Over the weekend, “Saturday Night Live” head writer Michael Che told a joke at the expense of Caitlyn Jenner. That the joke totally bombed did not seem to bother the headstrong comedian, who giggled along with co-host Colin Jost, mostly out of discomfort at the dead silent audience reaction.
Since it clearly — bafflingly — still bears repeating: Trans women are women. Trans men are men. To say otherwise is hate speech, pure and simple. Questioning a trans person’s gender, using the wrong name, pronouns, or gendered language to describe them isn’t funny, it’s transphobia.
This is not the first time Che has come under public scrutiny for his bad opinions, or that “Saturday Night Live” has been in the spotlight for their bad choices, for that matter.
Before the show hired and quickly fired outspoken racist Shane Gillis, Che was adamantly defending Louis C.K.’s right to perform stand-up. His latest gaffe is just one more example of the show being completely tone deaf to changing mores; Che merely the latest in a not-so-illustrious line of straight male comedians using transgender people as their punching bag for unfunny jokes. (See: Ricky Gervais, Dave Chappelle, and C.K.)
Che’s so-called “joke” went like this: In a riff about Kanye West’s latest album, he said the singer was “turning into an old white lady.” He elaborated: “I mean, he used to be one of the coolest black dudes on earth. Now he’s showing up to events in sweatpants and orthopedic sneakers, listening to Kenny G, and trying to get black people to like Trump. It’s like, how long before this guy changes his name to Kathy?”
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Taken on its own, the joke is fine — even mildly funny. If Che had stopped there, it would have been a perfectly acceptable quip that didn’t necessarily even reference trans people, much less in a disrespectful way. But Che had to go and bring Caitlyn Jenner into it: “Now, you might think that I’m crazy, but about five years ago, there was a fella named Bruce Jenner, and he moved to Calabasas…”
In one short sentence, Che manages to use the word “fella,” the incorrect pronoun, and Jenner’s previous name. He misgenders her, dead-names her, and actively calls her a word that it’s safe to assume she would never use to describe herself. As a refresher, using a trans person’s birth name is referred to as “dead-naming,” and is considered an act of violence.
The awkwardness in the live studio audience was palpable as the joke completely bombed. In the video clip posted by NBC, the second part of the joke has been edited out, as well as the silent audience reaction. Instead, the clip now cuts to a laugh track before “and he moved to Calabasas,” making it appear as if the joke went over well. Watching the original video, the laughter you hear now was actually in response to an awkward few seconds of silence during which Che seems to acknowledge the joke has bombed.
It’s unclear if NBC edited the video to make it look like the joke played well, or if this is their misguided response to the backlash. (Many trans advocates and allies voiced their concerns on social media after the show aired.) But if amending the mistake was the aim, why not simply cut the whole joke altogether? This response actually has the reverse effect of faking a positive response to the joke. IndieWire has reached out to “Saturday Night Live” for comment.
It seems with “Saturday Night Live,” it’s alway one step forward and about 10 giant leaps backwards. While the Lorne Michaels behemoth recently earned praise for hiring out gay comedian and Asian-American Bowen Yang as a featured player, the historic move was completely overshadowed by the shockingly bad choice of Gillis, who used a wide array of racial slurs and jokes in tons of recently recorded material that was easily accessible online.
A writer for the show last season, Yang has already made a big splash in his first few appearances. He recently made waves as China’s trade representative Chen Biao, dubbing himself the “trade daddy” and peppering his inspired performance with Lizzo lyrics. A segment so good, Yang might actually have a shot at making the show relevant again. But as head writers Che and Jost proved with their snickering transphobia, the dinosaurs are still in charge.