The photo that emerged last week of the senior senator from Minnesota pawing the breasts of a sleeping woman was heinous, but it wasn’t unfamiliar. Nor was the mugging grin on Al Franken’s face as he grabbed her, or his initial response that he was trying to be funny. Sexist jokes have long been considered acceptable in American culture — and not only acceptable, but funny, in a way that a certain sketch comedy show perfected.
Franken is, after all, not only a politician, but a creator of “Saturday Night Live.” He was one of the show’s first writers in 1975, and was a producer from 1985 until 1995. While there, he reportedly once pitched a skit about “60 Minutes” correspondent Andy Rooney drugging and raping Lesley Stahl. Perhaps it’s not surprising that someone who thought that rape could be appropriate material for a network TV joke also thought it would be funny to sexually assault a colleague on a USO tour, eyebrows raised, smile wide. More to the point, though, that sort of base humor is in the very DNA of SNL, where frat-boy bluster and aggressive male sexuality have been enshrined for more than four decades.
On the sixth floor of 30 Rock, women have long been portrayed as sexual conquests, victims or aggressors, live on Saturday nights. During the 1990s in particular, SNL excelled at celebrating male libido and a get-away-with-anything approach to sex, while reducing women to their sexual function. The show consistently cheered male sexuality and reinforced its boundlessness (consent be damned), while shaming women who reached for power or were unlucky enough to be publicly associated with sex. The SNL writers’ room is famously collaborative, so it’s hard to know how many such bits Franken specifically wrote. But as a writer on 285 episodes from 1976 to 2008, he undoubtedly influenced the zeitgeist of the show during that era.
In the 1991 sketch “Clarence Thomas’s Pickup Technique,” a spoof of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings that centered on allegations of sexual harassment, the Senate Judiciary Committee reduces the whole issue to gags about sex. Joe Biden thanks Anita Hill for talking about “penis size” and “big-breasted women having sex with animals” — to raucous laughs. The joke targets Biden and the committee, too, but what’s supposed to be funny is what they’re laughing at, as well: body parts and raunch.
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