‘Using One of its Lifelines’: Does Politics Save Saturday Night Live from Oblivion?

Hidden behind the question of why Saturday Night Live is important are two other questions that we’d like to address: (1) is it really important and (2) should it be important?

The first of these questions may seem to have an obvious affirmative answer in the wake of Tina Fey’s masterful framing of Sarah Palin. If Palin didn’t decimate Palin enough, Fey’s eerily spot-on impression cleaned up the remaining debris. All of a sudden, everyone was talking about SNL, its ratings climbed, and its online viral afterlife showed further evidence of must-watch television in a mostly may-watch television era.


Tina Fey/Sarah Palin Interview with Amy Poehler/Katie Couric

But for most of its recent history, SNL has been entirely unremarkable. To claim importance is to claim that watching the show has mattered, and most weeks it simply has not. Not knowing a single sketch or cast member has proven about as damaging to one’s ability to fit in culturally as has not knowing the season three character arc of Andy on According to Jim, or not knowing who won Battle Apple on Iron Chef America. Before we get accused of snobbishness, let us be clear that we mean no disrespect to these shows. Indeed, Jonathan loves Iron Chef America, but we will not pretend to call it culturally important. SNL, too, has more often than not been just another show.

The rare exceptions come either (1) retrospectively when a cast member hits it big, or (2) during elections. In the first instance, its importance is archival: if one wants to know where Will Ferrell began developing his various comedic personas for example, consult SNL. And surely, SNL has been a regular stable for comic talent in the United States. Many of its cast have gone on to nothing much at all, and many of its eventual superstars have done many bad sketches while at SNL, but we will not begrudge the show’s considerable success at producing many great comedians. SNL has often been called “grad school” for comedians. Yet, as with most grad schools, its progeny have often produced their best work after graduation and further maturation. Lorne Michaels can notoriously claim responsibility for the show’s better talent (and even more notoriously, expects them to show due homage by coming back to the show for little or no pay), yet if one wants to see its cast’s best work, one is nearly always better off looking elsewhere.

The post-SNL career of Joe Piscopo

The second instance is responsible for most of the declarations that it is important in the here and now. When people are abuzz about needing to watch SNL, and when SNL sketches are referenced throughout conversations and the press, it is nearly always election time. Whether it’s Chevy Chase doing Gerald Ford, Phil Hartman doing Bill Clinton, or Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin, its political impressions regularly rocket it into the public eye. This is by no means automatic – the show proved largely inept in 2004, for example – but SNL’s widespread popularity, and hence its “importance,” is usually linked to an election year.

Oddly, though, for a show whose reputation is in part built on political humor, its satire has usually been weak at best. Darrell Hammond may do wonderful impressions, but the humor usually stems from his mastery of his subjects’ vocal intonations, inflections, and ticks. Dana Carvey is famous for his George H. W. Bush impression, but what satiric message did that impression really have? None, as evident by Bush’s embracing of Carvey and the impression. When a satirist does his or her job properly, the object of their scorn doesn’t like them, yet politicians have regularly enjoyed their SNL doppelgangers.

Dana Carvey as President George Herbert Walker Bush
(Users outside of the US can view the video here)

A notable exception, Fey’s excoriation of Palin was touted by Palin as funny, yet even then she had to claim to have had the sound off, surely recognition that the satiric content wasn’t at all flattering. SNL impressions usually pick odd personality quirks and riff off them, again and again. As impressions, they can be amusing, but as satire they often fall flat. If, as George Test notes, satire must be playful, funny, judgmental, and aggressive, SNL rarely taps aggression, while its judgment is of how people speak or walk, and of nothing more important.

Here, then, we move to the second of our questions above: should SNL be important? Or, to rephrase, given that its political humor is rarely satiric and hence largely ineffectual, why is it that so many still give it the badge of honor of calling it smart satire? When we tell people that we study satire, why is it that many ask if we look at SNL?

If so many talk of SNL as satiric, we would suggest that this is a sign of how little competition has been offered over the years, and of how low the standard on network television has often been set for what constitutes satire. Thus, if SNL is important, it is often because few broadcast networks have committed the resources necessary to challenge it. Come election time, we can guarantee that someone on SNL’s cast will do an impression of a leading candidate, but the same cannot be said of most other broadcast network outlets.

