SNL's Relationship With Its Sponsors

A few insights from Colin Jost's memoir.

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I’ve been reading SNL head writer Colin Jost’s new memoir, A Very Punchable Face. It’s not interesting in any of the ways you hope a memoir will be interesting, in that it’s the story of a fairly shallow man getting everything he wants with no resistance. It’s not even interesting in the ways you hope a comedian’s memoir will be interesting, in that the jokes are garishly unfunny and the closest he comes to showbiz gossip is name-checking celebrities he hung out with. But it is interesting in unwitting ways, like the vaguely discernible outlines of stories Jost doesn’t realize he’s telling, and the revelations he doesn’t realize he’s making.

I’ll go deeper into those in a longer review of the book. Today I want to look at one small but representative example. It comes from his chapter “Notes from the Censor,” in which Jost details memorable notes he’s gotten from advertisers and NBC.

First let’s back up a bit. You may recall this Macy’s commercial parody from SNL’s last season. It caused a bit of a dustup online when viewers suggested it was transparent product placement. SNL writer Streeter Seidell said it wasn’t, and that to his knowledge SNL has never done branded content:

I’m not going to relitigate this debate, although I will say I thought this take by Anne Clark was on point: the more implausible scenario is not that NBC would try to profit off sketches like this one, but that it wouldn’t.

I also want to note this question Seidell asked while he was defending the Macy’s sketch:

Why would a company pay to have you make fun of their brand? Trippin indeed.

Okay. In “Notes from the Censor,” Jost explains that SNL writers are fortunate to receive few network notes. Standards are lax for the show’s time slot, and Lorne’s relationship with NBC provides further insulation from its corporate overlords. The notes they do receive are more often from advertisers.

For example, I had this joke on Weekend Update a few years ago:

McDonald’s is reportedly unveiling a new slogan: “Lovin’ Not Hatin’.” Which narrowly beat out their other slogan: “Eat the Rats This Clown Killed.” 

The only trouble was, McDonald’s was a prominent advertiser on that particular show. So we received the following note from NBC’s advertising department: 

“In the McDonald’s joke, could the clown not specifically kill rats? We’re fine if the clown kills something, but we’d prefer if it wasn’t specifically rats. McDonald’s has never sold rat meat.”

Seems a little defensive, but fair enough. I guess it’s pretty aggressive for us to say, “McDonald’s hamburgers are made of rats!” So instead the joke became:

“McDonald’s is reportedly unveiling a new slogan: “Lovin’ Not Hatin’.” Which narrowly beat out their other slogan: “Eat What This Clown Killed!”

Which might make the joke even better? I don’t know. I just like the idea that Ronald McDonald is an equal opportunity murderer. (Except for rats.) And it made me like McDonald’s more as a corporation, because they were relatively cool about the joke.

Necessary caveat: This is a normal relationship for a show like SNL to have with its advertisers; I am not here to suggest it makes SNL uniquely corrupt. I would just like to note a few simple things.

One is that the first joke is patently superior. Is this even debatable? The first is specific whereas the second is vague. The first evokes a funny image (Ronald McDonald bludgeoning rats) whereas the second evokes no image. “Eat what this clown killed” just plain sounds clunkier. It’s no good!

Two is Jost’s half-hearted attempt to rationalize the change. Is it better? I don’t know, maybe! He can’t even commit to his own cognitive dissonance.

Three is how he says the note made him like McDonald’s more as a corporation. What a weird, unnecessary admission! To state the obvious, when the target of your satire doesn’t mind your satire, this is not to the target’s credit. It just means your satire isn’t sharp enough. If the target happens to be paying you, then it also means your satire is serving the target’s interests. This should fill the self-respecting satirist with shame, not earn his favor.

Finally: This anecdote shows how, contrary to Seidell’s assertion, “sponsoring SNL” and “being made fun of by SNL” are not antithetical, because SNL’s sponsors buy the power to control how they’re made fun of. For many of them this is probably the whole point! Advertising isn’t solely about encouraging people to buy a product; it’s about creating positive associations with a brand. For instance, the one Seidell has with Macy’s that inspired him to write the commercial parody. Or the one Jost has with McDonald’s that inspired him to give it free advertising in his book.

Does this make it reasonable to assume every product namedrop is paid for? No, but it makes it squarely within reason to ask, and to interrogate SNL’s relationship with its advertisers more broadly. “Did a brand pay you to tell this joke?” is only one question we can pose. The more important one may be, “Did a brand pay you not to tell some other joke?”

