When I heard that Saturday Night Live would be airing a special summer series of Weekend Update segments, I’ll admit I didn’t expect them to offer glimpses of God’s truth. I tuned in to the satirical news segment for a few laughs, but what I discovered—sandwiched between the uncouth and sometimes vulgar content—was a demonstration of how ironic humor can be a force for biblical justice.
In recent seasons of SNL, Colin Jost and Michael Che have taken on the Weekend Update mantle. This summer’s installments featured hilarious jabs at Anthony Scaramucci, Steve Bannon, and, of course, President Donald Trump. But after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., erupted in violence in August, Che and Joust teamed up with Tina Fey to offer a mix of justifiable, righteous anger and biting sarcasm, highlighting not only the evils of white supremacy, but also the necessity for Americans to engage in the ongoing fight for justice and racial equality.
At the center of Fey’s brief appearance is her irony-laced proposal encouraging “sheet-caking,” wherein one funnels frustrations and anger over an event like Charlottesville into an act of distracting indulgence: binging on a gratuitously frosted sheet cake. Diving into the cake that has been placed in front of her, Fey spits out pointed political barbs, even as she shoves forkful after forkful into her mouth.
In order to fully appreciate this bit, it’s important to remember that Fey’s brand of humor is overwhelmingly sarcastic. At the same time, it is often so finely finessed that it can be misunderstood; those who took her proposal literally were offended, distressed that Fey seemed to be suggesting an extreme form of denial and helplessness. In reality, however, her grief and her eventual call to action are nestled deep within her exaggerated, seemingly flippant performance. Her actions directly and purposefully belie her real message.
Fey provides a hint of what she’s up to by including more obvious examples of irony, as when she suggests that Trump “gets away with” things “’cause he’s gorgeous.” As she continues, both her actions and her advice regarding sheet-caking become increasingly ridiculous and incongruous with the more pointed comments she’s making between mouthfuls, demonstrating a level of sophistication that may be lost on a quick viewing. Consider also that after Fey first announces her proposal, Jost responds, “How is that supposed to help?” As she continues to dig into the cake in an exaggerated manner, it becomes apparent that perhaps we should not take Fey’s proposal seriously. Because satire is often marked by ridiculousness, caricature, and reversal, Fey’s muted screaming into her cake (in lieu of screaming at Nazis); her suggestion that it’s OK for white supremacists to carry semi-automatic rifles without any sort of police interference; and her eventual dipping of a grilled cheese sandwich into her cake should all clue the savvy viewer into the incongruity of her actions with her actual message.
Fey closes her subversive call to action with this tongue-in-cheek suggestion, regarding plans for more upcoming white supremacist rallies: “Treat these rallies this weekend like the opening of a thoughtful movie with two female leads: don’t show up,” alluding to Sisters, her less-than-stupendously received 2015 movie with Amy Poehler. Of course Fey would want audiences to attend her movie; this final sentence solidifies the incongruity of sheet-caking and her true meaning.
So many of us are guilty of what Fey sardonically proposes: channeling our anger over injustice into ineffectual, private actions. What I believe Fey is actually asking us to do is something much different: to get involved in a safe, empathetic, and outward-focused manner and fight for the marginalized. Speaking out and showing solidarity comes first, but this very solidarity necessitates action. As Elaine Scarry writes in On Beauty and Being Just, justice is “a symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other.” When we reach outside of ourselves and practice justice and mercy toward those who are disparaged by society, we begin to right wrongs and create that symmetry, a symmetry that Fey proposes by comically exaggerating self-focused paralysis, which accomplishes nothing.
In Micah 6:8, we are told to channel our frustrations with sin and evil into change-inducing, redemptive acts: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” As believers, we must not only be aware of injustice, we must move a step beyond and counter it: “act justly.” Though many church leaders (but not nearly enough) have spoken out against white supremacy, reinforcing that it flies in the face of the Gospel, how many Christians are willing to back up our spoken support of solidarity with actions demonstrating biblical justice, mercy, and compassion?
Fey’s bit on Weekend Update is itself this form of action. She has moved to create change by using her gifts (satirical wit) in the arena God has place her (comedy). Her frustration and controlled anger feels genuine, authentic, and delivers a punch—a challenge. How can we act similarly, using our own gifts and working within our own arenas to promote God’s truth regarding the equality of all humankind? At the center of the Gospel are Jesus’ two commands: to love our God and to love our neighbor. How can we love others, defend the marginalized, and lift up the weary if we stay at home, sheet-caking? Instead, let’s follow Christ (not a tongue-and-cake-in-cheek Tina Fey) and reach out in actionable love to the hurting.