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The Comedy of Politics

Since Chevy Chase’s acerbic satire of President Gerald Ford in 1976, “Saturday Night Live’s” comics have played a defining role in the political life of America
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Saturday Night Live: How it Shapes Our Politics & Culture, September/October 2011

(continued from page 1)

Bruce Fretts, articles editor for TV Guide Magazine, argues the opposite—that, once Tina Fey did her Palin impersonation, even a Palin appearance on the show couldn’t mitigate the effect that the satire had on the public perception of the controversial Republican candidate.

“That was what everyone was talking about for the major portion of the election cycle,” Fretts says. “There were real teeth in their Palin skits. It had impact because it defined her as a laughingstock. They stripped away her ‘Aw, shucks’ persona and made her look like a phony and a dunce. People had suspicions about her and you were seeing those reflected back and reinforced by the sketches.”

Horner argues that, in fact, “SNL” changed the dynamic of the press coverage of the Democratic primaries that same year. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton did drop in for guest appearances during the primaries—but an earlier “SNL” skit, about press moderators at Democratic debates fawning over Obama while ignoring Clinton, became a story in itself.
“And then Hillary Clinton went on the show herself,” Horner says. “The people who do go on have an agenda. They think they’re co-opting the show.”

Tom Shales, Pulitzer Prize–winning former Washington Post TV critic and coauthor of  Live From New York: An Uncensored History of ‘Saturday Night Live’, observes that Jim Downey, a longtime writer of political humor on “SNL,” always discourages allowing the real politicians on the show.

“Downey expressed displeasure in our book about inviting actual newsmakers on,” Shales says. “He thought it defanged and diluted the impact of the satire. How can you lampoon them and be ruthless when you’re standing next to the actual person?”
As the 2012 presidential election approaches, it’s not hard to envision “SNL’s” stellar current cast—fresh off a summer of movie hits for Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader and Jason Sudeikis—sharpening its knives for the already-underway 2012 primary tussle.

“I love the amazing videos they do,” says Jim Belushi, a cast member from 1983-1985. “From what I’ve seen, this current cast is great.”

With a strong cast that isn’t afraid to take on contemporary politicians and celebrities—everyone from Rep. John Boehner and President Barack Obama to Miley Cyrus and Charlie Sheen—it’s less a question of who they’ll take the satirical blade to than what will escape their edgy comedic treatment.

It’s not far-fetched to imagine that political advisers are devising strategies to deal with what has become a mainstream vein of political satire. Besides “Saturday Night Live” on NBC, two Comedy Central shows—“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “The Colbert Report” with Stephen Colbert—have become important players in translating current events into comedy.

A poll by Pew Research Center for People and the Press in 2008 showed that an increasing number of 18-to-29-year-old voters got their political news from just such shows. As Downey told Shales in Live From New York: “Someone did a survey of college students on where they got their political views and information—and television comedy was number one. During the 2000 election, after the first debate followed up by the first debate sketch…I kept hearing reports from people that they [had seen the sketch rebroadcast] on CNN or there was something on the ‘Today’ show…And then it became a standard thing. Nowadays they practically have a regular slot.”

Shales says, “I hope we haven’t reached the point where candidates are figuring out how to exploit ‘Saturday Night Live’ and the other shows. But we’re probably at the point where it’s part of the overall media strategy.”

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