For instance…

Here’s a joke I told at dress rehearsal:

Publishers announced that in less than a week, the new edition of Adolf Hitler’s book Mein Kampf has sold out of the first 4,000 copies. Mein Kampf is of course German for The Art of the Deal

Now, I don’t like comparing anyone to Adolf Hitler, but that’s just a well-structured joke. And technically, it doesn’t even reference Donald Trump. It could be about any author of any book titled The Art of the Deal.

Regardless, we didn’t get a network note about Trump. We got a note from Volkswagen. They were advertising on the show and they said, “Could you not refer to Adolf Hitler? Because if you mention Hitler, then people will think of Nazis and then they’ll think of Volkswagen.”

[let’s skip the paragraphs where he learns about Hitler’s relationship with Volkswagen and that “Volkswagen” is German for “Car of the people.” ]

So I got why Volkswagen would try to distance themselves from the Nazis, but no one hears “Hitler” and thinks, The Volkswagen guy! That’s what was so confusing about the note. And it happened again in an even crazier way a few weeks later. 

There was a Republican debate sketch where Ted Cruz was talking about the kinds of things New Yorkers do, and everything he listed was clearly just a plot line from Seinfeld. And Volkswagen asked our show to remove a reference to the “Soup Nazi” because they thought that would remind people of Volkswagen. Hmmmm. I wonder if they’re hiding something? Because that level of paranoia is . . . well, Hitler-esque.

Turns out Volkswagen was hiding something! They had been lying for years about emissions figures on many of their cars. And they had designed software to trick inspectors into thinking their vehicles were compliant. The Car of the People!

They were such overly sensitive babies about the unrelated Nazi references on our show that when the emissions scandal broke, Rob Klein, Zach Kanin, and I wrote a Volkswagen commercial parody. The voiceover said: “Sure, Volkswagen has gotten in a bit of trouble recently with this whole emissions scandal, but let’s not forget what our company was founded on: the vision and values of Adolf Hitler.” Then music kicked in and we showed Hitler driving a VW Beetle thru the 1960s, ‘70s, ‘80s, etc., dressed in the style of the times and having a blast.

Hearing “Goin’ Down to the Country” while Hitler cruises along the California coast in a ‘60s Volkswagen Beetle definitely made us laugh. The Volkswagen Corporation, on the other hand, found it less funny. And they were about to sign a huge advertising deal with NBC, so even though the ad was fully produced, we were never allowed to air it.

Perhaps someday it will appear on YouTube or on Volkswagen’s German website: www.oops.ger.

All that said, I’ve heard the 2020 Volkswagen Jetta is remarkably fuel-efficient. And it was just rated “Best in its Class” by JD White Power and Associates.

Again, this anecdote demonstrates the wide-ranging veto power enjoyed by SNL’s advertisers. It also shows how they don’t necessarily need to wield that power actively: the mere prospect of losing future business can disincentivize SNL from airing trenchant satire.

More interesting to me is the way Jost reveals his credulity toward the role of advertising itself. Based on Seidell’s commentary on the Macy’s sketch, I think it is safe to assume Jost shares this credulity with other writers, and that this shared credulity is what makes SNL so pliable to the will of its sponsors.

Let’s revisit the anecdote. Upon discovering how a company that paid his bills intentionally violated emissions standards to get away with massive pollution, Jost wrote a sketch calling that company evil. His bosses then censored the sketch so they could take more of the company’s money and continue hawking its products—after its crimes became public!

It’s head-spinning enough to watch Jost casually acknowledge how SNL’s advertisers defang its satire as a matter of course. To watch him glance over his partnership with a company he clearly recognizes as evil is something else. A person with some moral center might react to the scandal by wondering, Huh! Have any of my company’s other sponsors used me to defraud their customers and betray the public? Such a person might also think twice about rehabilitating that company. If that person is an entertainer, why, they might even use the scandal to question entertainment’s broader role in softening and serving the inhuman forces poisoning our planet and keeping millions in poverty. Perhaps in the context of a memoir…

But you don’t get to be head writer of SNL by operating from a strong moral core. You get to be head writer of SNL by serving SNL’s interests, and SNL’s interests are first and foremost its corporate sponsors—even the ones making the world a measurably worse place. A Very Punchable Face may not be a good memoir, but it makes crystal clear why Colin Jost is perfect for the job.