What Malcolm Gladwell Means When He Calls SNL’s Satire ‘Comedy Without Any Courage At All’

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Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History, just wrapped its first season (I guess podcasts have seasons now, weird) with possibly its strongest episode. I’ve been enjoying it since it started. I listen to a lot of NPR and public radio, but I’ve always had a sort of love/hate relationship with it. I love it because it’s so smart and compelling, but I’m frequently infuriated by their reporters’ pretense of robotic detachment, this weird need to intellectualize discussions almost into pure abstraction, to deflect any kind of human passions. Feelings! Scary!

Revisionist History has been a nice way to have my cake and eat it too. Gladwell delves, NPR-like, into compelling stories both esoteric (an episode about Wilt Chamberlain‘s refusal to shoot free throws underhanded) and current/relevant (a three-episode arc about college funding). But just when you’re expecting him to deliver an intellectualized “gotta-hear-both-sides” ending, he’ll get legitimately worked up and yell something like “if you send your kid to Bowdoin instead of Vassar you are part of the problem!”

Point is, he’s a guy who isn’t afraid of his own weird obsessions. He surprises by being so direct. And in the season finale, he went in hard. On Tina Fey, no less, one of the most universally liked personalities around. (Naturally leading to plenty of screamy, “Malcolm Gladwell trashes Tina Fey!” clickbait headlines, which I was actively trying to avoid here).

The episode was called “The Satire Paradox,” and it was about how satirical characters like Steven Colbert’s character on The Colbert Report have a tendency to appeal to people on both ends of the political spectrum, who interpret it in opposite ways. Conservatives think he’s making fun of his liberal guests, liberals think he’s making fun of conservative talk show hosts. That’s the satire paradox, that it frequently makes the opposite point it’s attempting. That’d be interesting enough for public radio, but Gladwell being Gladwell, he goes further, actually making a strident argument. His main thesis? “Satire works best when the satirist has the courage not just to go for the joke.”

I tend to call for the check any time someone prepares to explain comedy to me, but Gladwell makes a strong point, using, as the basis for his critique, Saturday Night Live‘s handling of Sarah Palin.

“I love those sketches. I think Tina Fey is a comic genius. But I can’t help but think that her comic genius is actually a problem. SNL brought Tina Fey in out of a sense of outrage, that someone this unqualified was running for higher office. SNL was trying to hold Sarah Palin to some kind of scrutiny. To say ‘this is who she is.’ But looking back now, I don’t think it worked. Because Tina Fey is too busy being funny.”

He plays a clip of Tina Fey discussing her Palin impression on Letterman. “You would think that with the vote looming, Letterman and Fey would want to talk about the subject of her satire,” Gladwell says. “Or the intention of her satire. But they don’t. They talk entirely about the mechanics of her satire.”

He plays another clip, with Tina Fey talking about the key to nailing Palin’s accent, building up to Gladwell’s larger point:

“They want the laugh. So they make fun of the way Sarah Palin talks. And the way she talks is not the problem.”

He goes back to the clip, with Fey talking about some of the pushback to her impression:

“Some of the Republicans say it’s sexist. But that’s… just crazy. You have to be able to goof on the female politicians just as much, because otherwise you’re treating them like they’re weaker or something.”

And Gladwell’s critique:

“Did you catch that? ‘Because you have to be able to goof on female politicians.’ Goof! Like the role of the satirist is to sit on the front porch and crack wise. Why doesn’t Tina Fey just come out and admit that her satire is completely toothless? And then what happens? The very next day, the day after Tina Fey goes on Letterman, Sarah Palin appears as a guest on SNL, right beside Tina Fey.

I remember being just as angry about that moment, which probably made me a good audience for this rant.

“They let Sarah Palin in on the joke. And they dress them up in identical red outfits because that’s even funnier. And what are you left with? You’re left with one of the most charming and winning and hilarious comics of her generation letting her charisma wash over her ostensible target, disarming us, disarming Sarah Palin. Sure, we laughed, but it’s kind of heartbreaking, isn’t it?

“SNL has taken out its dentures and is sipping the political situation through a straw. Lord help us if some other even more frightening and even less qualified political figure comes along.”

Gladwell seems to be making a clear allusion to Donald Trump at the end there, though he never says so outright. And without hearing the rest of the show, it’s possible you might read that part about the role of the satirist being to crack wise and think, “Well sure, isn’t sitting on the porch and cracking wise a valid form of comedy?”

I know I did. But Gladwell makes a well-reasoned point (using a biting Israeli sketch show to contrast SNL) that “we’ve forgotten what real satire is in the West. It uses a comic pretense to land a massive blow.”

Satire and commerce always make for awkward bedfellows, but Gladwell’s right that more people should feel gross about SNL letting Sarah Palin in on her own skewering, or letting Donald Trump appear on the show in November 2015 while he was calling for the registration of all Muslims.

Satire (like public radio), can be a way to say exactly what you mean, but it can also be a way to disguise it. You can be artful enough that people confuse the latter for the former, but is that always a good thing? When we’re faced with enemies so obviously morally bankrupt and wrong, maybe we shouldn’t be so afraid of making a f*cking point.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.