Need help keeping your busy life and your heroin habit going, asks the suburban mom? Try Heroin A.M., a product that combines heroin, caffeine and “a small pile of cocaine” to create the only nondrowsy heroin on the market. “Now I can chase the dragon while I also chase this little guy,” the woman says, tousling the hair of her young son.
With this comedy sketch, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the nation’s heroin epidemic got the “Saturday Night Live” treatment. But to those on the inside of the tragedy, one that has decimated communities and caused a quadrupling of heroin-related deaths since 2000, the mock commercial offered nothing to laugh about.
Massachusetts resident Renee Cotton, whose stepson is now in treatment after twice overdosing on the drug, called the skit “cruel and heartless,” and she launched a change.org petition demanding an apology from SNL. “I just thought this was very insensitive and affected a lot of people who are really struggling right now,” she told Massachusetts TV station Fox25.
Within a week of the April 16 SNL broadcast, the petition had close to 10,000 signatures and had garnered dozens of messages of support. One commenter whose son died of an overdose directed these words to the SNL producers: “My son along with [the] many thousands we have lost to heroin (and are still losing every day) struggled hard with his addiction. You think it is entertainment to make fun of them and their struggles? Time to shut this show down!”
Hundreds also took to the SNL Facebook page to register their disgust — a word used in almost every posting about the skit. “Some things just aren’t funny,” wrote one. “The generation of children who are losing their parents to the opiate crisis don’t think it’s a joke that their parents couldn’t function and take care of them. I hope none of you are affected by the pain millions of Americans feel every day.” Another wrote: “We are talking about people dying from the DISEASE of addiction. Yes, a disease from all walks of life. I doubt you would do something like this about cancer. It is not a joke, it isn’t funny. It is an epidemic.”
Others noted the disturbing sight of SNL doing a skit about a mock product whose ingredients — a mix of cocaine and an opioid — were factors in the deaths of two former SNL cast members, John Belushi and Chris Farley. Farley’s brother, Tom, in fact, shared his distress, tweeting, “Have to say, I’m pretty bummed.”
— Tom Farley (@madfarley) April 18, 2016
Some law enforcement groups, who find themselves on the front lines of the epidemic, also didn’t see the joke. Wisconsin Sheriff Dale J. Schmidt released a statement on the department’s Facebook page calling the skit “distasteful, inappropriate, and irresponsible” and demanded NBC apologize and ensure a similar broadcast isn’t repeated. But he also urged the community to use it as a reminder to “educate our families, friends, and neighbors on the warning signs, dangers, and treatment options that are available.”
To be sure, some had an opposite reaction, praising the mock commercial for starting conversations and illuminating uncomfortable truths, such as the fact that much of the current heroin epidemic grew out of the aggressive marketing and prescribing of prescription opioids, which then led some to turn to a cheaper and more easily accessible opioid — heroin. In a CNN commentary, journalist and physician Ford Vox called the rage misplaced and noted that comedy is a way for Americans to talk about serious issues. He wrote:
“Heroin A.M.” did a great job elevating awareness that many seemingly ‘normal’ and high-functioning people are abusing opioids. This skit is savvy satire that portrays the medicalization and commercialization of a ‘street drug,’ and that seemingly absurd scenario speaks to the underlying truth that a haywire medical system ruled by corporate greed, bad regulations and complacent doctors actually generated this problem in the first place.”
Far from boycotting NBC, he added, the star of the skit, Louis-Dreyfus, deserves thanks. “She went after this problem head-on.”
But on most social media forums, the pro-camp was largely outnumbered by those whose outrage over the skit was fueled by all too personal tragedy. As one signer of the change.org petition noted: “I lost my beautiful son, the youngest of four, to this horrendous drug. This has devastated me and my loved ones. Please enlighten me where I can find humor in addiction.”