In America, you know something has gone mainstream when it becomes the subject of a sketch on the iconic late night show Saturday Night Live (SNL). For decades, SNL has skewered popular American institutions, politicians and societal issues, which have alternately alienated some people and entertained others. In April of this year, SNL aired a parody of a pharmaceutical commercial where the product pitched, “Heroin AM,” has some viewers asking for an apology.
The sketch, which stars the high-profile actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, arrives at a particularly sensitive time. The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a 14 percent increase between 2013 and 2014 in unintentional deaths due to heroin abuse and prescription painkillers, like oxycodone and hydrocodone. That translates to 28,000 deaths, more than any other year on record.
The parody shows Heroin AM packaged as if it were an over-the-counter product, and has Louis-Dreyfus adding that the product is for people “who want to use heroin” but also “get things done.”
It takes place against the backdrop of a family setting and a children’s soccer game. For comedy aficionados, it’s no surprise that SNL would take on an issue that the White House has declared an epidemic.
They note that SNL’s portrayal of heroin use by seemingly upper middle class, white users is especially poignant. There is truth to that argument. The New York Times reported, in January of this year, that drug overdose deaths in the U.S. among young Caucasian adults are reaching levels not seen since the AIDS epidemic some twenty years ago.
Still, others who have lost family members or loved ones to opioid addiction had difficulty finding humor in the sketch. Tom Farley, brother to the late SNL star Chris Farley, who died as a result of a drug overdose, took to Twitter to express concern about the sketch. “Have to say I’m pretty bummed @nbcsnl “Heroin AM” skit,” he tweeted. “Kind of an FU from some people I really love.”
Farley was not the only one voicing their dislike of the sketch. Other viewers have pointed to the disconnect between SNL’s sketch and the overdose deaths of other alumni, such as John Belushi. A drug treatment center in New York called for a boycott of the NBC late night show, as well as an apology.
In an interview with CNN.com, Gross Longo, a member of Magnolia New Beginnings, a Facebook community devoted to mothers who have lost children to heroin addiction, said, “Unfortunately, we have a site where grieving mothers can talk to each other about the worst pain imaginable, the loss of their child. You have the nerve to think heroin is comedy.”
For their part, NBC is not talking. Rebecca Marks, executive vice president at NBC Universal Television Group, responded to CNN’s request for an interview by saying, “Thanks for reaching out. We won’t be commenting.”
The debate about whether or not the sketch was in poor taste will never be resolved. In the meantime, there are still thousands of people in the country struggling with addiction to heroin and prescription painkillers. Perhaps our time is better spent by getting these people the help they deserve.