Saturday Night Live’s 2018 season premiere featured an HIV joke that’s straight outta the 1980s.
During the “Weekend Update” segment with Colin Jost and Michael Che, Che spoke about Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding his alleged assault of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. During the segment, Che was making a joke about Brett’s supposed alcoholism and, somehow, made people with HIV the butt of the joke.
“I don’t know if Mr. Kavanaugh actually has a history of assault or if he actually has a drinking problem, but I do know that he might,” Che said. “And you shouldn’t be on the Supreme Court if you might. You shouldn’t be on the People’s Court if you might.”
Che continued, “Sometimes ‘might’ is enough. I don’t want to pet your dog if he might bite me. I don’t want to leave you in my house if you might be a crackhead. I’m not going to have sex with you if you might have dated Charlie Sheen.”
Yikes, there’s a lot to unpack here. I don’t know why Che chose to compare Kavanaugh to a person living through the crack or HIV/AIDS epidemics, but here we are! A lot of people might say it’s never a good idea to drill down too hard into a joke, but I’m going to anyway.
Che’s joke wasn’t just about Charlie Sheen, who is probably now one of the most famous people living with HIV in the world. It was also about the fear of sleeping with someone who has slept with someone who has HIV — which is an outdated, scientifically unsound position to take. The joke probably won’t do Charlie Sheen himself great harm, but to those casual viewers of Saturday Night Live who are also not up on science, the joke reifies the worst stigmas against people living with HIV, namely that they are unworthy of love and physical affection.
Despite lots of awareness campaigns trying to teach people that people with HIV who are undetectable can’t transmit the virus, that message still hasn’t permeated the zeitgeist. Even worse, despite acknowledgement from officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that U=U is real, studies have shown that a lot of people still don’t believe it. One recent study in the Journal of the International AIDS Society showed that a disturbingly high amount — two-thirds — of HIV-negative gay men, or gay men who don’t know their status, believe that U=U as a statement is not completely accurate.
What is funny, unlike the SNL joke, is that SNL has tackled Sheen’s HIV status before, and with better results. In a 2015 episode, hosted by Matthew McConaughey, a fake TV game show called “Should You Chime In on This?” posited that you should not, in fact, chime in on Sheen’s disclosure of his HIV status. (A quick reminder that Sheen was forced to disclose his diagnosis before an expose on him was published the next day.)
Saturday Night Live has tackled HIV in the past and was able to joke about it with a bit more panache. Back in 1985, Madonna hosted the show’s season premiere and appeared in a skit about HIV stigma in which HIV-negative people who had a fear of potentially catching HIV through kissing were the skewered subjects.