The SNL-ization of Presidential Politics

It’s been a good couple of months for the gang at Saturday Night Live. Thanks to Sarah Palin’s comedic twin Tina Fey, Darrell Hammond’s successful transformation from libido-driven Bill Clinton to clueless John McCain and Will Ferrell’s syntax-deprived George W., the late-night laugh ensemble has raised the bar on making fun of this year’s pretenders to the White House. In the long and proud tradition of skewering the high and the mighty, SNL has reaped a ratings bonanza and likely cashed in with loads of ad revenue. 

Although many of the skits have been brilliant takeoffs of the current cast of presidential wannabes, the SNL writers and comedians have been helped along by candidates who just cry out for a laugh line. Producer Lorne Michaels must be praying daily to the patron saint of elections to ensure that the McCain-Palin ticket wins it all, since Obama is too bland and cautious to carry the show for the next four years.

It is hard to point to a downside to SNL’s bullseye on making the W., McCain and Palin look like fools, especially if you are a liberal Democrat from a blue state. But the laugh parade at the expense of the Republicans is not without some troubling impacts on the way we now conduct presidential politics in this country.

What is most troubling is that SNL has become news, not comedy. The 24/7 cable outlets and also the mainstream evening operations have run regular clips of SNL skits as if they were important to public policy options and voter choice. All this attention to comedy routines calls into question the level of seriousness that we view the election of our national leaders and the editorial judgment of those who make news decisions.

Then there is the matter of whether this coverage of SNL is “fair and balanced” since it is the Republicans who are made the target of laughter. The Tina Fey impersonations have been shown and reshown so often on prime time that it is legitimate to ask, for what purpose? Is it just for ratings and revenue or is it also a not too subtle partisan booster campaign for Obama-Biden? Yes, there have been some funny and outrageous Obama skits, but they don’t have the bite and the ridicule of the McCain-Palin skewerings, and they are never shown countless times as comedic news.

By raising the importance of SNL comedy skits from satire to news and interjecting partisan overtones into the show have we now become a political culture where slamming those who run for the White House is an essential part of the electoral process? Are we sending signals to viewers that dignity, honor, respect and decency are not that important in a presidential campaign, only the laugh tract, only the humiliation of political figures, only the further degrading of the highest office in this country? Where does citizen cynicism begin in American politics? One place to start looking is Saturday Night Live.


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