The not-so-memorable cast of SNL’s competition on Fox, MadTV.

Over on cable, recent years have seen vibrant competition. Palin aside, and Al Franken’s McCain sketch as exception, SNL’s recent election coverage was characteristically feckless, while Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were showing the nation what real satire looks like. South Park has its moments too, especially when Trey Parker and Matt Stone pull off a last minute special. Satire exists elsewhere, even occasionally on network television, but often at a broad level, with broad targets, a choice necessitated by the production time of most shows (when, for example, The Simpsons can take a year to produce, it’s hard for the show’s team of social satirists to take aim at any one candidate or policy). Letterman, Conan, and Leno have their moments, but they are largely moments. And thus network television is still a rather barren landscape for of-the-moment political satire. SNL may be the closest thing on offer, yet that’s not saying much.

SNL talk is inevitably nostalgic and assertions about its political relevance are no different. It may be that this nostalgia is rooted in the role SNL plays as a sort of satire gateway drug. Having encountered SNL casually during high school, some develop a taste before moving on to the hard stuff like Stewart or Colbert, but still return to watch (or invoke) SNL nostalgically. Nowadays that taste might have already been primed by The Simpsons or South Park, but SNL adds the immediacy of sketch comedy, and it does so in the context of teenage (forgive us) Saturday night lives.

To close, though, let us go back to Fey’s Palin impression. This was legitimate satire. Aided by the fact that Palin was a largely unknown entity, and hence relatively open for authoring by others, the impression did real political damage. Yes, Fey looks a lot like Palin, and yes, she got the voice down. But while many SNL sketches end there, Fey’s sketches bristled with judgment and aggression. This wasn’t just mocking Gerald Ford for being clumsy or Hilary Clinton for wearing pantsuits; something important was being said. And what happened? SNL didn’t just become something to laugh about, it became something to quote. Instead of being a sidebar to political discussion (as it has been so often in its career), it added itself to the discussion. And its popularity, its importance, went through the roof as a result.

The television industry has long worked with the notion that controversy doesn’t pay, and that it’s safest to avoid explicit politics. Yet a tour through television history tells us that this logic is not logical. All in the Family was one of the more popular shows of its time. One of American primetime television’s most iconoclastic shows ever, The Simpsons, is soon to become its longest running. In The Simpsons’ wake, South Park made Comedy Central one of the more popular cable channels out there. Few shows command as loyal a following and as consistently glowing reviews as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. And for a brief moment in 2008, SNL became legitimately important, and, with it, madly popular. So why are the networks still so sluggish in learning the lesson that satire sells? We pose that if they learned this lesson for real, then SNL would only remain popular as archive. In a land without humor, Pauly Shore would be a comic mastermind, and in a land without much satire – a land called American primetime network television – SNL still hangs on as relevant and important.

Jonathan Gray (Fordham University), Jeffrey Jones (Old Dominion University), and Ethan Thompson (Texas A&M, Corpus Christi) are, most recently, co-editors of Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era (NYU Press, 2009).

Image Credits:
1.) The post-SNL career of Joe Piscopo
2.) The not-so-memorable cast of SNL’s competition on Fox, MadTV.

Please feel free to comment.


  • Great column; except for this little message that appears in place of the clips you sourced from hulu: “We’re sorry, currently our video library can only be streamed within the United States.” For those of us unlucky or unwise enough not to be resident in the USA, is it possible to source clips from a less territorial archive?

  • I admit ignorance, I had no idea hulu could only be viewed in the United States. We usually try to use YouTube but when clips aren’t available there, hulu is the next best place to find clips. Any suggestions for another site that doesn’t have territorial restrictions, please share.

  • Thanks for the heads-up, John. Will see what I can do.


    Interesting piece, Jonathan, Jeffrey and Ethan. I enjoyed it.

    Re: definitions of what is or is not satire, what does or does not go to the heart of the matter on TV, I would suggest readers reference Eric Shouse’s article in a recent FLOW edition: “A Politically Unbiased Report on the Satirization of “Jesus Freak” Sarah Palin and Her Hillbilly Family,” Eric Shouse/East Carolina University, Oct 16, 2008.

