Red Lines

05.10.15 4:50 PM ET

‘SNL’ (Doesn’t) Draw the Line at Prophet Muhammad

In Saturday night’s skit, the venerable comedy show skewers Islamic extremists, Islamophobes, and 1990s game shows.

Saturday Night Live has really crossed the line this time! On Saturday night this venerable comedy institution did something it had never tried before in its 40 years on the air: a comedy sketch about drawing the Prophet Muhammad.

Well they didn’t actually draw the prophet, and therein lies the comedy. In a very smart and very funny sketch, SNL gave us a parody of the game show Win, Lose or Draw. As a refresher, in this game show contestants are assigned a movie, person, etc., to draw in hopes that their fellow contestant can guess it correctly and win a prize.

The SNL sketch begins with the contestant being assigned the movie Gone Girl. That is solved pretty quickly, with one contestant drawing a girl running away.

The next contestant, played by SNL’s Bobby Moynihan, jumped up excitedly, ready to draw. He’s handed the card with his assigned picture from the host. Moynihan looks at the card and his face quickly goes from all smiles to sheer horror. The audience then sees what Moynihan has to draw: “The Prophet Muhammad.”  

Moynihan, to big laughs, hems and hews, offering excuses why he can’t draw anything. Then SNL’s Keenan Thompson bolts up, saying he will draw whatever it is. But when Thompson sees it’s the Prophet Muhammad, he “accidentally” drops his pen. Finally, the episode’s host, Reese Witherspoon, asks: “Is it the Prophet Muhammad?” 

That, my friends, is a great comedy sketch that raises an important issue about freedom of expression and the fear some Americans have about drawing the Prophet Muhammad. It doesn’t demonize Muslims like Pam Geller does for a living while masquerading as an advocate for freedom of expression.

I wasn’t surprise by the way SNL approached this touchy topic. The show would never intentionally stoke the flames of hate against any minority group. I worked at SNL from the late 1990s to mid-2000s on the show’s production staff. The comedy about political and societal issue always punched up, not down, meaning it took aim at people in power, not minority groups.

In fact, when I worked at SNL, and even since I left the show, many writers have asked me about sketches they were working on that dealt with Arabs or Muslims to determine two things: 1) Was it accurate? and 2) Was it horribly offensive? If it was offensive, of course, they kept in. (Kidding.)

The problem with asking me if anything is offensive is that as a comedian and a writer, I find truly almost nothing offensive. But I can do my best to share if I think others in my community might be offended. And to me Saturday night’s sketch should only offend those who don’t like parodies of 1990s game shows.

Now, is there a chance that some Muslim somewhere in America could find this sketch offensive? Sure. And if they are offended, they should express that. Voicing your dislike of something in America is part and parcel of freedom of expression. It goes both ways: You have freedom to say things, and I have the same freedom to use words to counter it.

The idea that only Muslims get upset when something about their faith is presented in America is simply a fallacy. Just a few months ago in New York City, many Jewish groups protested the opera Klinghoffer at the Met because they viewed it as anti-Semitic. Five well known Jewish leaders went as far as to meet with Met executives to ask that the opera be canceled. (The opera went on as scheduled.)

We have seen Christian groups voice opposition to depictions of Jesus in the arts, including a 2012 film that depicted a gay Jesus. And of course we can’t forget 1999, when then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was so offended by a piece of art he deemed “anti-Catholic” because it depicted the Virgin Mary dotted with elephant dung that he tried to cut off funding for the city museum that was showing it and even tried to evict the museum from the city-owned property it was renting.

Yes, I know we have seen some small percentage of Muslims respond to offensive images with violence. And just last week, two Muslims launched an attack on Geller’s Draw Prophet Muhammad contest but thankfully were killed before they could succeed. 

But who defines Muslims in America? Is it the two gunmen or the other 5 million-plus Muslim Americans who responded to Geller’s hateful antics with a collective yawn? On Friday, Bill Maher, a man I’ve criticized in the past for his overly broad generalizations about Muslims, actually applauded the Muslims of the Dallas area for ignoring Geller. Maher even added on his HBO show that we should be standing with these types of Muslims, which elicited a big cheer from his studio audience.

As a passionate advocate of freedom of expression, I truly hope for a day when SNL can draw an image of the Prophet Muhammad with the only concern being the typical objections via phone calls to NBC, emails, etc. And to be honest, I think we are just about there, at least from point of view of mainstream Muslims.

That would not only be a great development for freedom of expression, but it also undermines the Pam Gellers of this world. It would make clear that her hateful antics will not elicit the angry response from us she so desperately desires.