In 2021, SNL found a new way to talk about men. And the weird thing is, the honesty is oddly more brutal than it is funny. Although the 2021 Saturday Night Live season ended on a bit of a whimper with the truncated Paul Rudd episode, the overall trend has been amazing. SNL’s new male discourse isn’t the brotastic Wild and Crazy Guys of 1977. It’s something more cutting. And better.
“I need you to go outside the house and make a friend so you talk to other people about this stuff and not just me,” an annoyed woman (Ego Nwodim) instructs her eager partner (Pete Davidson) patiently. We hear another man (Alex Moffat) babbling about football to his wife while she’s trying to put groceries away. “All the words come out fast and in the wrong order,” Heidi Gardner says, “because he hasn’t spoken to anyone else that day.”
“It’s not their fault masculinity makes intimacy so hard,” we hear Cecily Strong’s narrator voice explain in the faux commercial spot. Luckily, SNL has come up with a solution: Man Park. It’s like a dog park but for men, where fellas in relationships can talk to others and find a genuine connection over shared interests. The desperation is real: At one point a guy (Andrew Dismukes) learns another dude (Aristotle Athari) loves Bo Burnham, and he’s so overcome with joy that he lunges for a hug and asks him to be his best man (although he’s not even engaged to be married yet).
It may not be a particularly novel insight at this point that men have fewer friends and are reportedly lonelier than women (Fatherly even dedicated a chapter, “The Case for a Cigar,” to this in the Fatherhood book). But we’ve entered into an era when it’s become enough of a known problem that the show’s bullshit barometer would pick up on the sad, disappointing truth and find a way to skewer it.
Saturday Night Live has traded in an over-the-top characterization of masculinity for years — jokes that in many ways celebrate toxic bros as much as it pokes fun at them. From the time Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd debuted the Festrunk Brothers, a.k.a. the “wild and crazy guys” to Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake portraying Nineties R&B lady-killing personas with 2009’s “Dick in a Box,” we’ve grown used to seeing men obsessed with sex but unsure how to get it. But a new reality of buddies in touch with their emotions has been percolating on the show in recent years.
Look back to February of 2021, where a sketch featured a group of friends shooting pool in a dive bar when host Regé-Jean Page puts Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License” on the jukebox. At first, they scoff, pretending not to know the hit teen break-up anthem (“Wait, what am I listening to?”), but soon enough Alex Moffat is explaining that the lyrics are actually about the kids from High School Musical: The Series, as they begin to break down the drama between Rodrigo, Joshua Bassett, and Sabrina Carpenter.
This sketch was probably pretty surprising for dedicated SNL watchers. Nineties Saturday Night Live — led by Dana Carvey, Mike Meyers, and Adam Sandler through David Spade, Will Ferrell, and Tracy Morgan in the 2000s — would have had the pool hall bunch mock the sensitive sap who emotes to a song written by a teenage girl. But 2020s SNL has that group of straight guys share an in-depth conversation about pop music — including references to Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift’s influence on the singer-songwriter craft — as they sing and sway along to the bridge. The fact that former scum-bro Pete Davidson (a.k.a. Ariana Grande’s ex) is at the center of this scrum of feel-good feels like the ultimate coup de grace for macho apathy. “Yo, bro,” Page says. “If Olivia has taught us anything, it’s that pain can be creatively generative.”
For the past few seasons, it felt as if the funny women — led by the powerhouse trio of Kate McKinnon, Cecily Strong, and Aidy Bryant — were setting the agenda for the SNL writers. Whether it was their game-changing impressions of conservative male politicians or music videos that addressed sexual harassment and predatory men (“Welcome to Hell”), the women dominated. Now it looks like we’ve entered the dadcore era.
“Dadcore” usually refers to the fashion trend of wearing pleated khakis, button-downs, frumpy cardigans, and other outdated duds favored by (a caricature of) men who preferred comfort over style. Or the younger generation’s newfound embrace of their dads’ classic and indie rock music tastes (think Led Zeppelin to Weezer). Perhaps it’s inevitable that it would seep into the late-night comedy stalwart since most of the men on the show are in fact dads, the latest being 39-year-old Colin Jost welcoming his baby boy Cosmo this past summer with wife Scarlett Johansson.
Are we living in an alternative universe in which men are in fact confronting their vulnerability? Or is this just the reality that dads and husbands find themselves in such a crisis that it’s yet another attempt to recuperate their relevance? As Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk pointed out in August: “The white guys who used to be default protagonists on TV and in American life, all of the beleaguered dads, bad bosses, authoritative leaders, and wild-card mavericks, are no longer the main characters. So what happens to that guy now? Should he be erased? Can he be rehabilitated, his entitlement washed away? Where is he supposed to go?”
