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Saturday Night Live has long felt dated. The skits telegraph and then often explain their jokes. Moments of true comedic originality are rare. To use Ross Douthat’s apt term, SNL is decadent. Nevertheless, the show still sees itself as a culturally-relevant champion of progressivism, and is willing to dig deep into its own past to prove as much.

The most recent episode’s cold open recycles Steve Martin’s “Theodoric of York” bit from 1978, in which Martin played a medieval barber who treats the ailments of the villagers in his town. In that skit, Bill Murray’s character—run over by an ox cart after drinking too much mead at the festival of the vernal equinox—received Theodoric’s authoritative prescription, “You’ll feel a lot better after a good bleeding.” A skeptical Murray exclaimed, “But I’m bleeding already!” Then Martin uttered the words that have stood the test of time: “Say, who’s the barber here?”

The 2022 version takes aim at the Dobbs draft opinion to overturn Roe v. Wade, which was leaked to the press last week. It is set in the 1300s, since the draft discusses the legal history of abortion from the 1300s onward. The gist of the sketch is essentially that “old stuff is bad.” Of course, that sentiment was worked for laughs in the 1970s original, too. Yet the most lasting line from Martin’s bit was not one self-righteously poking fun at the past, but skewering the pompous presumptions of modern-day doctors. Those know-it-all “who’s the doctor here?” M.D.s were all too familiar in the ’70s. Linking them to their bloody forerunners was a stroke of comic genius. The message of the sketch was actually quite nuanced: Be thankful for the advances that the scientific method has brought, but remember that prideful human nature has not changed. 

In 2022, SNL’s sword of comedy only cuts one way, and its blade is far from razor-sharp. Kate McKinnon enters the 1300s scene as a haggard prophetess and reveals to a worried Cecily Strong that “these barbaric [anti-abortion] laws will someday be overturned by something called progress” but that about 50 years later there will be an effort to “undo the progress.” What witty writing!

McKinnon channels her inner William Wallace to exhort women to use “the choice to keep fighting.” Benedict Cumberbatch, playing the patriarchy, then seems to be struck by her words—before calling her a “witch.” Cue the cast’s classic chant of “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night.” When history is not on your side, paint the past as irrelevant.  

While the source of the Dobbs leak is not yet known, the most probable theory is that it came from someone pro-Roe. The leaker likely hopes to ignite public pressure (or worse) in order to shift what is currently a 5-4 decision. Alternatively, this could be the work of a conservative looking to lock in the majority and avoid any end-of-term maneuvering—like the maneuvering that occurred in 1992 after the initial vote in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The justices reportedly had decided to overturn Roe, but a shift late in May produced a fractured Court that kept part of Roe intact via an opinion from three justices (Kennedy, O’Connor, and Souter) all appointed by Republican presidents. Given that the Alito draft ended up in the hands of the left-leaning Politico plus the hand-waving from liberals, I would bet on the standard theory. When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras—as the old medical saw goes.

SNL is just doing its duty and joining the cacophony. A few hours after the episode aired, NBC’s Meet the Press devoted most of its show to the abortion issue. Michigan’s Attorney General Dana Nessel opened with a Mother’s Day greeting and then explained how, if Roe were overturned, a Michigan state law limiting abortions would spring back into effect—but she would not enforce it.

For some time, many Democrats have embraced a “rule of law for thee but not for me” approach. Call statutes “draconian” (as Nessel and MTP host Chuck Todd called the Michigan law multiple times) and apparently they can just be ignored. Such hypocrisies would seem easy pickings for SNL, but do not hold your breath waiting for the show to depart from the company line. These days SNL may occasionally highlight issues that could embarrass both left and right, but only conservatives are the subject of the punchlines. Take, for example, the “my body, my choice” mask joke in the recent Dobbs cold open or last November’s “Republican or Not” skit.

Comedy at its best does not let us escape the absurdities we personally embrace. SNL alumnus Chris Rock, himself pro-abortion, has noted in a routine that a “safe abortion is an abortion where only one person dies, I guess?” Dave Chappelle, a two-time SNL host, has applied Hugh Hefner-style logic to abortion: “I also believe that if you decide to have the baby, a man should not have to pay. That’s fair. If you can kill this motherf***er, I can at least abandon ’im. It’s my money, my choice.”

During his SNL monologue delivered days after the November 2020 election, Chappelle provided one of the show’s increasingly rare instances of cuts-both-ways comedy. The immediate reaction was mixed. After the audience seemed too afraid to laugh at a joke targeting women and the gender wage gap, Chappelle said (referencing SNL creator and producer Lorne Michaels), “I’m sorry Lorne, I thought we were having a comedy show. It’s like a woke meeting in here.” The millions of views since seem to suggest that there is still an appetite for edgy material not in the sole service of one political party. Do not expect the SNL regulars to get the hint. Abortion is simply too important to them to be a laughing matter.

John Murdock is an attorney who writes from Boise. 

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Photo by Steven Dahlman via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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