Nothing about what happened last weekend in Charlottesville is funny, but leave it to “Saturday Night Live” to try anyway.
On a special Weekend Update edition of the show early Friday morning, Tina Fey ranted and raved about the president and the white nationalists who support him. Oh, and she also consumed a massive sheet cake with an American flag on it.
“Find a local business you support, maybe a Jewish-run bakery or an African American-run bakery, and order a cake … and just eat it,” Fey advised, before digging in.
“I’m sorry, how is that supposed to help?” host Colin Jost asked.
“Sheet-caking is a grass-roots movement,” Fey said.
Of course, it’s not.
Some bristled at the very suggestion that the hurt Charlottesville has caused could be remedied with the right amount of vanilla icing. In Fey’s defense, she was hardly telling her audience that they shouldn’t be shaken to the core by what is happening in their country. She was saying that eating an extremely large cake helped her, and that if it helped other people they shouldn’t be ashamed of shoveling thousands of calories of eggs and butter into their mouths.
But, to others, there was a bigger problem with Fey’s performance, amusing as it might have been. A variation on Jost’s question — not “how does this help,” but “how can I help?” — is the same one viewers across the country are asking. What, when the hate that has always lurked below the surface of American life has suddenly leapt into full view, can they do to confront it?
Fey had an opportunity to offer Americans an answer. And she did offer one: Stay inside and eat a cake that a black person baked.
Fey’s argument, to be fair, was slightly more nuanced. She doesn’t want to see any good people get hurt standing up against people whose views are so vile they don’t even deserve a hearing. Yet, when it comes down to it, she was telling Americans to keep to their homes rather than take to the streets and fight back. To many, that amounts to tacit acceptance of a threat that deserves our active attention.
Maybe Fey wanted people to eat a cake, and eat one baked by a minority-owned business, and then use the energy from that sugar rush to run for school board, or do some local organizing, or attend a protest. But she didn’t say so.
Fey’s appearance didn’t raise questions only about the correct way to counter the rising tide of right-wing vitriol. It also underscored the blurred lines between comedy and activism. Fey, some suggested, shouldn’t be on the hook for what was at its core nothing more than an extended joke. Her job isn’t to lead the resistance; it’s to make people laugh.
But Fey is just the latest in a long line of comedians who have, of their own accord, entered the political fray. It’s not as if Tina Fey appeared on a talk show to announce “Bridesmaids 2” and got blindsided with a question about the unrest at her alma mater. She chose to get on TV and make an argument about the issue of the day. Fey’s critics aren’t politicizing a comedian; this comedian politicized herself.
There’s no rule that says funny people shouldn’t involve themselves with politics — just ask Al Franken. But it’s not unreasonable to ask those who do involve themselves to be responsible about how they use their premade platform.
We can, of course, disagree about whether confronting club-wielding neo-Nazis with more clubs is productive. We can even disagree about whether confronting them with words is productive — whether their speech is not worthy of a measured, reasoned response and it is better to let them scream into the void, all the while indulging our culinary cravings.
Fey picked a side. There’s nothing wrong with the audience taking her to task if she’s going to say “let us eat cake.”