and no one else,” one of the community’s announcers says, as the camera pans across a scale model of a gleaming, white cityscape. Her fellow announcer—a guy who is frank of expression, Warby Parkered of glasses, and safety-pinned of lapel—adds: “So if you’re an open-minded person, come here, and close yourself in it.”
The Bubble is Under the Dome, basically, only with fair-trade coffee, a fondness for McSweeney’s, and copious amounts of self-congratulation. And “The Bubble,” the fake ad, is a parody of a parody of a parody. “The Bubble,” SNL’s announcer explains, “will be a fully-functioning city-state—with things everybody loves! Like hybrid cars! Used bookstores!” (Cut to a woman engrossed in Between the World and Me.) “And small farms with the rawest milk you’ve ever tasted!”
The ad concludes: “It’s their America now. We’ll be fine—right here in The Bubble.”
It’s a powerful segment—and not only because it’s intimately informed by things SNL’s writers likely know very well: the cultural and commercial habits of a very particular, and very stereotypical, cross-section of young progressives. “The Bubble” is Brooklyn, essentially, presented at once as geography and as a very precise set of political assumptions. SNL, with “The Bubble,” is making fun of that, and of itself—of its own generally progressive viewers, of its own generally progressive writers. It is having fun with, but also giving credence to, one of the criticisms most commonly lobbed against progressives: that they are smug. And that they are, in their way, just as narrow-minded as the people they condemn for their provincialism.
That wasn’t the only thing that made the sketch so powerful, though. “The Bubble” was also poking fun at—and, in the best way, exploring—some of the broader ideas that have informed aftermath of a divisive election: ideas about filter bubbles and homophily and destructive partisanship. SNL’s ad for The Bubble talked about “things everybody loves,” listing things that … really only some bodies love. The ad, in a pointed rebuke to Barack Obama’s united version, talked about “their America.” And then it talked about “we.” It took the transcendent anxieties of the current political moment—the fear that this vitriolic campaign might have fundamentally altered the “we” of the Declaration and the Constitution, the “we” whose realization has been the most crucial purpose of the American experiment—and satirized them.
In all that, “The Bubble” may have hinted at what SNL might continue to offer as President-Elect Trump becomes President Trump, and as the United States continues to consider what the “united” in its own name might continue to mean. “The Bubble” was akin, after all, to the parody of CNN it aired during the Saturday’s show, which compared members of the American news media to Westworld’s robots. It was also akin to the show’s most recent Black Jeopardy sketch, which highlighted the commonalities between African-American voters and the voters who supported Trump, and above all considered people’s ability to talk with—rather than at or over—each other. It was another silly sketch that was also doing something profound: questioning whether the nation can, still, come together to have a conversation with itself.
Saturday Night Live has been at its best through the years when it’s been able to take small observations—and small ironies—and amplify them into satire. Ronald Reagan, secret genius. “Bitch is the new black.” “I can see Russia from my house!” Here, now, is that signature observational power applied not just to politicians, but to the people who give them their power. “The Bubble” suggested an answer to P.J. O’Rourke’s comedy conundrum: to satirize not just campaigns, but cultures. This week’s CNN sketch mocked the network for its rhythmic predictability. If SNL wants to avoid that same pitfall—if it wants to avoid a cycle of “mock Trump, then anger Trump, then promise to mock him some more”—it’s good strategy, and good comedy, to focus on “we, the people.”
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