Why ‘SNL’ struck a sour note with its anti-Russian jokes on “Weekend Update”

Because of its anti-gay policies, Russia has had some bad publicity – that coupled with the tragic acts of terrorism has seriously put a damper on the Sochi Olympics. It doesn’t help that its mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov, made a faux pas by announcing that there were no gays in Sochi. All of these issues have seriously overshadowed the Olympics and the poor athletes who have worked so hard to achieve their goals.

Saturday Night Live of course, seized on a lot of this bad publicity with skits that goose Russia. Unfortunately, it’s not just political satire, but tired anti-Russian stereotypes that feel about as fresh as a Yakov Smirnoff set. In an admittedly energetic and committed performance, SNL comedienne Kate McKinnon rolled up to the “Weekend Update” desk, wearing a babushka as Olya Povlatsky, a poor Russian woman stunned at the choice of Sochi for the Olympics.

The skit’s writing mines clichés of Russia: it’s poor, cold, miserable, uncivilized, and ugly. In a very good Eastern European accent (I don’t know how close is it to a Russian accent, but it’s very close to the accents I hear from my Polish aunts), McKinnon’s Olya whines about all the indignities she suffers in Russia.

When asked by Seth Myers if she’s surprised that Russia was chosen as the home for the Olympics, Olya exclaims, “I’m surprised anyone come to Russia!” She then claims to pray every night for God to “take me away from this horrible place!” When Myers points out that Sochi is a resort town, she retorts, “A last resort, Seth.”

She then indulges in some hackey Tahoe-style jokes by saying she visited Sochi once to “throw myself into the sea, but I could not do it because the line was too long.” Bad-dum-ching!

She then gets an admittedly-good one liner when she muses,”how could the Olympics pick Russia? What was the other options, Haiti or middle of ocean?”

Olya then shows Seth how she wakes up every morning: she starts to sob.

Then the jokes turn to “Russia being so desolate and awful, quasi-bestiality is an option,” she Olya talks about dating a dog – nope not an ugly guy, but an actual dog. And guess who backwards and uneducated Russians are? In her village, her dog-boyfriend is a lawyer and the richest resident of her village, so he’s out of her league, even though, he’s, you know, a dog…

Then we get more pseudo-Russian humor (they’re so dark and dour there!) when Olya recounts how she and her sister were athletes as children, whose favorite sport was called, “Running away from angry wolf.” The results of the game? “I won the gold,” she said, “she won silver…god rest her soul.” But not to worry because Russia is such a shithole a “belly of wolf is prime real estate.”

And lest we think that Russians can’t have a good time, Olya promises us that she’s the party girl of the village, breaking into Amy Winehouse’s paen to partying, “They tried to make me go to rehab and I say, ‘is it warm?'”

I don’t have to tell you all that Russia’s a beautiful country with gorgeous architecture, beautiful culture, and some awe-inspiring natural wonder. That some of the government’s representatives are acting badly is not in question – and slamming Vladmir Putin is fair – but it feels a bit grating to have to hear these age-old gags that date back to the 1950s when we were terrified of Russia and the commies. It felt beneath SNL to indulge in this kind of self-congratulatory xenophobia, and it was just as disheartening to hear the audience members’ raucous laughter and cheers (maybe it was more due to McKinnon’s brilliant performance and not to the “let’s stick it to Russia” jokes).

The issue with the skit isn’t so much that the jokes are necessarily terrible offensive – it’s just that folks won’t understand from the comedy that the jokes are just satire – especially, since the popular image of the dead-faced Russian is still so prevalent. Our ignorance of the different countries in the world make us take in cultural streotypes without question – ask what Russia’s like, and lots of people will give you opinions and ideas, not that far off from what McKinnon’s character was complaining about in the sketch.

I know I sound like a bit of a scold, but I have high standards of comedy, and easy “Russia is awful…How awful is it?” gags aren’t all that interesting.

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Filed under Celeb, Comedy, commentary, Sitcom, Television, Writing

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