  • Jonathan, Jeffrey and Ethan:

    Thanks for your insightful piece. I agree that SNL‘s cultural relevance is tied (historically) to its production of stars and (more recently) to election seasons, and I think Lorne Michaels has a healthy awareness that these are the only two reasons non-comedy geeks have to tune in semi-regularly. No one would credit Michaels with being a comedy trendsetter, but he’s shown remarkable adaptability in exploiting ancillary platforms, so we might also consider how your above-named factors function as part of the broader SNL franchise. Though I’m sure he’d be loath to admit it, contemporary SNL is a loss-leader of cultural capital–it’s real relevance lies just about anywhere but the television program itself. For me, the most apparent sign of this is what you so aptly describe as its mostly feckless 2008 election coverage. Michaels knows that he can’t hang with The Daily Show et al. in the realm of political satire, but Jon Stewart doesn’t have Tina Fey in his back pocket, nor does Stewart sell millions of “Best of” dvds, nor does he have a finger in just about every one of his alum’s projects (alas, The Colbert Report and Important Things are no 30 Rock or, for that matter, Mean Girls, Tommy Boy…). The legacy of SNL–the television program–is established enough that we know to look to it every four years from Sept-Nov, but present-day Michaels seems more interested in parading his stars in service of the franchise than in savvy political satire. The continued use of ringers like Fey, Ferrell, Parnell (and even non-alum like Queen Latifah) in the cold-opening election sketches invokes the SNL franchise as much as it acknowledges that there’s not much more to see after one of them inevitably, inexorably turns to the camera to remind us that it is, indeed, Saturday night.

  • Good point, Nick. Yeah, I mention in my chapter in the book the DVD after-markets, the recurring specials, and the ways in which this brand gets used across NBCU properties (Today, MSNBC, CNBC, Meet the Press, and so on). But I was unaware (or failed to stop and notice) that Lorne has his fingers in all the post-SNL pies (movies). Interesting.

    As per Lorne, satire, and The Daily Show, you might find this excerpt interesting:
    “While SNL turned to safe and inoffensive humor about celebrities, The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher were reminding viewers that satire could and should be both funny and biting. When Lorne Michaels was asked in an interview if SNL had ceded ground to its cable rivals, his response displayed the type of thinking that not only highlights the difference between the network and post-network eras of television, but also why SNL has become irrelevant in the realm of political satire and humor. “We’re a big-tent show. We bring a coalition of tastes. A cable show can do a 1 rating and be enormously popular. We’re not that show. People who are staying to watch ‘Update’ or the people who want to see the music, or the people hoping we do a political sketch, all those audiences have to coexist.”

  • I think another way to look at this is to consider the 3 feeder schools for SNL: Second City, the Groundlings, and the Upright Citizens Brigade. One Second City cast-member has said that the SC–still following the teachings of Del Close–is taught that comedy should be uncomfortable, while the Groundlings–knowing that potential producer-employers might be in the L.A audience, are advised to hone a few recurring characters to perfection. The UCB, meanwhile, seems to have gone for this ersatz Dada thing (Poehler used to have this somewhat, but now it resides most forcefully in Adam McKay’s films). I think once a cast member gets to SNL, the Groundlings model takes over as each player maps out a four to five year plan. Since the political impersonations are limiting (except for Ferrall’s return to Broadway as Bush), fighting to get your characters screen-time becomes paramount. On the other side of the screen, Bob Odenkirk once spoke at USC and described the elaborate politics that the SNL writers face for getting their own material to the screen. It’s probably no surprise then that SNL has become more like the Ed Sullivan show than cutting -edge satire, which appears to have moved completely to cable and beyond.

    I’ve always thought the most interesting segments of SNL are the last two sketches (in the 11:40 and 11:50 holes), which are at times given over to the writers/players more bizarre one-off creations–Forte and Wiig, for example, often co-write bits for this slot that are more inspired than the entire previous hour.

  • Nick, that’s a really good point (and thanks for marrying my interests in satire and in paratexts). The Daily Show has done well on its own page, with a cool archive, and it lives on in YouTube — if you get to the clips before they’re taken down — as with Colbert, but you’re right that they haven’t capitalized financially in a big way. When Stewart leaves his show, moreover, he’s often in the process of killing another show, so I’m sure Time Warner and NBC-Universal in particular would rather that he stay in his own show, following his broadsides on Crossfire and Cramer.

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