My first encounter with the episode of MacGruber in which he gets a Black employee occurred in 2010 when I was visiting my parents’ home on leave from the Army. My friend Mike, who was at the time studying for a Master’s Degree in History at UConn, was visiting. It was the first time we’d seen each other since leaving Fort Benning, and we got into my dad’s wine cellar. Unbeknownst to us, my dad had hoarded bottles of white wine far beyond their drinkable date. What started out as a celebration quickly became a brutal slog through rancid bottles we couldn’t bear to throw away. The conversation touched many topics, including racism and fascist tendencies in the United States. Mike later described the result as “the worst hangover I’d ever had in my life.”
The next morning, we needed to return to our regular lives. Brunch was sullen and quiet—somehow I had the sense that Mike blamed me for the bad wine, which was a mistake, it was obviously my father’s fault for leaving the wine in his cellar for us to pillage—but after a couple cups of coffee we both perked up, and were in the process of saying our goodbyes when he said he wanted to show me something.
What he wanted to show me was MacGruber. In addition to being slightly hung over myself, and not a fan of the current cast—still, in 2010, hung up on the Will Farrell years—I felt exhausted and was not looking forward to facing a five hour drive back up to Fort Drum. I was ready to dislike the sketch.
Nevertheless, upon watching it, and without any other knowledge of Will Forte’s character, I was immediately carried away by its bold satirical representation of racism. We watched it over and over again, astonished by the way in which it captured the dangerous fragility of white identity in the U.S.—MacGruber’s incompetence, his well-intentioned attempts to overcome deep-seated racism, his ultimate return to fear and violence as a means of negotiating with Daryl, the black employee.
Watching it again in 2020, the sketch loses none of its power or urgency. At a time when Senate Democrats engage in well-intentioned but performative appropriation of African culture while meaningful reforms to police departments and culture receive the usual lip service and long-suffering optimists hold their breath for something, anything more, what else can one do but laugh when MacGruber himself dons a dashiki after a trip to Africa, only to emerge utterly unchanged by the experience?
Watching the sketch again recently, however, I noticed that it had been edited. The sketch consists of three small episodes, originally ordered properly in sequence. The edited version exchanges the last episode with the middle.
Why would Saturday Night Live have changed an extraordinarily amusing and essentially true critique of white culture through the character of MacGruber? Let’s look at the original sketch, and the edited version.
Originally, the sketch begins with MacGruber, his black employee Daryl, and his sidekick Vicky attempting to disarm a bomb. Over the course of the bomb disarmament it becomes clear that MacGruber has obtained all of his knowledge of “Black culture” from gangster rap and exploitative movies, and his attempts to connect with Daryl—whose name he repeatedly mispronounces as Duh-Rell while Daryl patiently corrects him—all fail. Finally, in an attempt to lighten the mood, MacGruber begins to tell a time-worn joke that is simultaneously racist, sexist, and anti-semitic. The bomb explodes. That is the first episode of three.
When the next episode begins, we learn that MacGruber has been forced to go to racial sensitivity training, which he regards as useless and stupid corporate bullshit from H.R., as evidenced by his telling racist jokes in private. He, Daryl, and Vicky are stuck in a room with another ticking-time bomb, and MacGruber goes to great lengths to explain to Daryl that he’s learned his lesson about racism and racist language—this attempt falls apart over a specious disagreement over what language to use when referring to a black pen. Daryl, fed up with MacGruber’s hollow self-righteousness, attempts to hand MacGruber the pen in order to disarm the bomb, but MacGruber pepper sprays Daryl in the eyes—then defends his actions to a horrified Vicky, claiming that Daryl had rushed him, and was high on PCP, as Daryl’s eyes were bloodshot. Vicky points out that Daryl’s eyes were bloodshot because MacGruber had filled them with pepper spray. Now desperate to defuse the bomb, MacGruber asks Vicky to hand him another, different pen, referring to it as Chinese, Asian, and, ultimately, “yellow,” concluding just before the bomb detonated that he was, in fact, a racist.
In the third and final episode, MacGruber has taken some time off to do soul-searching, connected to his depressing epiphany. He goes to Africa, he befriends Spike Lee on Facebook, and presumably, immerses himself in both African and Black culture. When he, Daryl, and Vicky are locked in yet another room with a ticking time bomb, we see that he’s wearing full native African garb, though it quickly becomes apparent that his trip has not been as successful as one might hope—he continues to mispronounce Daryl’s name, and, in announcing that the group will be able to take Martin Luthor King Day as a holiday, he mistakenly refers to Dr. King as “Martin Rufus King,” then compounds the error by confusing Daryl’s name. MacGruber makes one last sincere plea with Daryl for friendship, acknowledging that although he has a long way to go, he was committed to making progress together with his Black employee. Reluctantly, Daryl extends his hand to meet MacGruber’s—but MacGruber interprets Daryl’s move as a sign of aggression, and MacGruber pepper sprays Daryl in the eyes again, just before the bomb explodes.
Putting the episodes out of order creates the following problem: the original episode 2 begins with the racist, sexist, and anti-semitic joke MacGruber told at the end of episode 1. When placed after episode 3, the beginning makes little sense, as episode 3 does not involve a joke, though episode 1 does. Furthermore, the final shot in episode 3 depends on people being prepared to receive an important message about racial reconciliation, to see a white and a Black hand clasped together in friendship in spite of everything that has happened before—an expectation that is hilariously (and depressingly) subverted when MacGruber ultimately cannot overcome his racism.
Once you watch the sketch in its proper order—1, 2, and then 3—it is impossible to see or understand it in any other order, such is the harmony of the sketch’s composition, and the power of its message, which is that white prejudice and racism is too great to overcome through superficial and privileged (taking time off in Africa being the height of privilege) acts, even when those acts involve direct exposure to African culture and a sincere desire to reform. What makes the sketch perfect is that up until (and, thus far, including) the present moment racism continues to exist in jokes, and in systems, and in individuals. Black men and women correct and oblige the overwhelming, wilful ignorance of white men, hoping against hope that something will eventually change for the better. For their trouble, they are greeted with eyefuls of pepper spray.
Now to the logic behind editing. The logic does not appear to have anything to do with humor, as the sketch is less funny and more confusing exchanging the third with the second episode. Instead, it has to do with a desire to have MacGruber achieve positive character growth over the course of the sketch—not to achieve self-awareness and be unable to overcome it.
There was a YouTube conversation that perfectly captures this theory—I have no idea whether Andrew Barrett was connected to the edit, but he has understood the logic behind it correctly.
So, in order to create a character of MacGruber capable of self-growth and learning lessons, Saturday Night Live edited “racial sensitivity training.” In other words, rather than face up to an unpleasant but measurable truth about racism in America and white privilege, an organization dedicated to satire (and which busily satirizes Trump, who is notoriously incapable of learning or self-improvement) willfully scrubbed it free from racism.
Reordering episodes in a sketch about racial sensitivity in a way that ultimately absolves the central white character of racism (the sensitivity training… worked?) is ironic, and depressing, but in its own way, it underlines a deeper truth about America. We can’t imagine ourselves as anything other than part of a progressive redemption narrative. Maybe if we were to recognize our flaws and accept them at face value, we could begin to work on a way forward, together. If we don’t, we’ll keep resorting to pepper spray.