It feels rare these days that I see anything on TV that makes me laugh, but I found myself struck by both the hilarity of this SNL segment as well as by the unexpected parable of thwarted, gendered communication it offers. Catapulting me back to the linguistics class I once audited in college, the skit relies on what seem like arch-stereotypes of male and female behavior: the boorish male producer who literally runs the show (filling in for the sensitive female talk show host) but who also literally can’t hear the words of the nervous, self-effacing audience members’ questions. Then, when the effeminate pony-tailed male production assistant, (encouraging the women with an understanding look and supportive pat on the back), “translates” man-to-man for the producer he can comprehend their words – only to offer a one-note prescriptive answer that serves his perspective (to flatly apologize with no notion why he offends), revealing that he lacks any ability to truly listen. When the women express puzzlement or refuse his inappropriate advice, he immediately resorts to defensiveness. He exhorts the women to speak up only to completely miss (and dismiss) their intent and then blame them for not taking his advice. He’s “tried” to help and it’s their fault if they don’t agree with him.

Interestingly, when the assistant steps in to channel the voice of the sensitive host, Dr. Danilla, spouting her affirmations about empowering women, it’s as if he “gender-passes” into a female role and then suddenly can’t be heard by the producer either, who returns to his state of selective deafness. As her proxy, his impassioned plea for women’s empowerment results in the same editing out that the producer gives the female audience members.

This skit had me laughing and cringing at the same time. The blustery, self-important producer who both realistically and metaphorically just can’t hear women’s voices seems an all-too-familiar stereotype, alongside the hand-wringing and apologetic linguistic patterns of the women who are trying, bravely, to improve their lives. When faced with the brick wall of the producer’s dismissal, the second woman’s impulse is to retract her question, retreat, and say she’ll deal with the issue herself, and the third, realizing what a fight is ahead, decides it’s not worth it. Somehow, this struck me as both a hilarious and a sobering parable of entrenched patriarchal patterns embedded within styles of communication. I’m curious what others think – is this over-reading a simple skit? Is this the product of an astute SNL writer jabbing at a producer’s power to silence? Where, exactly, does the joke lie?