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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 6)

“His sense of it was that (my impression) wasn’t mean, that it was mostly silly,” Carvey told Shales. “But I don’t think he ever saw the one where we had him on his knees, saying, ‘Please, God, don’t make me a one-termer.’ ”

But Carvey’s sketches still had to be seen when they aired—or perhaps taped on a VCR. These days, thanks to cable TV and the Internet, the reach of a truly funny “SNL” sketch about a current politician is global. And the politicians don’t always take it well.

When she did Palin on “SNL” during the 2008 campaign, Fey was criticized by McCain-Palin campaign advisor Carly Fiorina, who was quoted in news outlets as calling it “disrespectful in the extreme, and, yes, I would say sexist.”

But as Fey told David Letterman during an appearance on his show shortly afterward, “The Republicans say it was sexist. But you have to be able to goof on female politicians, too, or you’re treating them as though they’re weaker. She’s a tough lady—hey, she kills things. Big things.”

Syracuse University’s Robert Thompson says that, in fact, “SNL” may have hurt Palin in a way other than simply holding her up for ridicule.

“Her interview with Katie Couric played on the third-place nightly news show,” he says. “If this had been before the Internet that interview would barely have made a ripple. But the fact that those clips were available on the Internet and then Tina Fey was doing an impression of her meant that many more people watched it online than ever saw it on TV. Meanwhile, Tina Fey and ‘SNL’ helped firmly establish how Palin would be portrayed: as somebody with not much of a grip on the issues.”

What does the 2012 election cycle hold? With both Obama and Republican presidential hopefuls already declared as candidates, the political scene should provide an amplitude of material for “SNL’s’” writers and cast, beginning in October—the show’s 37th season—and right up to the general election in November 2012.

Kristen Wiig, the show’s latest breakout star thanks to Bridesmaids, already does both Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Michele Bachmann. Jason Sudeikis regularly brings out his impression of Vice President Joe Biden and Armisen frequently unleashes his Obama.

Says Thompson, “In 2008, you’d turn on CNN to check in on what ‘SNL’ did this week. In 2012, people will be looking to them. How successful they are will depend on whether they find that sweet spot. They totally found it in 2008 with Sarah Palin. ‘SNL’ was one of the big stories of the ’08 election. I’d say ’08 was for ‘SNL’ what 2000 was for ‘The Daily Show.’ ”

“When ‘SNL’ picks on you, you have to be ready—and the best strategy is to laugh with them,” Shales says. “That’s the only strategy you can have. Because if ‘SNL’ is after you, the others are, too.”

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