Back in November, you probably saw “RBG Rap” pop up on one of your social media platforms. (I realize that November 2018 might as well be 2009 in Internet time, but think hard.) In the Saturday Night Live sketch, Pete Davidson and Chris Redd rap about the virtues of Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Kate McKinnon) to the tune of Sheck Wes’ “Live SheckWes Die SheckWes.” And that’s … basically it. Like so many SNL song parodies this season, “RBG” is a relatively straight-forward take-off on a recent, buzzy hit, with a one-joke premise that aligns with popular neoliberal talking points. If you’re a fan of Sheck Wes, or Ruth Bader Ginsberg, or the preservation of abortion rights, or the juxtaposition of a swaggering hip-hop banger with an elderly judicial icon, you might have shared the video.
But what if you like comedy? Is “RBG Rap,” you know, funny? Humor is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but laughter is supposed to be an involuntary response to a joke that you often can’t intellectualize after the fact. “RBG Rap” seems designed to elicit clapter, a term coined by Seth Meyers for a joke that seeks merely to confirm the audience’s political opinions. (You can also apply it to bits that reward the recognition of a pop-culture reference.) Clapter is, superficially, more virtuous than laughter, but it’s also cheaper and lazier.
Jokey musical numbers have always been a foundational part of Saturday Night Live, from The Blues Brothers to “Choppin’ Broccoli” to “The Hanukkah Song.” But this season’s song-based sketches, like much of the rest of SNL, have taken a turn to the topical and hyper-specific. Instead of goofing on a particular artist or genre, numbers like the #metoo-themed “Permission”, the mental health-oriented Migos nod “Friendos,” or the Robert Mueller-oriented spin on Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas” are polemics inextricably tied to this exact moment in time. They feel less like fully realized comedy sketches than dashed-off tweets. Oh, and they are also pretty bad just as songs. In terms of catchiness and quotability, “RBG Rap” makes Adam Sandler sound like Paul McCartney.
Now more than ever, I really miss The Lonely Island.
When was the last time you watched a Lonely Island video? Probably a very long time. But I implore you: Take a moment and watch “Jack Sparrow” again. Yeah, I’m talking about that video from 2011 (!) in which Michael Bolton sings about the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. I know it sounds dated but trust me. I just revisited “Jack Sparrow” and was shocked by how well it held up.
“Jack Sparrow” is not topical. It’s not a straight-forward redux of a popular hit from its time. And it’s not built on a one-joke premise — you might think it is, but witness how Bolton starts off as a punchline and ends as the coolest guy in the room, all while twisting and turning the joke in all kinds of strange and delightful ways. Even now, seven years later, “Jack Sparrow” is still, somehow, funny. And watching it makes me think that SNL still hasn’t recovered from losing the Lonely Island.
The trio of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer more or less retired from SNL after Samberg left the show in 2012. But the influence of the Lonely Island on SNL remains indelible. The show is still doing pre-taped rap and pop parodies that aim to go viral well past Saturday night, in a manner that is similar to the style pioneered by the Lonely Island. The difference is that the execution now is much more obvious and far less clever or canny. If the Lonely Island is the Nirvana or Pearl Jam of contemporary SNL musical comedy, what the show is doing now can be likened to Creed or Nickelback.
Take “Permission,” which features Redd and Keenan Thompson as rappers who have a surprisingly progressive attitude about propositioning women in the club. That’s the only joke — isn’t it funny that these rappers are woke? — and it is reiterated over a generic hip-hop track for several minutes. Cameos by Lil Wayne and Future help to give “Permission” some verisimilitude, but otherwise there’s little about their appearances that’s surprising or surreal in a manner that one might associate with actual humor. The premise of “Permission” is, basically, “hey, this is an unlikely juxtaposition of politics and club music, and it’s in service of making a well-worn point about a timely issue.” It could have been executed in 30 seconds, or 140 characters.
Now, contrast that with the Lonely Island’s “YOLO,” from 2013, which features ringers like Adam Levine and Kendrick Lamar. Unlike “Permission,” “YOLO” doesn’t have a “point,” per se — the only statement is about how stairs are extremely dangerous and should be avoided at all costs.
The concept of “YOLO” is unapologetically silly, and yet the Lonely Island is committed to taking it to outrageous extremes, deepening the premise in the process. It helps that Levine and Lamar aren’t just props — they’re devoted to the joke and subverting their usual personas. (Kendrick for one knows his way around a calculator.) And the track itself is actually really good, based on a crafty sample of the Joy Formidable’s unjustly forgotten early 2010s alt-rock hit “Whirring.”
You don’t have to agree with “YOLO,” or recognize “Whirring,” or know anything about pop music in general, to enjoy “YOLO.” With the Lonely Island, knowing the tropes they are skewering always adds to the comedy, but it’s never essential, because the jokes (and the music) are always good enough to stand on their own.
Remember jokes? So many recent SNL song parodies seem to have forgotten them, even the well-regarded ones, like the Emmy-winning “Come Back, Barack,” or that embarrassingly earnest cold open from 2016 in which McKinnon-as-Hilary Clinton played “Hallelujah” in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory.
I don’t mean to pick on what’s otherwise an amiable sketch starring the extremely amiable Chance The Rapper. “Come Back, Barack” is what my mom would good-naturedly describe as cute — it’s nice and pleasant without being all that, well, good. The premise, again, is to take a standard-issue R&B slow jam and make it into a love song to a political figure beloved by the left. That’s it. There’s no twist or surprise tag on the nonexistent joke. (When the Lonely Island did their old-fashioned slow jam, it was about putting male organs in boxes.) “Come Back, Barack” is made to be shared via social media by people who love Barack Obama and wish he were still president. It’s as insightful as an email forward from your cool left-wing aunt.
I also love Barack Obama and wish he were still president, but “Come Back, Barack” doesn’t work as comedy and it certainly doesn’t work as music. That much is clear when you revisit “Jack Sparrow” or the even better “I Just Had Sex,” which starts out as a dig on pop songs with spotless, Akon-sung choruses and then miraculously becomes a loving homage to the form, with a genuinely uplifting climax. “Jack Sparrow” pulls off a similar maneuver — you enter the song expecting to laugh at the overheated huskiness of Michael Bolton and his nonsensical love of Johnny Deep, and you leave with a feeling of genuine elation for the joke and the song. Ultimately, like all good comedy, it’s unpredictable, taking you to a place you didn’t expect.
What’s depressing about watching old Lonely Island videos — I haven’t even mentioned major viral hits like “I’m On a Boat” or “Lazy Sunday”— is my sneaking suspicion that SNL has probably read the room correctly. People now might actually want something like “RBG Rap” — or at least they want to share it, because sketches that resemble tweets have a utilitarian purpose that transcends mere comedy. Social media is an ideal venue for clapter. Laughter, it seems, doesn’t stand a chance.