Yes, ‘Saturday Night Live’ Can and Should Make Fun of ISIS


The headlines on Sunday declared that Saturday Night Live was “blasted” for its ISIS parody ad which “sparked controversy” and “stirred outrage.” While the condemnations weren’t as widespread as headlines would have us think, it’s certainly true that many viewers on the Internet declared that the sketch “crossed the line.”

The faux ad, a send-up of a cheesy Toyota spot, featured a proud father dropping his teenage daughter off for the next phase of her life. Is it college? Is it the Army?

Nope, turns out its ISIS! The young lady, played by Fifty Shades of Grey‘s Dakota Johnson, rides off into the sunset with machine gun-toting jihadis, who respond to her dad’s misty-eyed, “Take care of her” plea with a solemn, “Death to America.”

I laughed.

The video was one of SNL‘s edgier moments this season, well timed to many a thinkpiece examining the new wave of affluent Western teens who are flocking to join ISIS — drawn, presumably, by the horrific televised atrocities that some say make the group off-limits for parody.

First of all, very little is beyond parody if the parody is smart and appropriately targeted. But beyond that, ISIS is exactly the kind of group that deserves a comic assault the most: self-serious, reliant on terror and fear, Draconian, image-conscious and anti-art.

A weird and similar controversy arose in January, when ISIS was threatening Japanese hostages and Japanese Internet users began to mash up the group’s images with an onslaught of crappy Photoshop memes. Some commentators argued that those wacky Internet creations, while unable to help the hostages, were more effective “counter-propaganda” than anything the US government produced:

By combining IS propaganda with goofy anime characters, Japanese Internet users in turn made IS look silly. Those looking to join the terrorist group know that it is admonished by almost every world leader, which is part of the draw — standing up for what they see is right. But, emasculating these terrorists and depicting them as anything but serious subverts the gravity of their message.

ISIS is beyond barbaric, and I’ll be the first to admit that I personally find its tactics terrifying. But as a result of my discomfort and fear, I found it a relief to be able to laugh at the group. It’s not mere conjecture to assume that ISIS comprises outsize bullies who want to be seen as strong and bloodthirsty. So being portrayed by a bunch of goofballs on a sketch show is in fact an effective way to take that power away from them, at least symbolically.

As always with such situations, Mel Brooks’ obsession with — and careful rules surrounding — mockery of Hitler and Nazi Germany provide a wise and thoughtful guideline. In an interview with German newspaper Der Spiegel, Brooks excoriated Roberto Benigni for making light of the actual concentration camps in his film Life Is Beautiful. His comments explain why, say, a video making fun of ISIS’ treatment of prisoners or cruel executions would have indeed crossed a line. But taking ISIS out of that context and spoofing its members has a power all its own. As Brooks himself said:

Of course it is impossible to take revenge for 6 million murdered Jews. But by using the medium of comedy, we can try to rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths. … There’s something in that. Hitler must have had a magnetic attractive force, like a rock star he used his voice to spellbind umpteen thousands of listeners. So it’s only fitting when comic actors make him the limelight hog of world history. We take away from him the holy seriousness that always surrounded him and protected him like a cordon.

All this having been said, is there an element of this spoof that, maybe unintentionally, mocks Western countries for somehow managing to lose our kids, and our propaganda battle, to these bloodthirsty idiots — or draws an equivalence between the US Army and ISIS?

Sure. Parody is most effective when it has multiple targets and interpretations, and I’m not sure our own self-important pieties don’t deserve even more vicious treatment than those of our self-styled enemies. Still, I can’t see anything wrong with using humor to shrink the shadow that ISIS has cast across the Western imagination. The group probably deserves more lampooning, not less.