SNL Skipped Politics, But Still Dealt With Big Issues

Taking a week off from Trump sketches gave Saturday Night Live the chance to talk about something even more important.

Adam Sandler eulogizes Chris Farley (www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live))

When Adam Sandler came back home to host Saturday Night Live last weekend, observers noted that the show largely avoided politics.

There was no cold open featuring Alec Baldwin’s face scrunched into his mouth-breathing caricature of President Donald Trump. Despite ongoing friction between Congressional Democrats and the White House over the special counsel’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, Robert Meuller impersonator Robert DeNiro was absent from Studio 8H. There was no Aidy Bryant cross-dressing as Attorney General Bob Barr. Outside of Weekend Update’s short news riffs, the show seemed to leave Washington alone.

That’s not a welcome result to some, who prefer their comedy skew more toward the screeds of later Lenny Bruce and feel SNL should get edgier in skewering the current administration. The philosophy behind such demands rests on the idea is that joke-tellers, especially those with a mass media platform, have an obligation to act as social critics. Simply making an audience laugh isn’t enough; a show like SNL must, under this theory, deal with the day’s Big Issues. By that standard, last week’s episode of SNL seemed like it shirked its responsibility.

Then, after a Saturday night of non-political jokes, Sandler’s — and the episode’s — shining moment came just before the final credits, in a tribute song to the late Chris Farley. It wasn’t meant to be funny, but it was accidentally the night’s most relevant piece of social commentary.

By now, you’ve probably seen Sandler’s requiem for his former castmate and friend — if not from his SNL performance, then from his Netflix comedy special, 100% Fresh, where it debuted. Farley, of course, died almost 22 years ago, a casualty of his own hard-partying lifestyle. Sandler’s dirge doesn’t shy away from Farley’s destructive flaws, but doesn’t judge them, either. Yes, Farley’s death was caused by his own behavior, but that’s not the point. The point is that he’s gone, and those left behind miss him.

The tribute’s sincerity gets underscored when Sandler sings that he wishes he and Farley were getting ready to film Grown Ups 3. Throughout his movie career, Sandler's penchant for casting friends and SNL alums has not been subtle; Grown Ups is overt about this goal even by Sandler’s standards. The paper-thin plot revolves around five childhood friends reuniting for a funeral; four of those friends are played by Sandler, Chris Rock, Rob Schnieder, and David Spade. You can see exactly what the movie shoots for: It’s the cinematic equivalent of hanging out with a group of old friends yukking it up at a wedding party, now with wives and kids, marveling at how much different you behave around an open bar in your thirties versus your twenties. Kevin James taking the fifth spot, and during a scene in which he entertains the other four by dancing with a fast food chicken bucket over his head, it’s obvious that he’s a stand-in for Farley.

When Sandler and his friends gather, the reunions will always have an empty chair where Farley should be. The early-1990s “bad boys of SNL” got to mature, start families, and enjoy professional success; they never got to see an aging Farley cutting up the kids table at a backyard cookout with G-rated versions of the antics that livened up SNL after parties. When Sandler wistfully sings about watching his children laugh at his deceased friend’s antics in Tommy Boy, you share a little of the pain he must feel.

And that’s a pain too many others can relate to in recent years.

How many people have watched close friends, family, and loved ones succumb to addiction, mental illness, or self-loathing? How many people have watched it happen — perhaps, like Sandler sang, even told their friends or family to “slow down” or seek help— but found themselves powerless to stop the spiral? How many people have marked family gatherings, weddings, or birthday parties with a noticeably empty chair sitting in the corner?

Sadly, these questions are not rhetorical.

The Department of Health and Human Services reported that an average of about 130 Americans died of opioid-related overdoses each day from 2016 through 2017. An estimated 11.4 million abused opioid painkillers in 2017, and almost 900,000 used heroin.

The National Center for Health Statistics shows that suicide rates have risen over the past two decades, from 10.5 per 100,000 in 1999 to 14.0 out of 100,000 in 2017; the trend is all the more troubling because the growth has been slow and sustained. Particularly affected are younger people: Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people aged 10–34.

Fatalities from things like drug addiction and suicide have been labeled by Princeton professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton as “deaths of despair.” (Timothy Carney talks about the impacts and roots of this phenomenon in his excellent book, Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.) Statistics can show the prevalence of such deaths across America, yet for many families, the most staggering number is “one” — as in the son or daughter or sister or brother who isn’t around anymore, whose single absence leaves a void in others’ lives.

There was only one Chris Farley, but there have also been a million other Chris Farleys — people who brought joy to others, but who couldn’t find that joy themselves, and who fell into self-destructive activities and eventually death.

It’s no less sad if the cause of death is caused by someone’s own behaviors. The point is that they’re gone, and those left behind miss them.

Sketches about national politics might be crowd-pleasers (especially for a certain type of crowd), but the issues they tackle aren’t nearly as seismic as addiction and suicide are to those affected. Even if you think the President is an idiot, in 2021 or 2025 he won’t be President anymore. The pain of losing a loved one has no term limit.

When Adam Sandler capped the night by mourning his own friend’s death of despair, he echoed the pain millions of others have felt.

For one weekend, Saturday Night Live didn’t use its stage to spoof Washington. They found a way to talk about something bigger, instead.