Michael Che’s Jibes at Simone Biles Reflect a Problem at ‘SNL’

·5-min read

Michael Che’s eyebrow-raising attempt to score comedic points about Simone Biles’ difficult decision to withdraw from Olympic events aired on NBC might be more surprising if this hadn’t been his longstanding pattern. It points to his tendency to attempt to gin up controversy for a degree of attention even beyond the level a “SNL” star usually receives.

Che, the co-head writer of the show and co-anchor of its “Weekend Update” segment, added a series of since-deleted posts to his Instagram story on Thursday, beginning with ““man, i wanna make fun of simone biles.” He went on to share jokes other Instagram writers had made about Biles, including a crack about Larry Nassar, the former U.S. Gymnastics team doctor currently incarcerated as a sex offender. (Biles is among Nassar’s accusers.) Che later claimed to have been hacked and wiped his Instagram, but the posts fit what has become a career-long modus operandi of punching down.

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Che’s jokes about Biles, as well as his implication that there’s an endless wellspring of things to mock about a young assault victim having a hard time on the world’s largest stage, comes from a place of strange and familiar cruelty that has often been reserved for his critics. (A good summary of Che’s history of using a style of aggressive posting that barely registers as comedy can be found here.)

The comic’s latest incident also rubs up uncomfortably against the current mood of “Saturday Night Live,” a show that lately has attempted a mood of somewhat affected cuddliness. “SNL” is capacious and has room for a lot of different tones in a single episode, but an especially pronounced one in recent seasons has been a sort of celebratory optimism, epitomized, for instance, by Maya Rudolph’s take on Kamala Harris as a cool, strong role model. The show has often seemed so hesitant to offend as to sidestep saying much at all.

Che can certainly be edgy on “SNL,” as in the envelope-pushing annual segment in which he and Colin Jost write controversy-baiting jokes for one another to tell. More often, he seems peevish and out-of-sorts, as if he’s being constrained from doing what he really wants to do. His online output helps solve this riddle: Here is a person who desperately wants to offend people simply for the sake of offense, working at a show that’s diametrically opposed to that goal. There’s something eerily bratty and juvenile about Che’s posts about Biles, which — in addition to dragging a person who’d done nothing worthy of being mocked — simply aren’t that funny. For Che, humor and possible offense are braided together as to be indistinguishable.

That’s a problem for “SNL” generally, although not one it’s seemed particularly interested in solving. During Che’s tenure co-writing and co-hosting “Weekend Update” with Jost (a comic not immune to the tendency to pick on people unlike himself for being unlike himself), the show around it has grown sprightlier and zanier. But the marquee fake-news segment has become a bog of bad vibes right in the middle of the show. And it comes to a head specifically around Biles, a figure who’s been suddenly drawn into an ongoing and all-encompassing debate that our culture grows farther each day from resolving.

Biles’ decision to drop out of Olympic events and has catalyzed two reactions: First, a sort of angry critique of her as unworthy of the position she has achieved thus far in her career, and then a counter-reaction that in choosing to protect herself, she deserves our support and our commendation. This has rapidly become a proxy conversation about various issues — race, gender, generational difference, victimhood — that seem irresolvable.

If you stand in public opposition to her, your positions on other issues are likely guessable, because your adversarial public position towards something that affects your actual life not at all is meant to signal a general stance of being on the cultural right. In the main, national media outlets on this side of the conversation seem especially interested in keeping this conversation going, in fueling our anger and discontent with people living their lives and harming no one. Each little flare-up becomes a days-long story, with the intention of holding viewers’ attention. The collateral damage is people like Biles — a young woman who made an obviously difficult decision, and is rewarded with jokes about her sexual assault told by a comic who doesn’t know how to pick on people his own size.

“Saturday Night Live” may be attempting, post-2020 election, to assume a more fun and sunny place in our national discourse. But one of its biggest stars has found that what works for him — the only way he can consistently hold viewer attention when the show’s off the air — is to try to place himself at the center of a story that seemed, first, to demand empathy and a touch of kindness. One wonders how much longer “SNL” and NBC will be willing to tolerate an act that’s come to swamp the conversation about a show that’s so effortfully all-things-to-all-people, that so plainly understands it’s not built to withstand the culture war its star wants to wage.

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