Saturday Night Live’s cold open started promising enough, with Kate McKinnon’s MSNBC host Nicolle Wallace admitting that there’s a lot going on in the world but they’re choosing to focus on the ongoing defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard. “I know it’s not the most pertinent story of the moment,” she said. “But with all the problems in the world, isn’t nice to have a news story we can all collectively watch and say: ‘Ooh, glad it ain’t me’?”
Heard and Depp’s trial has been the subject of an enormous amount of media scrutiny and unlike a lot of tabloid fodder, this story does gesture towards real issues. Both Depp and Heard allege serious instances of domestic abuse, much of it documented in harrowing detail. It’s an issue millions of Americans have and are dealing with, and one would think SNL would have enough experience to know when and how to tread lightly on such conversations. Unfortunately, any hopes that this sketch might navigate such a traumatizing topic were quickly dashed.
Instead, the sketch focused on one particularly sensational story from the trial: Depp’s allegation that Heard left fecal matter in his bed. The sketch had a goofy trio of Depp’s employees making the unfortunate discovery on surveillance. In the courtroom, Heard’s lawyer (Heidi Gardner) tries to object to showing the video and is overruled. “I’d like to see more of this video,” said the judge (Cecily Strong). “Cause it’s funny.” If only.
SNL is always on its shakiest ground when attempting to comment on current events. The social media era means that by the time Saturday evening roles around, most headlines have already been dissected and milked dry by Twitter, Instagram and Tiktok. The show has typically soared when veering towards non-sequitur goofball antics (Billie Eilish’s long distance friendship with a sweet old lady played by McKinnon is a great recent example). That meant wading into these waters was ill-advised, even before we get into the difficult and often painful context.
This isn’t to get precious about comedy or suggest that this topic should be off limits for comedians. There were many potential avenues for the show to tackle this trial, from the legions of militant Depp fans who continue to defend him despite the mountains of evidence to the media addiction with the trial despite dozens of far more urgent issues. The punchlines there are real, funny and also display a baseline awareness of the myriad issues at play in a trial like this. But if all SNL can muster is “poop is funny,” it suggests that not only is no one there is actually paying attention to the contours of this story but they’re not even aware of the stakes involved.
SNL has proved capable of handling touchy topics in the past, such as when Tom Hanks guest starred on Black Jeopardy. But in addition to being unfunny, SNL‘s cold open was simply tone deaf.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.