The Discomfort of Opinions: SNL’s “Dinner Discussion”

The discomfort of taking a stance on a current issue is placed under the critical focal point of Saturday Night Live’s sketch, “Dinner Discussion” from S43E12, hosted by Will Ferrell. The sketch sharply reflects the futile pursuit of not offending others with offensive opinions for the sake of false unity. Starring Will Ferrell, the sketch features Aidy Bryant, Kenan Thompson, Kate McKinnon, Beck Bennett, and Heidi Gardner, all playing generic 30-somethings out for a restaurant dinner. When the topic of sexual misconduct allegations against Aziz Ansari comes up, the sudden need to share offensive opinions irreversibly taints their quaint roasted carrots and dinner rolls with a bitter reminder that they can no longer get along perfectly. The sketch capitalizes on the unbearable discomfort of sharing opinions and bluntly showcases the consequences of a politically correct culture that polices language for the sake of comfort. The impossibility of sharing opinions without offending is the recurring punchline of the sketch, accompanied by wacky visual elements expressing the characters’ discomfort.

The sketch opens in a restaurant where a group of friends are eating dinner. They’re clad in generic night-out-in-your-30s outfits and eat meals as mundane as roast beef and mashed potatoes. The visual introduction of the sketch paints an idyllic setting that’s as bland, comfortable, and predictable as the topic of conversation it starts with: a couple’s dog who eats everything and the tastiness of the food they’re eating. The exaggerated agreeableness of the characters’ rapport sets a tone that’s immediately recognizable, no matter how contrived it might feel in a show as honest as SNL. The characters’ tones are so agreeably suburban that they sound like a hodgepodge of domesticated Americans incapable of disagreeing with one another. The short conversations about the couple’s dog and the restaurant’s food are met with joyous agreement and levity — a microcosm of an American smalltalk utopia that’s completely unobstructed by dissension. The opening serves as a short-lived scope of a world that is devoid of any conflict, tension, or awkwardness. The rest of the sketch, which serves as the ongoing punchline, completely relies on this clean opening in order to show just how ugly things can get with opinion-sharing.

The characters’ insistence on comfort and agreeableness is immediately exposed when Heidi Gardner’s character asks if anyone has read a New York Times op-ed. Beck Bennett, her husband, cuts her off after “op-ed,” which signifies a prior knowledge of which article Gardner is referencing. The mere term “New York Times op-ed” is enough to incite a defensive maneuver against taking the conversation to the indomitable heights of Aziz Ansari’s sexual misconduct allegation. Aidy Bryant’s character ventures to ask Gardner about the article in a polite tone with an air of naiveté about the topic Bennett is squirming to avoid. Everyone else at the table is also unaware of the negative implications of Gardner’s new conversation topic, as they listen in with deferential expressions. Bennett sits in agonizing anticipation as Gardner delivers the final blow that ends the group’s comfortable night out, when she says, “Aziz Ansari.”

When Gardner says “Aziz Ansari” everyone immediately knows the controversy behind the issue as the entire set of the sketch changes with music and lighting to depict a Twilight Zone-esque horror sequence. Gardner referred to a New York Times op-ed discussing a woman’s account of a one-night stand with Aziz Ansari in which she felt sexually violated. The woman claimed that Ansari made uninvited sexual advances in his hotel room, even though both of them went in to have sex. The bombshell account was originally published on babe.net and many hailed it as part of the #MeToo movement’s exposure of powerful men’s sexual misconduct and called for Ansari to end his career. However, others thought that the incident was not severe enough to warrant Ansari’s career exile and pointed to the murky nature of the issue. Such a disagreement, however, could be seen as blaming the victim in question, which is a behavior that the #MeToo movement is vehemently against. The controversy was twofold: claiming that Ansari acted inappropriately and demanding that he end his career to join the disgraced ranks of other accused powerful men is just as problematic as claiming that the woman shouldn’t have published her experience as part of the #MeToo movement. The divisive, murky, and unclear nature of this issue perfectly serves as a topic that evokes the discomfort of conversing about sensitive issues in America, especially when opinions seem to be more volatile than ever. Moreover, the Millennial and Generation X’s chronic fear of offending or being offended by politically incorrect opinions exacerbates the difficulty of having informed conversations about hot button issues. The unchecked results of these cultural intersections are people who avoid discussing anything controversial for the sake of comfort and sociability. Hence, the characters before the audience in this sketch are ultimately a mirror for the younger audience as they squirm to try and reconcile their need for agreement in the face of inevitable disagreement. The audience eventually shares in their discomfort as they recognize their own fear to talk about such issues in a social forum.