One answer has been to continue to skewer his cluelessness and expose the idiocy that has been perpetuated for generations. Take for example last year’s “December to Remember” car commercial spoof. It reminds us that we’re in the season when men are traditionally encouraged to make big purchases without consulting anyone, including their spouse since that surprise is so fundamental. But here dumb dad (Beck Bennett) is called out by his wife for his financial fecklessness. Then there’s the family Christmas skit that shows Mom (a perfectly frazzled Kristen Wiig) receiving a boring robe while the clueless Dad and kids (and even the dog) rejoice in their holiday plunder. For many, this played out like a true-to-life documentary rather than a comedy.
Bennett, who recently departed after eight seasons, had a special knack for portraying these father-knows-nothing types. In the “Picture With Dad” sketch from May 23, he snags a shotgun for his daughter’s prom photo setup. “People are doing it. It’s a thing. It’s like, ‘Bang!’” he says before accidentally shooting himself in the crotch. He’s then wheeled into ER where the doctor (Anya Taylor-Joy) informs him they won’t be able to reattach his mangled member and he had no clue his daughter had been screwing her boyfriend for years.
Kenan Thompson, on the other hand, more directly plays to the dadcore. Thompson, who holds the record for the longest time in the cast of Saturday Night Live, has long played the goofy patriarch or self-aware man. His self-titled NBC sitcom further leans into this, in which he plays a widowed dad, who moves in with his father-in-law (played by Don Johnson), only further reinforces that reputation.
Then there’s Jason Sudeikis, who was hired as an SNL writer in 2003, went on to star as a cast member from 2005 to 2013. He hosted on October 23 this year as a changed character, the beloved mascot of every left-leaning dad due to his starring role in the feel-good Ted Lasso on AppleTV+.
Sudeikis came and played the hits, reprising his popular tracksuit-wearing role opposite Thompson for the “What’s Up With That?” sketch, showing off his bad-boy charm as he flirted with a mom during a parent-teacher meeting, and hilariously maneuvering an Indecent Proposal-style set up while at a casino with his wife. Then there was “Mellen.”
Promoted as a new show for men, with the “daytime fun energy of Ellen with a hard, masculine edge,” Sudeikis plays the “man’s man” host: cut to him dumping a pot of red sauce on a guest chef. “Mellen won’t just high-five the audience” — which is filled with basic guys dressed in plaid, sporting backward baseball caps, hoodies and windbreakers — “he’ll nut-tap ‘em too!” There’s awkward male dancing, kids who slap their teachers to get famous on TikTok, segments on crypto, and smoking cigars. Plus, Mellen loves pranks (like Philly Flyers mascot Gritty busting into women’s bathroom stalls) and he gets “heroic psychopaths” like Conor McGregor to open up the “only way men know-how”: while holding golf clubs.
In its way, Mellen” isn’t celebrating toxic masculinity at all, it’s exposing its stupidity. Similar to how they tackled the years of indoctrination in the 2017 “Kool-Aid Man” sketch at the height of the #MeToo movement by warning, “The Kool-Aid boys watching today will be the Kool-Aid men of tomorrow.”
So what does it mean that a show with such anarchic comedy roots — and has been plagued by accusations of sexism, racism, and homophobia for decades — is challenging some of its core tenets so brazenly. Has it just reached progressive enlightenment in its middle-age? Or is it just one more iteration that will be washed away?
It might have something to do with that strange 2020-21 Saturday Night Live at Home pandemic season. It not only gave viewers a peek into the players’ personal lives (and homes), it meant that regular players were given permission to be more vulnerable. That Mikey Day “Dad Prank Video” sketch with his actual son (who also appeared in a kids’ clothing takedown sketch) is tough to watch because it feels so real. The soul-searching that so many have done during the past two years of confusion and heightened health anxiety has inevitably infected the worldview of the cocky comedians.
But let’s fess up: It’s impossible to pin any cultural trend on a protean sketch show, made up of an ensemble cast with rotating parts, whose principal aim is to mock real-life moments and cultural trends. As soon as you think they’re woke, there will be a cringe moment from a Michael Che joke, or host Bill Burr portraying “real Bostonians” as he beats up his kid in a fake promo spot for Sam Adams’ new pumpkin beer (sure, this could be seen as skewering toxic masculinity, but it also has nearly too much fun with it; “Man Park” this is not).
Ultimately the credit has to go to the diversity of the writers and their ability to expand the pool of talent (Che and Jost continue as the show’s head writers, along with Kent Sublette and Anna Drezen). So let’s not forget the influence of queer writers such as Julio Torres and Bowen Yang (who’s been promoted to a featured player on the show). In the pivotal December 2016 “Wells for Boys” sketch — which pokes fun at gender norms — the dad (played by Bobby Moynihan) is pilloried for not understanding their sensitive son, and when another neighborhood boy calls the toy “weird; I don’t get it,” Emma Stone (as the mom) barks: “That’s because it’s not for you, because you have everything!” Who would have imagined SNL might just be the Trojan horse to teach our boys empathy and compassion?
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