On the May 3 episode of Saturday Night Live, during the Weekend Update segment, new-ish writer Leslie Jones delivered a monologue loosely based around the news that Lupita Nyong’o was named People magazine’s “Most Beautiful Person.” It started off as a riff on the changing standards of beauty — specifically, black female beauty — but then became something of a stand-up set that was full of slavery jokes. As expected, the Internet backlash was swift. There were angry tweets directed at Jones; angry tweets directed at Saturday Night Live; angry tweets directed at other angry tweets; pieces analyzing, criticizing, or defending Jones’ jokes; Jones using her Twitter to defend herself, and so on. It’s an intense, and ongoing, backlash — but let’s get real: it’s a little too much.
I watched the Saturday Night Live episode as it aired and was admittedly half-asleep by the time Weekend Update happened but still remember thinking, “I’m going to read all about this on Monday, huh?” And yet, I didn’t expect this level of scrutiny because, by the end, the monologue elicited nothing more than a shrug from me.
The response is understandable; slavery is a touchy subject, always has been and always will be, and it makes people very, very uncomfortable when it’s joked about. It especially makes people uncomfortable when it’s joked about on a personal level as Jones did — basically saying that she may not be considered beautiful now, in 2014, but she would’ve been a catch “back in the slave days.” It’s a joke that begs for nervous laughter of the “am I allowed to be laughing at this?” variety.
Leslie Jones, a stand-up comedian who tends to lean toward self-deprecation, was not at her best on Saturday night. That’s the only real complaint I have about the segment: it wasn’t that funny. There were certainly funny parts — “I do not want to be a slave. Hell, I don’t like working for you white people right now, and y’all pay me” — and she did very well with her delivery. But overall, it was a comedy bit that fell flat. It didn’t fall flat because it was offensive, or because no one is ever allowed to ever joke about slavery, or because it had a rape joke (some people claim it did; it didn’t). It fell flat because it wasn’t polished enough, it meandered, and the punchlines just weren’t that funny. And that’s fine! It is very unfortunate for Leslie Jones that the joke landed so poorly in front of such a large audience — Internet included — but these are things that are bound to happen, especially on Saturday Night Live, which is more often bland than funny.
The monologue was built out of Jones’ personal life — on her Twitter, she wrote “This joke was written from the pain that one night I realized that black men don’t really fuck with me and why am I single.” — and it clearly resonated with people (I recommend reading Roxane Gay’s powerful response) as much as it angered people. This personal slant is maybe the problem: This was humor that is better suited for Jones’ stand-up sets than the Weekend Update desk, which tends to tackle the world’s news with a distance that really works for it. I understand these jokes; as a kid, my family and I often made jokes about uncomfortable things like slavery because it was the easiest way for me to process the shitty things that happened in my family tree — but it was also understood that these same first-draft jokes probably wouldn’t go over so well in the middle school talent show.
The monologue seemed very much like a first draft, something that went over OK in the writers room but wasn’t exactly ready for the main stage. It was a misstep for Leslie Jones, but it wasn’t one that deserved all of the anger and articles (including this one, I know) that are being thrown at her. (And that is a problem within itself — again, on her Twitter, Jones wonders if a male comedian would have the same backlash if dealing with similar material. Though it was, admittedly, different, I still don’t recall anyone complaining about Key & Peele’s “Auction Block” sketch.) But really, a misstep was all it was. It wasn’t wildly offensive because it dealt with slavery, it just landed poorly because there wasn’t enough bite and cleverness behind the premise for the punchline to stick the landing. This was Leslie Jones’ first on-screen appearance at SNL, and it’s likely she’ll get better. If not? That’s when it’s time to worry.