Jesus may have died for our sins but Chris Rock killed for Saturday Night Live. He killed. Twelve hours ago, he set Studio 8H at Rockefeller Center ablaze with jokes about the Boston Marathon, 9/11 and the commercialization of Christmas. Imagine that: There is still fresh blood to be drawn from jokes about the commercialization of Christmas and that guy with “no bling.” That’s how good Chris Rock is.
But no one has his knickers in a knot over Chris Rock’s jokes about Christmas (at least not yet, but give it time). What has the flame-throwers throwing is the disrespect they say the monologue showed to the victims of last year’s bombing in Boston, and of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Imagine, Rock observed, coming to the end of a 26-mile run, wracked with pain and exhaustion, and the first word you hear is, “Run!” Who sponsored the Freedom Tower, he wondered. “Target?” With his eyes even wider than their usual beyond-human circumference and smiling wickedly, Rock added that it won’t be long before 9/11 is just another excuse for weekend shopping sprees. Oh, man, you could feel the folks in the audience and viewers around the country squirming over that one – as if we haven’t already watched camera-toting, slack-jawed tourist groups, chatting and laughing festively, as they emerge from the charnel house of the World Trade Center memorial site.
It’s been so long since transgressive comedy was welcome on SNL that last night’s opening monologue was shocking, for which we should be deeply grateful. Rock stormed not bravely but gleefully, which is a lot better, into forbidden territory. The locked room behind the sign that says DON’T GO THERE, and which therefore is irresistible, a siren call to a certain species of comedian we really couldn’t live without.
It’s Sarah Silverman joking about rape. Richard Pryor on white people. George Carlin on the seven banned words. Moms Mabley on race (“Colored fellow down home died. Pulled up to the gate. St. Peter look at him, say, ‘What do you want?’ ‘Hey man, you know me. I’m old Sam Jones.’ He looked in his book. ‘Sam Jones?’ he say, ‘No, no you ain’t here, no Sam Jones.’ He said, ‘Oh, man, yes, I am. You know me. I’m the cat that married that white girl on the capitol steps of Jackson, Mississippi.’ He said, ‘How long ago has that been?’ He said, ‘About five minutes ago.'”)
Lenny Bruce on just about everything.
As a Jew, I winced through most of Mel Brooks‘ Broadway musical version of The Producers as everyone around me laughed hysterically at the goose-stepping chorus dancers. The Holocaust: Now there’s a ‘Don’t Go There’ subject for comics if ever one existed. And yet with The Great Dictator in 1940, Charlie Chaplin unleashed Adenoid Hynkel on the world.
Two years later, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be featured Jack Benny and Carole Lombard trying to outfox the Nazis by playing Nazis. Lines from the great screenplay by Lubitsch and Edwin Justus Mayer included these gems: “What he did to Hamlet we are now doing to Poland,” and “If it weren’t for Jews, fags and Gypsies, there would be no theater.” Wince. Lubitsch, of course, was villified for his movie — how dare he make jokes about the situation in Europe. By the time Brooks remade the film, in 1983, it had been acclaimed a minor classic.
Chris Rock, who has what I hear is a great movie to plug – Top Five, in December – performed CPR on Saturday Night Live and left the show with a pulse. He single-handedly returned SNL to the public conversation about topical comedy.
That’s something of a miracle, given the show’s track record of late, when the only conversation SNL has been part of is the one about how bad it is. I don’t believe for one minute Rock meant to dishonor the victims of the Boston Marathon or of the 9/11 attacks. I do think he was jabbing a finger at you and me. Wince.
“Satire is tragedy plus time,” Lenny Bruce said. “You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers, will allow you to satirize it, which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it.”