The benefits of practicing inclusive hiring practices and increasing the diversity of the media world should be obvious by now. Opening up the talent pool to women, LGBTQ and people of color leads to better, richer stories and – despite a history of racist tendencies among some financiers – also can lead to financial returns.
But there’s one benefit that often gets overlooked, even as it has become painfully obvious over the past few weeks: Diversity in the creative ranks can stop smart, well-intentioned people from producing really stupid and sometimes offensive material.
On the latest episode of “Saturday Night Live,” the show illustrated just how easily these kind of stumbles can occur.
The Pepsi Ad
The digital short spoofing the ill-advised Pepsi ad that caused such an uproar last week perfectly captures how white liberal archetype is capable of producing such a tone-deaf train wreck. Cast member Beck Bennett plays the young ad creator – for whom this is a huge break and who is clearly intoxicated by being in the director’s chair – getting a call from his sister on set. He gives her his pitch.
“It’s an homage to the resistance, reminiscent of Black Lives Matter,” says the ad creator. “And they get to these police officers and you think it’s going to go bad, because there’s a standoff, and then Kendall Jenner walks up to one of the police officers and she hands him a Pepsi. And that Pepsi brings everybody together. Isn’t that the best ad ever?”
It’s one of those things when said out loud seems obvious of why this won’t work. There’s silence – the audience clearly able to fill in the blanks themselves – as the sister explains why this is far from being the best ad ever.
The skit is brilliant in that, as Bennett gives the pitch, he’s surrounded by an enormous apparatus turning his vision into a reality and treating him — and for anybody who has visited a set, this is oh-so-true — like a god. He’s literally inside the bubble in which this type of idea can be separated from common sense, a point hysterically emphasized with the schmaltzy Apple Ad-like music that plays every time he breaks into self-congratulatory idealism. Each time he explains the ad’s logic, he only digs himself in a little deeper.
“No, we’re celebrating these cultures,” says Bennett as he watches two African-American dancers doing a generic hip hop dance and an Asian-American playing the cello.
The final punchline: “Can you maybe put a neighbor on the phone, like a black one?” It hammers home the point there was no one in the creative process emphasizing just how reductive and exploitive his “celebration of resistance” would be.
Trump Visits Kentucky
The irony is that the “SNL” cold open demonstrated that the team behind the “Pepsi” sketch is equally guilty of the same thing themselves. In the skit, Trump visits his supporters at a rally in Kentucky and takes aim at the obvious gap between the president’s policies and the needs of the rural voters that championed him. This is obviously ripe material for satire, but the problem is the SNL team – which, to its credit, has grown to include more than just white male voices over recent seasons – clearly doesn’t understand anything about Trump’s small-town supporters.
By having zero insight — a somewhat important ingredient for topical, political comedy — into what galvanizes Trump’s supporters, the sketch is flat and awkward. The voters ask about real world problems, but are too polite or too stupid to push back against the crude insults coming from Alec Baldwin’s Trump.
“You people stand by me no matter what,” says Baldwin as Trump. “It’s like you found a finger in your chili, but you still eat the chili because you told everyone how much you love chili.”
You can almost feel the “SNL” writers playing it safe with the sketch: The questioners sound like reasoned Democrats — except that they’re wearing fake Southern accents – engaging in topics of work for coal miners, drug rehabilitation and healthcare. As the astute political reporter Ron Fournier observed on Twitter: “That #snl cold open is what the Democratic Party thinks of red America, which is why it went red.”
And so the cycle continues.
Louis C.K. Monologue
For some, this may all sound like PC nonsense advocating for watered-down comedy — that if voices from the Black Lives Matter movement and people living in the heartland joined the writers room, we’d have a series of checks and balances to make sure no one is offended. Wrong. Look no further than the genius of host Louis C.K. during his opening monologue on Saturday.
“Why did the chicken cross the road?” he asks. “Because there was a black guy walking behind him.”
And what unfurls is a hilarious routine that captures not only white privilege, but a dark undercurrent of how our culture makes people feel hunted. C.K. always finds a way to cross the line with his humor, but he safeguards the material enough that he can hit upon uncomfortable truths – often portraying himself like the ad creator in the Pepsi sketch, coming to the realization that he’s being offensive. It’s too much to ask for everyone to be like Louis, who has reached the rarified air of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Chris Rock in dissecting the contradictions of American society by delivering harpoons wrapped in laughs. But it is worth considering his process.
C.K. usually tests his routines numerous times in front of diverse, untelevisized audiences in comedy clubs, and also gets notes from trusted collaborators. And then he still figures out how to cross a line. By touching on real ideas, he’s free to be as edgy and controversial as possible. There’s a difference between pushing people beyond their comfort zones and being blindly offensive.
The Simple Truth
Last week, I found myself covering two film people whom I greatly admire, Walter Hill and Michelle Rodriguez, who were accused of being transphobic for their new film “The Assignment.” Both stress their progressive beliefs and that they’re supportive of fighting for transgender rights. I have little doubt that is true, and also that they were blindsided that their film — in which Rodriguez plays a hitman turned into a woman against her will — could be offensive.
I can relate to Hill and Rodriguez – both as someone who is unabashedly pro transgender rights and incapable of fully understanding what the transgender community faces on a day-to-day basis. And then I read articles like this one by IndieWire’s Jude Dry and this one by Erin Whitney for ScreenCrush and it becomes clear as day why the film is so problematic. I just wish Hill and Rodriguez could have heard these points-of-view earlier in the creative process.
And here’s the simple truth: in one way or another, we are all ignorant about the way other people live. There’s no shame in that, but without having other voices in the creative process, we are all prone to making an offensive Pepsi Ad. But if we can create creative environments in which ideas can be freely and safely shared by people from different backgrounds, we are less prone to making shortsighted mistakes. More than that, it will bolster the chances of making truly bold and boundary-pushing work.