All Joking Aside: The SNL Effect

To many Americans, the political field is dull, divisive and plain ugly. For forty-two years, Saturday Night Live (SNL) has transformed the inner workings of politics into something that Americans find relatable, humorous, and ultimately engaging.

With its witty and satirical depictions of presidential politics, this season of SNL has thoroughly captured the essence of the 2016 presidential election. It has seen record-shattering viewing figures: A recent skit featured Melissa McCarthy impersonating White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on his first day. Matching Spicer’s stroppy conversational style and donning his ill-fitted suit, the episode was viewed by nearly 11 million individuals. With its large and loyal following, SNL serves as a powerful force in the political landscape, effectively cementing the public’s perceptions of political developments and political figures. SNL has a critical impact on the success of a politician’s campaign.

To start our discussion on SNL’s effect, we turn to the program’s first presidential impersonation—a young Chevy Chase playing a stressed President Gerald Ford. The perfectly executed mannerisms made the episode a success. Recovering from the aftermath of the Watergate scandal and with serious doubts of Ford’s ability to lead, many Americans found SNL’s parody to unmistakably reflect their frustration. It was here that SNL solidified its foundation as a source to influence public opinion with satire. For instance, a later skit, Klutz in Chief, cemented Ford’s identity as a bumbling president, arguably a perception that outlived Ford. While it would seem that such a depiction would serve as a negative blow to the commander in chief’s ego and image, Ford enjoyed it, noting in Humor and the Presidency, “The portrayal of me as an oafish ex-jock made for good copy… It was also funny.” Ford’s ability to maintain such positivity humanized the presidency, and served as a catalyst for the notion that an ability to be relatable and entertaining was essential to succeed politically.

Nonetheless, SNL’s political impersonations did not always receive such warm regard from presidential candidates. Take, for instance, the campaigns run by presidential hopefuls Al Gore and George W. Bush. During one SNL skit, Gore’s uncooperative, know-it-all persona in the presidential debate was amplified to such an extent that Gore’s national poll numbers deteriorated shortly after the skit’s broadcast. While President Bush ultimately, he was not spared by SNL. His consistent struggle to articulate his thoughts was regularly spoofed by Will Ferrell. Ferrell’s “Strategery” impression factored into the legacy of Bush’s presidency, as he will be remembered for his numerous verbal slip-ups.

In 2017, SNL continues to define presidential politics through its pervasive take on Trump and his administration. Specifically, SNL’s comedic depiction of Trump undermines his authority and shifts focus to his weaknesses, thus reaffirming his negative public perception. While the content is satirical, the images drive SNL’s political message home. Alec Baldwin’s thick accent, grandiose hand gesture, bad spray tan, and harsh words certainly do not depict the President in a flattering light. In fact, such skits present Trump as a stumbling fool who knows little about civic society, much less how to run the entire nation. Finding a balance between humor and politics is crucial to SNL’s success.

With Baldwin’s impersonation of Trump, Kate McKinnon’s rendition of Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, and Melissa McCarthy as water gun toting press secretary Sean Spicer, has SNL crossed the line? It is important to remember that show’s objective is to attract an audience, rather than serve as a medium to accurately report political happenings. The show easily enters into political territory due to its ability to hide behind the veil of comedy. SNL’s creative team is completely aware of its clout in shaping public perception of the political vista, with one production member noting that, “Eighty million people watched the debate, 130 million people will vote, 50 million others are still looking for places to get their news, and comedy can fill that gap.” Such statistics allude to a deficiency in news consumption by constituencies. In fact, Pew Research Center found that just 12% of 18-29 year-olds believe that the national media does a very good job keeping them informed. Political knowledge is critical to the stability of our democracy, and while SNL is far from a traditional news outlet, its comedic depictions still inform the electorate. Furthermore, in 2003 Markus Prior, a professor at Princeton University, proposed that any knowledge gained by reading news, regardless if the material comes from a soft news source or social media, serves a positive, democratic-reinforcing purpose. Regarding the ethics of criticizing political leaders, the Pew Research Center suggests that 75% of Americans believe that such critique is valid, for it prevents unchecked actions by politicians. In the eyes of viewers, the critique is warranted and welcomed.

However, President Trump does not welcome the critique. Trump, arguably SNL’s most strident critic, has expressed his hatred for the series’ impersonations in several tweets. Most recently, he exclaimed,“[NBCNews] is bad but Saturday Night Live is the worst of NBC. Not funny, cast is terrible, always a complete hit job. Really bad television!”

It is important to note that Democrats and Republicans are targeted alike by satirical shows. However, there seem to be jokes made at the expense of Republicans more often than Democrats. Lorne Michaels, the executive producer of SNL, shared with Vulture that Republicans are easier to mock because they think impersonations are funny, whereas Democrats take them as personal attacks. He chalks it up to the nature of comedy, but is SNL getting too political?

As a new political administration commences and as an ideological divide increases between parties, many Americans have doubts and questions about the country’s welfare. As it has done for the past forty-two years, SNL rightly serves as one form of the people’s voice, and it serves to remind politicians that they must be keenly cognizant of the fact that they have been entrusted by Americans to fulfill their duties. As Michaels notes, “If a culture doesn’t allow you to laugh at the leaders or at things that your eyes and ears tell you are actually happening, that’s not good.” Whether it is President Trump’s iconic comb-over hairstyle, Sarah Palin’s incredible eyesight, or Hillary Clinton’s emotionless iron façade, SNL creates lasting legacies through its mockery and continues to make us laugh.

About the Author

Catherine Oliver
Catherine Oliver (FCRH '17) is a political science major with a minor in marketing. She is fascinated by the intersection of media and politics. Contact Catherine at coliver4@fordham.edu.