The characters are involuntarily led into what could potentially be a conversation that violates their status quo of lighthearted ease revolving around mischievous housepets and delicious roasted carrots. Everything about them now reflects their unshakable discomfort and obvious lack of preparation for such a conversation. As soon as Gardner says “Aziz Ansari,” the lights dramatically dim and eerie music plays as the camera pans to each character’s facial expression: Kenan Thompson’s frozen terrified stare, Bryant’s desperate gaze heavenward, Ferrell’s horrified stare, McKinnon’s paralyzed look with her wine glass trembling at her lips, Bennett pulling up his sweater to cover his face. This dark sequence of dread ends when the lights turn back on, but the characters are still visibly shaken up by the new conversation topic. They have been suddenly immersed in a world where offending someone is nearly impossible to avoid. Gardner immediately apologizes and invites the group to talk about something else, but Ferrell insists they continue with an apologetic confidence that thinly veils a genuine dread.

The characters proceed to share their thoughts with a paralyzing attention to each of their words so as to not offend anyone. The high stakes of the conversation are accentuated by each character punctuating one another’s lines with a cautionary, “careful,” “watch it,” or a dreadful, “Oh, God” before they finish their potentially inflammatory sentences. For example, when Thompson begins his thought with, “while I applaud the movement,” Gardner intercedes with a threatening, “watch it.” Thompson says, “noted,” and finishes by saying that the Ansari incident could be setting back the #MeToo movement, prompting McKinnon to sigh with a defeated, “ugh, careful.” This interplay of characters slowly speaking and warning one another before finishing their sentences captures the social tensions of discussing sensitive issues in a comedically heavy-handed manner. The interplay focuses on the social discomfort of opinion-sharing, as seen by the characters’ harbored opposition to certain opinions with their cautionary lines and their even more careful sentences after being warned. The frightening possibility of men saying something misogynistic or women saying something about hating men is enough to paralyze each character. Much of the sketch’s comedy resides in the characters’ unrealistic goal to traverse eggshells of opinions without stepping on anyone’s feelings. Their well-meaning but futile efforts are accentuated by the literal inability to finish a sentence without prompting a warning from someone or cutting oneself off before finishing. For example, Bryant’s attempt at saying something ends after just a few words as she cries out, “nope,” in a fearful resignation to the insurmountable task of saying something that won’t offend.

The occasional “oh, God” by Ferrell is a hyperbolized articulation of what is happening in each of the characters’ minds as they get deeper into the conversation with their opinions. Ferrell highlights the increasing difficulty of discussing the issue, which draws attention to the characters’ tragically obvious lack of preparation for this topic. It’s as though each character is scrambling to reconstruct their offensive opinions to be inoffensive, which exposes their obsession with not upsetting anyone. Each character offered an opinion that reflected different sides of the Ansari issue, but all were met with the same cautionary lines and cathartic expressions of discomfort. No matter what the characters said, it was going to offend someone one way or another; the choreography of the sketch reflects an ill-fated effort to try and mediate that damage through an impossibly careful approach to the topic. Much, if not all, of the sketch’s punchline resides in the characters’ restrained manner of speech.

