SNL Tried To Pivot. It Failed Spectacularly

Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bob Woodruff Foundation)

Gage Klipper Commentary & Analysis Writer
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Saturday Night Live brought back comedian Shane Gillis to host over the weekend, in what can only be seen as a pivot from the show’s far-left turn in recent years. However Gillis, famously fired by the show in 2019 for “offensive” remarks, failed to deliver. All he succeeded at was pissing off the few audience members SNL still has left.

It’s probably not accurate to call Gillis a right-wing comedian. He hails from rural Pennsylvania and adopts an outsider posture to go with his everyman look, which certainly resonates with the conservative ethos that now finds itself firmly outside the bounds of “respectable” society. He became a darling of conservative media after his debut stand-up special gained tens of millions of views, leading to a higher-profile Netflix special the following year. Yet with the added credibility of speaking from experience, he still pokes fun at the Heartland. In the Netflix special, he makes fun of his “Fox News dad” for going to bed angry every night and describes the signs of being an “early onset Republican.” Yet he still resonates; Republicans aren’t looking for comedians to agree with them on everything — that’s the territory of the uptight, humorless left.

And it’s the latter who now firmly command SNL.

By default, Gillis falls to the right-wing camp because the left will not touch him. While his policy preferences are anyone’s guess, it’s clear he has nothing but disdain for overbearing, political correctness. In his opening monologue Saturday night, he offended nearly every left-wing sensibility. He laughed off the remarks that got him fired — “Don’t Google that!” He made gay jokes, black jokes, even jokes about down syndrome — and how it all makes liberals so uncomfortable. Of course, the result was predictable. Gillis himself repeatedly cringed, waiting several times for applause that never came, even haphazardly pleading with the audience to clap.

To anyone who’s not a woke scold, Gillis’ set was quite funny. However, the corporate media backlash was swift and severe. By the following morning, countless pieces popped up calling him “divisive,” “controversial” and chastising SNL for offering him “unearned rehabilitation” and “forgiv[ing] racism.” This is nothing but a veiled threat: toe the party line, or we’ll keep publicly implying SNL is racist. For all the grief it garnered from the left, it’s hard to imagine the episode doing much to bring back Heartland viewers who have long stopped watching. (RELATED: Shane Gillis Is Objectively Funny On ‘SNL,’ So Obviously Corporate Media Is Throwing A Tantrum)

For nearly as long as the SNL’s existed, it’s been customary to point out that it’s not as funny as it used to be. For me, a millennial, the Adam Sandler/Tina Fey era was the Golden Age, while older generations look back to the Dan Akyroyd/John Belushi era as the unbeatable standard. Yet even by these fluid metrics, SNL has been conspicuously — and objectively — in decline over the past several years. Faced with the lowest ratings in its nearly 50-year history, NBC did what every flailing network has done and decided to cater to “modern audiences.”

The show always had a liberal bent, but historically, any public figure was fair game. It even invited Donald Trump to host in 2015 for a pretty funny episode. But as the media dragged us into more poisonous politics, the show began to choose sides more aggressively. Alec Baldwin became a mainstay (and won an Emmy) for his recurring, mean-spirited portrayal of Trump. Jokes about Republicans began to center more on how dumb, racist, and malicious they are, while jokes on Democrats became more superficial, whether they’re cool or nerdy, or have funny mannerisms.

With the departure of veterans like Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, and Pete Davidson, the show brought on a slew of younger, new diversity hires. Sketches now frequently attempt to appeal to Gen Z — presumed to be woke, diverse, and extremely online — the younger demographic the show struggles with the most according to a Newsweek poll from 2023. But it’s no wonder that 74% of  Americans over 65 didn’t miss SNL “at all” during the writer’s strike, given sketches about TikTok trends, gay culture, and of course, how out-of-touch and racist white people continue to proliferate. (RELATED: ‘White Men Can Trump’: SNL Spoofs Former President’s Sneaker Release In Movie Trailer Sketch)

In catering to those with advanced Trump Derangement Syndrome and progressive, youth culture, the show has alienated nearly everyone else. So the move to bring back Gillis can only be seen as a pivot from the pivot, an attempt to claw back lost ground. But it just didn’t work. Gillis might have delivered for a broader audience, but the painfully unfunny cold open about awful Trump proved the show hasn’t had a change of heart. It’s just doing some good, old-fashioned pandering. The media quickly made it clear that SNL isn’t even allowed to do that.

Trained by hysterical media arbiters, left-wing viewers know they’re not supposed to laugh at Gillis. They only want to laugh along with those who rip their enemies.  Meanwhile, the right is not coming back as long as the broader spirit of the show remains the same. So SNL has boxed itself in. It’s now forced to cater to the only viewers it has left, those who won’t tolerate anything that doesn’t explicitly agree with their values and preferences. To continue to pivot to anything outside the acceptable bounds would risk driving away these viewers and tanking ratings even more.

So now we find ourselves in a dystopian nightmare where comedy shows must cater to a group of people who hate comedy.