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A defense of SNL’s over-obvious sendup of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh

Saturday Night Live’s political satire lacks teeth. But if it had teeth, it wouldn’t be as successful.

Matt Damon on Saturday Night Live as Brett Kavanaugh
Matt Damon takes on the role of Brett Kavanaugh on Saturday Night Live.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Saturday Night Live’s depiction of Brett Kavanaugh as an angry, petulant man of privilege, so unused to being challenged that he started screaming when confronted with just about anything, was an over-obvious bit of political satire — a lukewarm take, driven less by anything concrete the show had to say and much more by its supposed obligation to say it.

Mark Harris of Vulture captured this feeling nicely when he wrote:

The sketch didn’t build so much as persist; it kept distracting itself from itself. It threw in an Alyssa Milano gag, and then repeated it, and also gave us Rachel Mitchell (Aidy Bryant) getting a tiny desk and no time to speak, and a recurring sight gag with water glasses, and a Bill Cosby riff, and a Mark Judge reference that flew past most of the studio audience. The sketch was unusually long — it clocked in at a lumbering, replay-unfriendly, everybody-into-the-minivan 13 minutes. And as is often the case when the show attempts to recreate something that’s already been picked to pieces, it checked a lot of boxes, and, in lieu of a climax, just sort of petered out and handed in its completed worksheet.

I understand where Harris is coming from. I’ve been there many times before, as when I wrote in late 2017 that SNL had been the emptiest TV show of the year. Despite the way the media trumpeted the series’ ability to needle Donald Trump to such a degree that he sometimes responded on Twitter, I found the show’s satire of his administration to be functionally without a center, more invested in lampooning the way the president moves and talks than in saying anything meaningful about him.

And yet as I watched the Matt Damon-as-Kavanaugh sketch on Saturday night (and a later series of jokes about Kavanaugh during Weekend Update), I both enjoyed myself and was reminded of one of Saturday Night Live’s primary keys to success: Sometimes, all that matters is that the show noticed all of the things you noticed, and then made jokes about them.

Saturday Night Live has value as a show that solidifies the broadest possible ridiculous caricature of someone in the news

I agree with most of Harris’s criticisms of the Kavanaugh sketch — especially its length and ultimate lack of resolution — but there’s one area where I think the sketch is more pointed than he gives it credit for: It completely crystallizes a version of Kavanaugh as an angry, spittle-flecked asshole who’s not accustomed to being questioned in the slightest.

If you spent any time on Twitter during last week’s hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, this characterization of Kavanaugh is not going to seem like an especially original observation. Indeed, it’s an over-obvious takeaway from the whole ordeal. And yet there are a lot of people who didn’t spend their time during last Thursday’s hearing on Twitter, or watching it live, who might have only heard about it second- or third-hand well after it was over. And for that audience, SNL matters in a way that other late-night shows (which are typically more obvious in their partisan beliefs) just don’t.

Nobody is going to accuse SNL of having conservative politics, or even particularly moderate politics. The show has always had a progressive lean, one that has become especially evident in the Trump era. And yet it’s not a series that takes bold political stances. It believes in itself as a big tent, and what it tends to notice about political figures are their most obviously silly traits, just like Lorne Michaels would want.

SNL’s Trump is a blowhard, a depiction that few Trump supporters would deny is rooted somewhere in reality. Its Obama was a bit cold and aloof, its Hillary Clinton a relentless striver, and its George W. Bush a malapropism-spouting manchild. These are not particularly bold takes on any of these figures, and the longer that any of SNL’s caricatures sticks around, the more grating it inevitably becomes. But the ability to instantaneously create the definitive political cartoon caricature of any figure in the news is now pretty much the sole domain of SNL.

Think of how many times the show has, for good or ill, instantly defined some fly-by-night figure or news event. Be it Tina Fey’s bumbling Sarah Palin or Darrell Hammond’s robotic Al Gore or even Larry David’s kvetching Bernie Sanders, SNL’s purified and boiled-down sendups help define who these figures are in a way that holds tremendous power. (You could even argue this tendency goes back all the way to the show’s very first season, when Chevy Chase depicted Gerald Ford as the consummate bumbler.)

I don’t know that this ability has a lot of value, but it still has some value. An edgier, more politically cutting SNL might be more appealing to me, but I’m somebody who spends a lot of time reading and thinking about politics. In that sense, SNL isn’t really for me. It’s for all of the people who, despite having heard the name Brett Kavanaugh, haven’t really given him much thought.

For that audience, SNL used its Kavanaugh cold open to once again skewer someone in the news with its typical brand of over-obvious precision. I didn’t come away with any new thoughts about Kavanaugh from seeing Matt Damon play him, but for a lot of people, he’s now instantly frozen in time as a spoiled brat. It’s arguable how much that matters in 2018, but I find something comforting about the idea of this lumbering dinosaur of a TV show still occupying a weird corner of the limelight.