There were West Virginia jokes aplenty on the latest episode of “Saturday Night Live” — mostly vague references to former Delegate Derrick Evans, R-Wayne, and his involvement in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Some of them were pretty funny.
But the direct shot at the state from Michael Che during the Weekend Update segment struck a bit of a nerve with me.
Che noted the recent news that West Virginia was doing better than most other states in rolling out COVID-19 vaccines. The punchline suggested West Virginians were lured to vaccination sites by signs reading “Free meth.” No laugh from me or my wife on that one, we just exchanged cynical glances from across the living room.
It’s not that I’ve never joked about drugs. It’s not that I was offended. I just didn’t think it was funny.
A few years ago, I went to see one of my favorite comedians, John Mulaney — a former SNL writer — perform at the Keith Albee in Huntington. Mulaney worked some local content into the beginning of his set, mainly talking about what he had observed in the 45-minute drive from Charleston’s Yeager Airport to the Huntington theater.
“You’re like a lovely little model railroad town, with a meth problem,” Mulaney quipped. The crowd laughed uproariously, my wife and I among them. Maybe it was because Mulaney had said it to everyone’s face while in West Virginia. Maybe it was funny to imagine idealistic towns in model railroad layouts having real-world problems. Whatever the reason, it came off much differently than Che’s barb.
That’s not to say Mulaney’s jab was harmless. On the drive home, I remember remarking to my wife, “It’s a good thing he didn’t say ‘heroin’ or ‘fentanyl.’”
I used to make jokes about heroin when I was much younger, mainly because the thought of being involved with that drug was completely outlandish. Back then, at least in my own experience, you maybe knew someone who had a relative who said they knew someone who knew a guy who did heroin. Bringing up heroin was a way of wildly escalating a joke or envisioned comedic scenario.
Fast-forward to late 2014, when I was covering the city of Huntington for The Herald-Dispatch, and, as anyone who has lived or worked in West Virginia knows, things had changed dramatically. The vacuum created by a crackdown on prescription painkillers, and the rising cost to get those pills from a drug dealer, gave way to widespread heroin use. It was simple supply-and-demand economics.
Huntington and surrounding Cabell County were in a full-blown overdose crisis by the beginning of 2015, fueled almost entirely by heroin. It then evolved to heroin mixed with fentanyl, or just straight-up fentanyl. While the problem disproportionately affected the poor and the marginalized, I was amazed at how pervasive it was across all socioeconomic strata.
I was still puzzled by the normalization of the drug, and once expressed that to now-Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader, who has been crucial in the regional addiction fight. She explained to me that the withdrawal symptoms from opioids were so bad, people would do anything to avoid them. Her go-to phrase was that withdrawal “is like the flu times 10.” So, she explained, the functioning alcoholic had been supplanted by the functioning heroin user.
By the end of 2015, it seemed like everyone knew someone who had struggled with addiction or had died from an overdose. No one was joking about it.
I described what I was seeing in Huntington (and elsewhere) to a physician I knew who was something of an expert on drug addiction.
“Get ready to write about meth,” he replied. He told me it was making a resurgence in Eastern Kentucky and likely would be on the rise again in West Virginia. He wasn’t wrong.
Maybe, for comedic purposes, meth seems like a safe choice for a joke. It’s made with chemicals so volatile that mixing up a batch often results in an explosion. Those who use it exhibit bizarre behavior. They lose teeth and develop scabs. It makes no sense that anyone would willingly do meth.
That just shows how powerful addiction of any kind is. It ruins people’s lives. They lose their kids. They lose their jobs. They go to jail. A criminal record, a lack of support or a poor economic situation — and many times, it’s all three — make it extremely difficult to get their lives back into any kind of order. That’s part of the reason recidivism is so high. When it comes to hard drugs, you could argue that surviving addiction is more difficult than dying from an overdose.
I’ve seen some local outrage directed at Che over what he said. Those folks have a right to feel the way they do. To those who thought it was hilarious, I disagree, but they can laugh if they want.
I’m not incensed by Che’s joke. Would it help if he actually saw some of the desperation of addiction here? Maybe. Then again, who is to say he hasn’t seen it in other places? Che’s a Black man in America. I’m sure he’s had an entirely separate set of life experiences that I can’t relate to in any way.
To me, it was a just a bad joke exacerbated by the fact that it undercut something West Virginia is actually doing right.