In the age of cancel culture, some believe that comedy is a dying art form. With factions of the internet constantly policing every word, move and action for political correctness, it’s easy for comedians to feel that nothing they say is safe; after all, what’s comedy if someone (in this case Caitlyn Jenner) isn’t offended?
To answer that question, comedy is still comedy even if no one’s offended — crazy, I know. Unfortunately, this memo seemed to have missed the “Saturday Night Live” writers’ room last weekend.
During a “Weekend Update” segment on the Oct. 26 episode of the show, host Michael Che, while discussing Kanye West’s increasingly strange behavior, began to joke, “How long before this guy tries to change his name to Kathy?” He went on to say, “You might think that I’m crazy, but about five years ago there was a fella named Bruce Jenner…” In the original broadcast of the episode, Che goes on to refer to Jenner with “he/him” pronouns; in the clip uploaded to YouTube, the joke ends there.
This cutting room edit shouldn’t come as a surprise as, during the live broadcast, the studio audience could be heard audibly expressing distaste in the joke, causing Che to fizzle out before sending it back over to co-host Colin Jost.
There’s a lot to unpack there. As someone who’s been actively enjoying what seems to be the “SNL” renaissance in the show’s 45th season, I was watching live when the joke (if it could be called that) was made. Hearing Che so blatantly refer to Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender woman who has been publicly out since 2015, with her deadname seemed almost shocking, especially for a network show with obvious left-leaning values.
What Che — or whoever wrote the line — did in this specific instance is known within the transgender community as “deadnaming.” According to Healthline, deadnaming “occurs when someone, intentionally or not, refers to a person who’s transgender by the name they used before they transitioned.” Che, when telling the joke, and the writers, when writing it, did not deadname Jenner by accident. It was a blatantly disrespectful move made in search of a cheap laugh.
Now, of course, Caitlyn Jenner isn’t perfect. A lifelong Republican, she was vocal with her support for President Trump during the 2016 election and has since retracted that support, writing in a Washington Post column, “Believing that I could work with Trump and his administration to support [the trans] community was a mistake.” Her ability to support Trump and then take this support back only when his policies directly affected her is privilege at its finest, and Jenner has received her fair share of backlash from the transgender community, along with other minority groups.
Regardless, no trans person deserves to be deadnamed. It’s a heinous act that can cause trauma and hurt to even those most comfortable with their identities. Of course, it’s safe to assume that the “Weekend Update” writers did not write this joke with the intention to hurt Jenner, or any member of the trans community, but as writers with access to such a large audience, the repercussions of deadnaming a transgender woman ─ and even going on to use incorrect pronouns ─ should have been taken into account long before the pen even hit the paper.
The controversy also doesn’t come at the best time for “SNL.” Back in September, the show made headlines when it was revealed that new cast member Shane Gillis (who was set to make his debut on the current season) had a history of racist and bigoted comments.
Before an official response was made by “SNL,” Gillis hopped onto Twitter to remind people who were upset at his use of slurs targeting minority groups and the gay community that he is “a comedian who pushes boundaries.” Only adding to the fire, he went on to explain that he was happy to apologize to “anyone who’s actually offended.” Yikes.
“SNL” reacted promptly, firing Gillis before he could even step foot on stage. Still, you have to ask yourself how the comedian got hired in the first place. If it took a handful of internet sleuths less than a day to dig up his comments, how did he get through the hiring process at a major cable network with none of these red flags popping up?
I ask myself similar questions regarding the Jenner joke: How did this get past the writers’ room? Then their bosses? How did Che, who clearly knew the response the joke would get based on his uncomfortable delivery, not step in at the last minute and ask for the joke to be canned?
I still like “SNL.” I believe that this season is one of the funniest in recent memory, with a great cast and some outstanding writing. But I also understand that deadnaming Jenner, a figure who has had to deal with opposition and threats since she came out, was completely irresponsible.
Comedy isn’t dead. There are plenty of comedians who can get laughs without being offensive or shocking, and many of them are working on “SNL.” Hopefully, the backlash they’ve received will prevent the show from stooping to the level of the so-called “comedians who push boundaries” in the future. Less transphobia, more Chloe Fineman as Marianne Williamson, and we’ll all be happy.