The always edgy Saturday Night Live issued a rare apology this past weekend. Cast member Pete Davidson appeared with disabled veteran and newly elected Texas congressman Dan Crenshaw. Their joint statement crossed the political divide in these polarized times and left pretty much everyone highly impressed. But the most impressive moment came days earlier, on Election night, when Crenshaw responded to a reporter's question about the joke and showed what true emotional intelligence sounds like.
It all began with a "Weekend Update" sketch on the Saturday before Election Day, when Davidson did a segment called "First Impressions" in which he riffed on supposedly ugly candidates for office. Davidson likes pushing buttons and making people uncomfortable with his comedy so it's not surprising that many of his assessments could have offended their targets. Take Florida governor and (probable) senator-elect Rick Scott. Davidson had this to say: "He looks like someone tried to whittle Bruce Willis out of a penis."
After a few more such comments, a picture of then-candidate Crenshaw appeared. Crenshaw, a Navy SEAL who lost his right eye to an IED in Afghanistan during his third tour of duty, wears a large black eye patch. Davidson said, "You may be surprised to hear he's a congressional candidate from Texas, and not a hit man in a porno movie." After giggling at his own joke, he added with a shrug, "I'm sorry, I know he lost his eye in war or whatever," before going on with the routine.
SNL faced intense criticism for the skit, with former White House press secretary Sean Spicer calling for the firing of not only Davidson but also Lorne Michaels, SNL's long-time producer. Even those who didn't believe Davidson should be fired (or perhaps keel-hauled) did think the show should apologize to Crenshaw and wounded vets everywhere.
Crenshaw himself, however, was specifically not calling for an apology. On Election night, fresh from his win, a local TV reporter asked about the incident. "SEALs don't get offended," Crenshaw said. He went on to say more, that even though the comments might have been offensive, "Let's stop demanding apologies and firings of people. Let's just demand that comedy actually be funny, but let's be good people."
That first sentence--"SEALs don't get offended,"--puts the whole event into perfect perspective. When you've faced death over and over, when you've been through some of the most rigorous training and worked in some of the harshest conditions on the planet, when you're able to do things most people can't imagine...a little tasteless comedy from a sickly 24-year-old just isn't a big deal. Get over it people--we all have more important things to worry about.
Live...from New York...It's not an apology.
Of course, this is not the first time a Saturday Night Live episode has caused widespread offense. SNL, in general, does not apologize, at least not on the air and not in the usual way. When Sinead O'Connor outraged many Catholics by tearing up a photo of the pope, the show's response came in the form of a monologue by Joe Pesci criticizing O'Connor and saying that if it were his show he would have given her "such a smack." He then showed the audience the picture, taped back together. Likewise, when Larry David was lambasted for jokes about how to pick up women in a concentration camp, he returned later as Bernie Sanders in a fake ad, ranting about comedians who made fun of the Holocaust and saying they should "rot in hell."
SNL had never, in anyone's memory, issued a straightforward apology during the show. But that changed this past Saturday when Davidson again appeared on "Weekend Update." "In what I'm sure was a huge shock for people who know me, I made a poor choice last week," he said. "On behalf of the show and myself, I apologize." He went on: "The man is a war hero and he deserves all the respect in the world, and if any good came of this, maybe it was that for one day, the left and the right finally came together to agree on something--that I'm a dick!"
"You think?" said Crenshaw, a surprise guest, suddenly entering from Davidson's right. Davidson apologized directly to Crenshaw, who accepted the apology. There was some joking around about Davidson's ex-fiancée Ariana Grande and a bit of business in which Crenshaw got his own back by making several jokes based on Davidson's appearance.
And then Crenshaw turned serious. There was a lot to learn from the incident, he said, not just that the left and the right could agree sometimes, but also that Americans can forgive each other and see the good in one another. He went on to mention Veteran's Day the following day. "It's a good time for every American to connect with a veteran, maybe say 'Thanks for your service.'" But, he went on, "I would actually encourage you to say something else. Tell a veteran, 'Never forget.' When you say 'never forget' to a veteran, you are implying that as an American you are in it with them, not separated by some imaginary barrier between civilians and veterans but connected together as grateful fellow Americans."
You're also letting them know that you'll never forget those past and present who gave their efforts, their health, or their lives, Crenshaw said. That included Davidson's father, a firefighter who died in the Marriott World Trade Center on 9/11--the loss left Davidson badly bereft. So, Crenshaw said, turning to Davidson, "I'll just say, Pete, never forget."
"Never forget," Davidson answered, shaking Crenshaw's hand. Then he turned toward the audience and shouted, "And that is from both of us!"
It was a rare moment of serious emotion in a show that prides itself on avoiding anything like that. And an equally rare example of what we can accomplish when we set aside the outrage and the posturing and treat each other with compassion and goodwill and the sense that, after all, we really are all in it together.