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Election 2016: Joss Whedon and ‘Saturday Night Live’ Taught Us How and Why Comedy Can Fail to Inspire

Looking at the politically-themed content created around this election, something became clear — speaking against Donald Trump proved not to be as powerful as speaking in support of Hillary Clinton.

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This fall, Joss Whedon spent $508,374 of his own money to keep Donald Trump from becoming President of the United States.

At least, that’s how much money Whedon put into his political action committee Save the Day, per public FEC filings compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that publishes financial information on PACs and super PACs. According to reports, the brand new super PAC, founded a few months ago, had exactly one donor over the last three months:

Joss Whedon donations

The Save the Date Super PAC’s funds were devoted to producing “digital advertisement productions” — AKA YouTube videos, which culminated in approximately 18,000 channel subscribers and 11.5 million views across 20 shorts over the last few months.

UPDATE: A Save the Day representative provided IndieWire with some additional statistics:

  • In addition to YouTube, Save the Day’s 20 videos were viewed nearly 90 million times across all platforms.
  • Save the Day registered nearly 50,000 voters — 61 percent age 18-29 and 56 percent female.
  • On the Monday before Election Day, Save the Day targeted ad dollars at 35,000 millennial women in New Hampshire, where Hillary ended up ahead by 1,600 votes (347,078 to 345,464).

The themes of these videos varied, as did the styles, but Whedon was able to recruit an impressive array of famous faces to appear in them, with one overarching theme taking priority: please vote, because Donald Trump is a “racist abusive coward who could permanently damage the fabric of our society.”

IndieWire reached out to Whedon for more information about Save the Day, but there is plenty of info currently online in the form of documents filed with the FEC. For one thing, in creating this super PAC and declaring his budgets, Whedon had to make it clear that he was creating content that was against Donald Trump — as opposed to for Hillary Clinton.

Joss Whedon Donald Trump Save the Day

And there’s something about that bureaucratic fact which shines a light on what perhaps has gone wrong this year — because in general, so much of the political commentary we saw in the run up to Election Day was framed in a similar manner.

Take one of the arguably best-produced viral videos released in the days before this Tuesday, “HOLY SH*T (You’ve Got To Vote).” With some beautifully meta references, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” favorite Rachel Bloom and two dozen beloved comedy figures performed a “We Are the World”-esque tribute to encourage voter turnout. While smart and hilarious, Bloom and her collaborators also made the terrifying connection between pre-World War II Germany’s political situation and our current one. But did it really full-on endorse Hillary? Not really. It simply fought her opponent.

There’s also last weekend’s “Saturday Night Live,” which did something really weird — it played nice. Beginning with a predictable cold open featuring Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon going back and forth as candidates Trump and Clinton, respectively, things took a turn as Baldwin broke character. “I’m sorry Kate. I just hate yelling all this stuff at you… Don’t you guys feel gross all the time about this?”

As the audience cheered, the two of them ran out into the (pre-taped) streets of New York to hug passersby while an uplifting “Arcade Fire” track played, returning to Studio 8H with a passionate plea that viewers please vote. “We can’t tell you who to vote for, but on Tuesday we get a chance to choose what kind of country we want to live in,” McKinnon declared.

It was a moment that wasn’t particularly funny, but did stand in stark contrast to election years past. In 2012, the last “SNL” before Election Night didn’t even put the election in the cold open; Obama’s odds were looking good going into his bid for a second term, and Hurricane Sandy had just done serious damage to the New York and New Jersey areas. Thus, the show was a bit preoccupied with celebrating Mayor Bloomberg’s extremely emotive sign language translator.

Perhaps the most overtly political moment in 2012 was when Jason Sudeikis made an appearance as Mitt Romney during Weekend Update, reminding viewers that he was in fact still running for president. But that was nothing compared to 2008, when just three days before the election, Senator John McCain himself showed up to do basically the same thing.

Watching McCain banter with Tina Fey in her Sarah Palin guise is fascinating, especially when Fey/Palin turns to the QVC audience to whom she and McCain have been selling commemorative plates and whispers that she plans to run for president in 2012. Again, McCain is right there, feet away. Watching the sketch, eight years later, it’s so clear that McCain was convinced he was not going to win, because the inspiring messages of the Obama campaign were drowning him out.

Meanwhile, in the final days of the 2016 campaign, “SNL” decided to shy away from taking a hard stand on the election. Instead it aimed for catharsis across party lines, which, to be honest, was refreshing in the moment. But history will look back on it as a wasted opportunity to really say where we were as a nation, as well as a wasted opportunity to speak out.

In the final days of the 2016 campaign, perhaps the only comedian who really had a grasp on what was happening with this election was Robert Smigel’s Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who starred in a series of specials hosted on Hulu. True to his name and reputation, Triumph was pretty brutal in his examination of the election and most importantly the people voting in it — best exemplified by a sketch from the most recent installment, featuring real Trump and Clinton supporters confronted by fake “shocking revelations” from their preferred candidates. These potential voters bend over backwards to justify the most outrageous claims made against the people they support — because these are people selected for their love of their respective candidates.

When you look at voter stats, it becomes clear that an anti-Trump message seems to have lacked the power of a pro-Obama one in 2012. Turnout was down for Democratic voters across the nation, with Clinton losing several key areas that Obama had won previously. Meanwhile, Trump voters turned out in force. Clinton may have won the popular vote, but thanks to the electoral college, Trump is now the President-elect. And Joss Whedon is out some cash.

Joss Whedon spent over half a million dollars — non-tax deductible — of his own money to fund the Save the Day super PAC. Doing so led to the creation of some witty, well-made, intellectually inspired short films. But like a lot of other political comedy this fall, it all came from a place that nurtured fear of the negative, not hope for the positive. The most inspiring message offered to potential voters was “your vote matters, so use it for God’s sake.” And what we ultimately learned from this election, and the comedy created around it, is “just vote” doesn’t count as a slogan and doesn’t work as an incentive to action when it comes to selecting our new president. You can yell as much as you like, that this is the most important election of our generation, but unless the candidate up for consideration is able to excite the electorate, people won’t show up.

Saying that Trump should not be our President proved to be easy. Saying why Clinton should have been proved harder. It’s not that anyone commenting on the election was required to love Clinton, but if the goal was to put the Democratic option in the White House, maybe we should have talked more about her. If there’d been more focus on Clinton as a candidate, more effort made to unite potential voters around her message, then who knows what would have happened? Looking back at 2008, and Obama’s uniting declaration of “Yes we can!”… It’s staggering, to realize the difference that made.

Weirdly enough, the big message of the 2016 campaign might be this: Love really does trump hate.

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