When Bennett finishes the round of sharing thoughts, the set resumes to its horror-like state with dim lights and eerie music, but this time the characters express their discomfort in more hyperbolic ways: Ferrell puts his face into his plate of spaghetti, Thompson stabs his hand, Bryant cuts off her ponytail with a knife, McKinnon hides behind a mini stage curtain for her face, Gardner does witchcraft and physically vanishes. Once the set returns to its normal state, Bryant tells everyone to calm down, Ferrell woefully asks if they can talk about their dog, and McKinnon shoots back by saying they live in a “post babe.net universe” (the website that published the bombshell Ansari piece) and need to finish what they started. The characters seem to rely on one another more in this round, as they attempt to say something in rapid succession, but promptly end with “pass,” and hand it off to the next character until it lands on Thompson. McKinnon starts to talk about consent, saying that if she was with a woman who felt uneasy, then she would, “slow my rooollls… are good,” which ends her sentence as she picks up a dinner roll and praises its flavor in a comically obvious attempt at deflecting her opinion. This escapist beat not only highlights the futility of avoiding the conversation, but also grimly points to the consequences of not having a solidified opinion and caring too much about offending someone. The comedic choice of taking refuge in the dinner roll is a larger commentary on the things that we take comfort in when faced with seemingly insurmountable discomfort, such as this very SNL sketch. Although the sketch is not escapist because it is centered around the Ansari issue, it is its own version of McKinnon’s dinner roll of comfort — a mere reflection of our neglect to have conversations with offensive opinions. The sketch doesn’t choose a side of the Ansari issue, but rather, capitalizes on reflecting the absurd behaviors we recognize in ourselves. It’s a warm semblance of relief from the stress of offending others, which ironically takes the form of watching characters stress out about offending each other.

After the characters each passed on their turn to offer a thought in the conversation, Thompson begins with, “okay, what I think we’re forgetting,” and Ferrell cuts in with an exhausted “oh, no,” showing that he knows where the conversation is going but squirms in dread of the final blow. Thompson finishes with saying how the Ansari issue intersects with the issue of — insert Ferrell’s, “oh, God, oh, God, oh, God” — race. Everyone screams, “noooooo,” and the sketch cuts to a montage of disturbing images with doomsday-like music: crows flying from a dead tree, a herd of buffalo, a lunar eclipse, a decomposing fox, a black metal band, a pizza rat, and a nuclear explosion. This sequence seems to purposefully discomfort the audience through disturbing images, making us share in the characters’ discomfort on a symbolically cosmic scale. The montage shows that Thompson’s introduction of race into the conversation has set off chaotic events in the “post-babe.net” universe beyond their restaurant table. The intersection of Ansari and race has been elevated to an impossible level of discussion, making everyone (including the audience) helplessly uncomfortable.

When the sketch returns to the restaurant table, Ferrell cries out, “I can’t do this anymore, we have to talk about something else!” Everyone unanimously agrees, which reveals their acknowledgement they they are incapable of experiencing any more discomfort. McKinnon starts them off by arguing that the Oscar-nominated film Shape of Water had problems, which prompted everyone to say those familiar cautionary lines at once. Shape of Water is currently a cultural hot button topic because of its critical accolades and its themes of interspecies sex, race, and gender. It seems to be a topic that’s easier to talk about, but similar political and social controversies that surround the Ansari issue are very much present in this discussion as well. The sketch’s choice of this alternative topic illustrates the fact that opinions are going to be in almost every conversation, and to avoid offending is an impossible pursuit, especially in a “post-babe.net universe.”

The end of the sketch offers the characters a temporary sense of comfort in between conversations, but immediately revokes that by highlighting the reality that controversial topics are more prevalent than they thought. The group’s response to McKinnon’s opinion about a movie points to the truth that every conversation that isn’t smalltalk will be uncomfortable if one tries to avoid offending anyone. At this point in the sketch, it’s clear that this group cares too much about offending each other, and their ill-fated attempt at having a conversation that has even a minute level of depth showcases their unrealistic limitations. This last punchline of the sketch also points to the absurdity of their extreme caution against offending someone, and perhaps even seeks to reflect our own absurd pursuits of avoiding offense in conversations. American comedy’s entanglement with sexual harassment is, unfortunately, the larger context within which this sketch exists as a response to the #MeToo movement. Although large strides have been made in dismantling the systems which have oppressed women in comedy, the topic itself eludes the grasp of comedy writers because of its discomforting proximity to their very profession. Perhaps making fun of the topic’s discomfort, as opposed to the movement itself, serves the interests of the industry’s desire to move past this era of painful reckoning with its dark history of female oppression. It’s easier to write a sketch about people trying not to offend each other on their views of the #MeToo movement than to actually offend audiences with a dismissive approach. Such a neglect to the issue has lent itself to become the regrettable products of stand-up specials, sitcoms, and jokes that eclipsed the warped practices of sexual harassment. Although the sketch doesn’t offer a solution to sexual harassment in entertainment, it contributes something meaningful that honors the topic’s gravity: showcasing the ridiculousness of trying not to offend others when talking about it.

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