‘SNL’ Missed the Mark When Fred Armisen Mocked the Blind

The writers and performers of Saturday Night Live have a tough job. Within the course of a week’s time, they need to write and rehearse a 90-minute comedy show with sketches that they then perform live for the world to see.

Comedy is one of the hardest forms of art and entertainment to master, and that means it can take multiple attempts for writers to get a joke right. For the team at SNL, the high pressure they put themselves under can lead to some misfires.

Sometimes, however, the show has a joke or angle that is just plain offensive. Let’s take a closer look at the time SNL missed the mark when Fred Armisen mocked the blind. 

How SNL Weekend Update comments on the news

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SNL consists mainly of short sketches with digital shorts sometimes thrown in to change the pace. Since the show’s inception, it’s had a constant segment that takes place right in the middle of it: Weekend Update.

Weekend Update is a mock news program in which one or two anchors deliver topical jokes that address the news of that week. Some of the more famous Weekend Update anchors included Chevy Chase, Tina Fey, Norm MacDonald, and Seth Meyers. Michael Che and Colin Jost currently man the update desk. 

Weekend Update also frequently features cast members delivering commentary either as themselves or in character. Sometimes, they will appear as recurring characters, such as Adam Sandler’s Opera Man or Bill Hader’s Stefon. Other times, they appear to imitate a real person who’s been in the news for one reason or another.

One time, they chose to impersonate the governor of New York. 

The story of former New York governor David Paterson

David Paterson was the former governor of the state of New York. According to the National Governor’s Association website, Paterson served from 2008-2011. Some of Paterson’s achievements included: 

  • Being the first ever non-white New York Secretary of State
  • Being the first Black Vice-Chair of the National Democratic Party
  • Representing Harlem in the New York state senate
  • Becoming the minority leader of the New York state senate

Paterson is legally blind. He is a national advocate for the visually and physically impaired. He also became the first visually impaired speaker to address the Democratic National Convention, speaking at the 2004 edition of the event held in Boston, Massachusetts. 

Fred Armisen’s impression of David Paterson and accompanying blowback

Bill Hader as Eliot Spitzer, Fred Armisen as David Paterson, Seth Meyers during the "Weekend Update" skit on May 9, 2009
Fred Armisen (center) as Gov. David Paterson. | Dana Edelson/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

SNL is a nationally-focused TV show, but it films in New York. Because of this, prominent New York celebrities often find themselves in the show’s crosshairs. This was the case for Paterson when he was governor and the show lampooned him. 

On an episode of SNL, Armisen appeared on Weekend Update as Paterson. The premise of the piece was ridiculing Paterson’s blindness. First, he struggled to find the desk. Then he held up a chart upside down, not knowing it wasn’t appearing correctly. Armisen also distorted his own eyes to resemble that of a blind person. The clip is available via the NBC website. 

The blowback to the bit was swift. Paterson’s office criticized it, releasing the following statement to the New York Times

“The governor engages in humor all the time, and he can certainly take a joke….However, this particular ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit unfortunately chose to ridicule people with physical disabilities and imply that disabled people are incapable of having jobs with serious responsibilities.

The governor is sure that ‘Saturday Night Live’ with all of its talent can find a way to be funny without being offensive.” 

The issue the bit was that it essentially only focused on Paterson’s blindness, something he couldn’t control. It also served to disenfranchise any blind members of the show’s audience as well. In short, it was a cheap shot that went for the lowest of low-hanging fruit comedically speaking.