Tina Fey, Sheet Cake, & Jimmy Fallon Make for a Divisive Second Episode of Weekend Update: Summer Edition

Tina Fey with a sheet cake on Weekend Update
Photo Credit: Will Heath/NBC

Weekend Update: Summer Edition Episode 2 Review by Melissa Jouben & Mark Henely

Melissa Jouben: For anyone who sees a trending news headline and regularly thinks, “I can’t wait for SNL’s take on this!” This week was probably an exciting one. For everyone else, I can’t imagine dreading sitting down to watch a half hour of comedy more than last night. Tensions are high, to say the very least, and anyone who felt safe and secure during the Obama administration is probably the most uncomfortable they’ve ever been. If you fall into that camp, softball political commentary from sources like SNL may start to feel counterproductive. But again, if you look to SNL as a beacon of hope and it hasn’t let you down yet, we may not have found the straw that broke the camel’s back yet. Let’s discuss!

I would say that entire first half of the program was devoted to discussing the events in Charlottesville last weekend as well as the immediate aftermath. I think they certainly made their points clear about what side of the issue they stand on, and a really racially charged situation like this is thankfully easier to navigate with Michael Che and Colin Jost, who trade off on details so that their voices are always authentic.

What I love about their dynamic is that Jost isn’t afraid to be “the white guy,” in the sense that he can set himself up as the butt of a joke and take it entirely in stride. He may or may not be personally accountable for anything, but he isn’t afraid to admonish himself to make a larger point in a conversation about racism. And while I hope that almost a week out from the event most people understand all the details – the who, the where, the why, and most importantly the how – I have to say that anyone who watched this without that context is not going to understand the situation any better. Thanks to Weekend Update we learn who the main players are and we know what the outcome was, but that’s about all we learn.

Let’s take a moment to discuss their first huge misstep of the night: Jimmy Fallon. This is significant, to me, because Fallon has been much maligned after Donald Trump’s pre-election visit to The Tonight Show resulted in what has since gone down as one of the most controversial moments in late night television. Fallon has been accused as going too soft in that interview and not taking Trump seriously; after the election, the moment he tousled Trump’s hair was criticized and counted as a key moment in the election cycle in which voters began to see Trump in a positive light.

I would love not to give Fallon that much credit, but the point is this: Jimmy Fallon helped further Trump’s agenda at a time everyone else on TV was decrying it as dangerous, and his ratings have suffered because of this. His public image has never fully recovered, and his resistance to incorporating political discourse on his show has caused a lack of faith in Fallon as a presenter and host. I understand that his vision for The Tonight Show is one full of silly games and light-hearted exchanges with celebrities who just wish to plug their latest project, and I am not entirely unsympathetic to that. But in most peoples’ eyes, he dipped his toes in the water but refused to go swimming when he should have stayed away from the pool entirely.

But here, his parents at NBC are giving him yet another chance to redeem himself by getting into the shallow end and telling some jokes that don’t necessarily require him to play sides. He, in character as George Washington, is invited to the update desk to talk about the comments Trump made that if statues of Robert E. Lee and other slaveholders went down, “What’s next? George Washington, Thomas Jefferson?” George Washington doesn’t really want to talk about the fact he owned slaves and keeps trying to distract from that point by talking about all the other things he’s most known for: chopping down a cherry tree or his fake teeth.

Eventually he stalls so much that Che brings out Thomas Jefferson, played by Seth Meyers. If anyone is watching Weekend Update Summer Edition for the political commentary and isn’t watching Late Night With Seth Meyers, I recommend correcting that right now. Seth is one of the few voices in late night who is taking a nuanced approach, who spends entire segments diving into the details in the way that I’ve earlier criticized Weekend Update for not, and he also regularly gives an on-air voice to members of his diverse writing staff. In my opinion, Seth’s presence saved this bit by lending credibility to the conversation.

But with all I’ve already said about this episode I haven’t even gotten to one of the quickest things to go viral that I’ve seen in a while. I feel like this clip going viral alerted a lot of people to the fact SNL is even airing new episodes right now. You saw it, I saw, we all saw it by now: Tina Fey’s “sheetcaking” speech. As a disclaimer, my feelings about Tina Fey are about as complex as they can possible get for a person I’ve never met. Where once I viewed her as a prominent feminist and personal role model, I now groan every time she visits the update desk, ever since she came out to do her “bitch is the new black” speech in support of people voting for Hilary Clinton over Barack Obama during the 2008 primaries. She kind of ended up on the wrong side of history with that one. And I don’t think advising white people to stay home and eat cake is going to land her on the right side of history here, either. It seems counter-intuitive to tell people that they should ignore what’s going on in the world and indulge themselves instead, but I also know that I can’t fault Tina too much for using her trademark “food and humor are my coping mechanisms” mentality to cope strictly through eating cake and turning that into a bit. I understand having Tina Fey on as a relevant voice because of the fact she attended the University of Virginia, but I also don’t think she was entirely the best choice due to her lack of insight.

Sasheer Zamata, who left SNL at the end of last season, is also a UVA alum, and I’m not sure if she was contacted at all but I would have liked to see her get on the air and read the post she wrote in the wake of this weekend’s tragedy about her experiences with racism on campus, and how she was able to thrive in spite of it. But I do again want to give Tina Fey a little bit of credit here – some of what she said was at least eye-opening, like her comment on the hypocrisy of allowing white men to march with lit torches but shooting rubber bullets at peaceful Native American protestors at Standing Rock. Regardless, their decision to choose Tina Fey and have her do a piece about how you should disconnect from the news kind of speaks volumes about how far I think they’re currently missing the mark.

Luckily, the show decides to switch gears and just talk about non-political news at a point. I genuinely enjoyed this part of the show the most, especially when Keenan Thompson visits as Neil deGrasse Tyson to discuss his very strange plans for enjoying the eclipse. Keenan’s Neil deGrasse Tyson impressions is honestly one of the funniest characters he’s ever played, and the absurdity of this bit, along with Jost’s reactions, is in my opinion the highlight of the episode. While I do think it’s important to discuss current events, I find that SNL’s real healing power is in the silliness of the things that don’t tie back to anything. It reminded me why I love this show and review it every week, and thanks to Keenan I am very much looking forward to when SNL comes back for real in September or October.

I understand that Weekend Update has a fine line to toe as it pertains to blending comedy and current events. You HAVE to stay funny. But this is a show that is considered such a stalwart of political information and entertainment that it came back early from summer vacation to keep itself relevant. It almost seems like they’re trying to set the bar as low as possible so that they don’t have to stress out about how high it is. I can’t help but think about what other late night television shows are doing right now and how they’re tackling these issues and I think that Weekend Update would like to think they’re leading the curve, but in reality they’re lagging very far behind right now. And I think this episode just sets them back further.

Mark Henely: Last week I praised Weekend Update for being a strong segment that stood confidently as a stand alone show, but this week’s edition didn’t feel confident to me. Sure, the outstanding joke craft was there. Che and Jost were excellent as always, but the use of guest stars felt desperate.

It felt like SNL was trying to go viral with Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, and Tina Fey. Maybe they weren’t happy with last week’s ratings; I don’t know. It just felt cynical to have all of these big names show up to make an appearance without having a regular cast member (other than the well established Keenan Thompson) on the show as well. Mikey Day and Alex Moffat as the Trump brothers was my favorite part of last week’s episode and something I’m going to remember longer than Fallon and Meyers dressed like presidents.

It feel like someone at SNL thought a gif of Tina Fey eating a large cake would be good for the show and so they did it.

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