Saturday Night Live heroin skit irks HeroinKillsCT founder

Theresa Doonan has been watching Saturday Night Live on NBC since it premiered in the 1970s.

She’s seen the satirical show traverse through several national drug epidemics that claimed the lives of cast members and thousands of others.  

That’s one of the many reasons why the Trumbull mother and founder of HeroinKillsCT is petitioning against last weekend’s two-minute, farcical drug advertisement skit “Heroin AM” that markets to parents who “want to use heroin but also want to get stuff done.”

“The image of the melted gummy bear that’s going to be injected by a needle is the most atrocious thing I’ve ever seen,” said Doonan, who lost her son to a heroin overdose in April 2014.  

“We’re in the middle of a heroin epidemic that has just claimed the lives of four more Connecticut kids in the last three days,” she told The Times Tuesday. “And this comes along and trivializes it — it mocks those of us who are actively working to prevent substance abuse and educate the public by normalizing it and making it look like everyday life.”

The parody features several parents, played by SNL cast members, who want to use “the only non-drowsy heroin” pill so they can remain productive members of society — whether it be as a soccer coach or a school bus driver.

At around the minute mark of the skit, the show’s producers decided to include an image of a lighter melting a gummy bear consisting of the fake drug, Heroin AM, so that the user can inject the fake medication rather than ingest it.  

That was enough to motivate Doonan to pass along Massachusetts mother Renee Cotton’s petition that has collected more than 60,000 signatures and more than 7,500 signatures from people in the HeroinKillsCT network that Doonan started.

“I had to play it again,” she said of the skit.

“The gummy bear was too much,” she added. “I think it did a lot of damage subliminally, and it tried to make light of our country’s ongoing heroin situation and make it a joke, but it doesn’t work.”

Missing the mark

Doonan, who also co-founded Connecticut Heroin Task Force, admitted that there were parts of the sketch that the show-runners could have gotten away with but ultimately missed their mark considering the target audience for the show.

“I do get that there are a lot of suburban moms and clean-cut kids doing it and that they’re making a joke of the fact that big pharma has a drug for every medical problem and that people will try any drug that is put on the market, but a lot of people watching at home don’t get the double entendre,” she said. “There are groups that will take away from it that this is cool, that this is OK, and that this is normal. …

“They’ve had fake drug commercials before, but never quite like this — never one that struck a nerve quite like this,” she said. “Something like this is lost on a certain age group. Kids watch it like the way we used to during the John Belushi era and they don’t see the dark humor in it that adults do.”

Besides putting young audience members at risk and upsetting numerous groups of parents whose children have died of heroin overdoses, the skit has received backlash from a variety of other areas that surprised Doonan and highlighted the seriousness of the epidemic.

“You have big rehabilitation centers and senators writing NBC to do something to correct this, and then you have coroner’s offices, sheriffs and funeral directors, from around the country, complaining about it, too,” she said. “If that’s not a statement right there about how awful this parody was, then I don’t know what is.”

Doonan said the show’s producers shouldn’t attempt to satirize a situation that affects this many American lives. That’s why she compared making a comedy sketch about heroin addiction to people laughing at military coffins.

“There’s dark humor and there’s satire, but there are certain things that you can’t laugh at, no matter how much you want to do it,” she said.

Words of petition

Renee Cotton and thousands of others have attached their signatures on a petition to showrunner Lorne Michaels and NBC regarding the heroin skit that aired on Saturday Night Live April 16.

“We at ‘The Addict’s Mom’ are appalled at NBC for choosing to air this unacceptable parody of the great tragedy of drug addiction that is destroying American families,” Cotton wrote. “Those of us who are living with the nightmare that is addiction do not find the skit funny, nor do we wish to encourage people to laugh at what is a deadly problem. …

“Many of us have buried our child, or have children in jail, children who are homeless, children whose whereabouts are unknown, or children who are struggling to recover,” the petition continued. “Some of us are raising our own grandchildren due to the death of our children. The disease has stolen our family stability, peace of mind, and health. Our nation is in the grip of the deadliest drug epidemic in history. Our group has spent the last decade educating, supporting, and advocating for reform in the field of addiction. We are determined to change the misperceptions of society regarding our addicted children.”

Cotton said that parents of addicted children “live in a world of grief, despair and heartache” and asked the studio heads at NBC to imagine how those parents felt when Saturday Night Live chose to make light of the situation.

“Our members are outraged, disappointed with NBC, and concerned that the subject of drugs is fodder for comedy,” she said.

Positive out of a negative

For her part, Doonan said, she’d like to see the show’s cast members address the heroin epidemic in America rather than apologize for the skit.

“I’d like to see a statement — we’d all like to see them make a formal apology or a formal response to this criticism, but that hasn’t happened yet and I don’t think it will,” the Trumbull resident said Tuesday. “If that’s not going to happen, I really think they can make a positive out of this by saying that ‘we are SNL; this is who we are’ and then talking for a minute about what’s going on across the country and how people can get help.

“It’s on them to present the realities of the situation,” she added. “I’d like to see them do it in the opening monologue, but I think as long as they do it at some point in the show, it will be good because it will show the people that are watching that they’re taking a stance against this problem and that they’re acknowledging some of the backlash from what they ran last week.”

Besides numbers to rehab centers and national programs used to combat substance abuse, Doonan said that the Saturday Night Live heroin skit should motivate cast members and producers to give real facts about substance abuse to those watching at home.

“That would make it almost a positive if they could reverse course like that,” she said. “They don’t need to necessarily say sorry, but they can address this as a serious matter, and that’ll do a lot of good. …

“More people need to speak up and make statements that talk about addiction and addicts that they know in their lives,” she added. “People don’t want to talk about it because it is stigmatized as such a negative, but the reality is that’s a locomotive train that keeps picking up speed and the only way to stop it is by shifting the general attitude surrounding it.”