Saturday Night Live‘s May 8 episode garnered a lot of raised eyebrows. The week before the episode taped, social media buzzed about the unusual hosting combination of a rebranded Miley Cyrus and tech-billionaire Elon Musk. Watching the episode, however, it wasn’t the hosting duo that dominated my thoughts — it was the writing and acting during the ill-conceived skit “Gen-Z Hospital.”
Before the pseudo-intro had even faded to the background, the discomfort had already set in my body. A group of friends are waiting in a hospital lobby for the doctor to give an update on their “bestie.” The characters start talking with intentional “Gen-Z” lingo in their secondhand Depop shirts and cross-body bags. “If he keeps leaving us on read, he’s gonna catch these hands on gang,” says a pixie-cut Heidi Gardner. Even the doctor played by Musk throws in a “no caps” or two for the audience to laugh at.
It took me a second to understand my intuitive uneasiness, but as it kept playing, I realized what makes this sketch uncomfortable is that if we didn’t know the sketch title, this would pass as essentially comedic blackface. The language wasn’t taken from Gen-Z; it was taken from the Black community. SNL‘s use of Black vernacular and language is unsettling and, overall, doesn’t make for good comedy.
But this is how the TikTok kids are talking! This has nothing to do with race!
Race within the digital realm is a new territory that we are all trying to navigate. Is it okay to retweet something with the N-word if you aren’t Black? Am I being enough of an activist on my social media? Am I being too much of an activist? Did I overuse this filter and accidentally do blackface? The waters are even murkier on these content-driven platforms where the gap between creators and consumers is nonexistent. We decide what goes viral, what trends, and what flops. TikTok is a clear reflection of this type of relationship and power that consumers have.
With the app’s cultural dominance over the past year, skepticism of and critiques on its effects have followed, as they always do. One of those criticisms is the way some users use specific language and verbiage to go viral. Much of that verbiage is directly taken from Black people. AAVE, or African-American Vernacular English, was a way of speaking that bonded lower- and working-class black people and is still used today, but now, it’s by more than just Black people.
“Hella.” “Woke.” “Sis.” “Snatched.” “Deadass.” What was once scolded and dubbed “ghetto talk” has quickly jumped to being supposedly funny and sensationalistic. YouTube influencers and Instagram comedians have been checked time and time again for acting Black or using a specific voice when trying to go viral or just be funny.
And maybe that is the overall problem with this SNL sketch. Comedy’s proximity to uncomfortableness is the risk of something being funny or missing the mark; that’s what makes it comedy. And you’re telling me this passed multiple screenings, readings, and rehearsals? The few minutes of the sketch aren’t shut-off-the-TV kind of bad, but sitting there in my Blackness, watching an almost all-white cast do what I’ve been instructed not to do is a strange feeling. And I know this feeling doesn’t sympathize with funniness.
With a show like Saturday Night Live, the stakes are high. And unlike TikTok, SNL has a relationship with an untailored audience, a relationship that has been inherited rather than personalized. I believe if you’re going to have a stake in comedy and defining what that is, you have a responsibility to keep dusting off the line in the sand and pushing it forward, bit by bit, laugh by laugh. Luckily, the chance to erase that line for them comes weekly, and all we can do is hope that it’s further than the last. No more capping. Please.