The finale of the 37th season of Saturday Night Live was also an occasion to say goodbye to one of its finest and funniest performers, Kristen Wiig, whom Lorne Michaels himself has ranked among the “top three or four” of all time on SNL. With an ever skeletal Mick Jagger crooning his own “She’s a Rainbow” and “Ruby Tuesday,” the lengthy send-off allowed the cast members to share a short dance with Wiig as she became increasingly almost tearful, offering rare glimpse into the uncontrollable humanity of an actor who almost never breaks onscreen.
Of the many characters that Wiig has played over the last seven years at SNL, she excels at creating the kind of persona who is confident to the point of being absolutely unselfconscious — marginalized eccentrics who are either oblivious or immune to the idea of being judged. Her “Target Lady,” for example, simply cannot contain a sense of surprise and excitement for each product that comes through the register (“Dog collar… hope you have a dog! Wink.”), to which she then offers a slice of her own inexplicable life. Or Shanna the “sexy coworker,” whose airy and absentminded eroticism at a Halloween party quickly devolves into a detailed story involving peanuts and digestion. Similarly, Wiig’s impression of Bjork is that of a unattenuated pixie who giggles at her own preciousness not out of irony or embarrassment, but because she is pleased with herself for being herself.
There is clearly something unsettling about these characters, but the humor here is not a result of their being outrageous and brazen so much as our awareness of their perceived lack; our laughter emerges nervously, diffusing a certain desire to teach them about self-consciousness. In other words, we become painfully aware of the gaze of the Other in us, as though to compensate for the seeming absence of inhibition and self-restraint in them. For many of us — post-meta subjects who can’t really have a thought without then thinking about that thought (and so on, en abyme) — the pure presence that these characters seem to embrace is like spinach in the teeth of the mind; inside, I am practically screaming to quietly take them aside and set them straight about being seen.
The Muppet Movie opens this week. For people who grew up watching the Muppet Show and the early Muppet movies, the return of the gang to cultural relevance is exciting. Watch out for a review of the movie. In the meantime, enjoy Kermit the Frog and Seth Meyers skewering Congress on Saturday Night Live.
M. Thomas Inge
Editor’s note: In a little less than one year, the American people will elect a president. In the past decade, politics has seemed to become much more polarized and impassioned–with the rise of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street as prominent examples. Politics has also been consistent fodder for humor–with the rise of The Daily Show and the Colbert Report, as well as the continued influence of SNL and The Onion, among a myriad of other humorists commenting on politics and humor. The interest of readers in the link between humor and politics is evident in the searches people use to find this site and in the consistent popularity of M. Thomas Inge’s piece “Politics and the American Sense of Humor,” which helped inaugurate this site.
In this spirit, Tom has graciously given us permission to post another piece. Enjoy.
The Essential Nature of American Laughter
M. Thomas Inge
For one brief moment in our history, it seemed that there was no humor in the land–September 11, 2001. For the next few days, no jokes were passed among friends on the internet. The New Yorker published no cartoons in its issue that week for the first time since Hiroshima and shrouded its cover in black. Dave Barry announced to his readers, “No humor column today. I don’t want to write it, and you don’t want to read it.”
Editorial cartoonists, caught with no time for reflection, traded in their wit and caricature for outrage and cliché and produced multiple images of the Statue of Liberty or Uncle Sam weeping or averting their faces from the carnage. The irreverent weekly newspaper, The Onion, cancelled its next edition. The David Letterman and Jay Leno shows went into reruns, and the comedy clubs closed down. Even Gary Trudeau in Doonesbury declared his favorite target, George W. Bush, off-limits. Comedy writers and performers gathered at a symposium on “Humor in Unfunny Times” in New York to discuss what their function should be at a time when the nation was racked by grief. Several public intellectuals declared that irony, sarcasm, and comic cynicism had died in a country that has prided itself on its caustic sense of humor. Finally permission to laugh came when mayor Rudolph Guiliani appeared on Saturday Night Live, along with New York police, fire, and rescue personnel. After an opening tribute, the show’s director, Lorne Michaels, asked the mayor, “Can we be funny?” Guiliani quipped, “Why start now?”
This was a defining moment in our history, because Americans have always placed a high value on their ability to laugh. William Faulkner once noted that “We have one priceless universal trait, we Americans. That trait is our humor.” Americans are thought to have a special sense of humor that often features exaggeration and hyperbole. But our sense of humor has a direct link to our political system, what Robert Penn Warren once called a “burr under the metaphysical saddle of America.”
Comedy is encouraged by our democratic system because we have posited higher ideals than we can reach, but rather than berate ourselves, we engage in self-ridicule as a safety valve. It is the incongruity between the ideal and the real, between the dream and the failure to achieve it, to which most American humor is addressed. Has there ever been a time when we would not laugh at Mark Twain’s statement, that “there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress”?
from the Kennedy Center website:
About the Mark Twain Prize
“The Mark Twain Prize recognizes people who have had an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain. As a social commentator, satirist and creator of characters, Samuel Clemens was a fearless observer of society, who startled many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly. He revealed the great truth of humor when he said “against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
The event is created by the Kennedy Center, and executive producers Mark Krantz, Bob Kaminsky, Peter Kaminsky, and Cappy McGarr. The Kennedy Center established The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in October 1998, and it has been televised annually. Recipients of the Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize have been Richard Pryor (1998), Jonathan Winters (1999), Carl Reiner (2000), Whoopi Goldberg (2001), Bob Newhart (2002), Lily Tomlin (2003), Lorne Michaels (2004), Steve Martin (2005), Neil Simon (2006), Billy Crystal (2007), George Carlin (2008), Bill Cosby (2009), and Tina Fey (2010).”
The award seemingly always generates a good deal of discussion, sometimes consternation, on the Mark Twain Forum discussion list. Over the years, posters there have suggested others who deserve the award. I have placed some of these nominated folks in a poll below.
So, here is your chance to have a say in next year’s award–not any sort of say that matters at all, but a say. Vote–it’s your scholarly duty.
Feel free to comment on this year’s show, or to nominate people for next year’s poll…
by Tracy Wuster
On January 11th, 1992, I gathered with a group of friends to watch Saturday Night Live, our usual Saturday night activity as high school sophomores. This was a special night. Nirvana was playing, and we were living just north of Seattle. Grunge was our thing: flannel, mosh pits, and, most of all, music.
This was the episode on which the band played “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” thrashed their instruments during “Territorial Pissings,” and kissed each other during the closing credits. The band’s anarchic spirit expressed not only our (possibly exaggerated) teen angst but also the humor of destruction, noise, and pissing off parents and other authorities that went hand in hand with the angst.
But, oddly enough, what I remember most from that episode of Saturday Night Live is not Nirvana’s performance but a sketch featuring the host Rob Morrow. The sketch is entitled, “Five Subjects Behind,” but I have always referred to it as “Clam Chow-Dah!”
In the sketch, Morrow is at a diner with two friends–a man and a woman. As the conversation proceeds, Morrow awkwardly and consistently returns to previous subjects with a punchline now hopelessly outdated, interrupting the flow of conversation to the increasing consternation of his friends. At one point, the character played by Mike Myers mentions Boston and clam chowder. After several subjects go by, Morrow bellows out: “Clam Chow-dah!” in a Boston-esque accent, and then awkwardly recreates the context, defeating the humor of the comment and, in fact, forcing an awkwardness that might be described as “anti-humorous.”*
Born June 28, 1946. This sketch was played on Saturday Night Live in 1989 following Radner’s death from Ovarian cancer, as introduced by host, Steve Martin.