I was watching "Cold Opening: Homeland Security - Saturday Night Live".

I am supposed to translate the entire sketch for my next classes, but I really don't know what is the joke here. I only know that magenta is a color and that is all.

Can someone explain to me what is funny about this? I really need that.

Here is a part of the transcript where the joke is used:

"Before we begin today's briefing, I wish to announce that, on the basis of change in the nature of Al-Qaeda chatter, we are changing the current threat level to Magenta. Let me repeat: the threat level is now.. Magenta. What is Magenta? It's a darker maroon. It's not quite an ox blood. It's more plum color than.. say.. a crimson. How serious is it? [ sighs ] I honestly don't have an answer for that."

  • 4
    It's simply that "threat level" values have been expressed as meaningless colors for most of 15 years now, and no one really understands what a particular color means. No deep meaning to "magenta", other than it's a color name that people recognize without knowing what it really is.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 22:39
  • 4
    This brings back fond memories of Red Dwarf: Rimmer: 'Kryten, move to Red Alert' ... Kryten: 'Are you sure, Sir?' ... Rimmer 'Just DO what I say!' ... Kryten: 'It'll mean changing the bulb ...'. (Or words to that effect.) And the 'Orange Alert! Orange Alert!' ... 'What's Orange Alert?' ... 'Well, it's sort of not as bad as Red Alert, but worse than Purple Alert' interchange between Hilly-Holly and Lister. If I remember correctly. Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 23:47

2 Answers 2


The underlying reference is to the display of "threat level" as a color in a span from green (minimum threat) to red (maximum threat). The problem with this code is that the distinctions are, as far as most people are concerned, quite arbitrary.

Magenta is a reddish color. So is maroon and so is oxblood. Which is redder, and how do these gradations of color correspond to gradations in the threat level? As the speaker says, "[sigh] I honestly don't have an answer for you."

The joke is that the security services (DHS in the US) seem often to draw distinctions which they consider important, but the rest of us find opaque. As such, the humor in the joke relies on tweaking the DHS for being uninformative when it thinks its being helpful, and is an expression of discontent with how the government bureaucracy is functioning.

  • Thank you, both you and Hot Licks, for your time! For some reason I was thinking that there is some pun or something similar in the joke. Now, with your answer, looking back at the transcription, I understand it and without a doubt will be able to make a proper translation. Many thanks!
    – Chelsea_WW
    Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 23:48
  • @Chelsea_WW - Since you are an English learner, and therefor probably not a US citizen, the humor is probably not obvious to you. Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 0:25
  • 3
    Well, to be absolutely blunt, the sketch doesn't sound that funny in the first place.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 0:58
  • @Mari-LouA - I suspect it was a fair riot to many in the US at the time. But it's the sort of gag without much "shelf life". Plus it depended a lot on how you viewed the whole alert level nonsense -- some people were truly terrified by it (oddly making the Homeland Security folks "terrorists"), while others viewed it as the joke it really was.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 19:41

This joke refers to the Homeland Security Advisory System, which was introduced by the US Department of Homeland Security shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Homeland Security Advisory System

The system was criticized for many reasons, one of which is that the criteria for each "threat level" were not made public. It was impossible for anyone to understand why a threat level had been selected, what the actual threats to the public might be at any given time using the system, or what actions they should take.

It's this aspect of the system which the joke is lampooning. Magenta is meant to be beyond red in this scheme, but like the scheme itself, there is no particular meaning anyone can ascribe to it.

Given that the joke refers to something peculiarly American, which might not be generally known in your country, I'm not sure this is easily translatable.

The Homeland Security Advisory System was phased out in 2011.

  • Thank you for the details. I live in Europe and, as you say, we don't have the colors, but the Alpha, Bravo, Charlie thing. However, such terms as "red alarm" are commonly used here, so I may be able to work something out if I give it some thought.
    – Chelsea_WW
    Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 19:59
  • @Chelsea_WW As I recall, only yellow and orange were ever used. The FPCON scale used by US DoD and NATO is similar, but unlike the Homeland Security threat level, it's very specific as to what security situation results in each level and what actions need to be taken. Commented Mar 26, 2016 at 20:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.