Get the Joke: Palin Satire and Popular Appeal

Lately, I’ve become more accustomed to seeing Saturday Night Live’s Tina Fey as Governor Sarah Palin than Sarah Palin as herself. And apparently I’m not alone: The New York Times’ television blog, “TV Decoder,” noted on September 16 that the Tina Fey-Amy Poehler sketch, presenting the mock joint television appearance of Sarah Palin and Hillary Rodham Clinton, had been viewed over five million times online. Assuredly, that number has increased exponentially in the wake of repeated SNL sketches mocking the Republican vice presidential nominee. But is this just political humor perpetuated by a television show with writers of a left-leaning political bent, or do responses to the sketches—and increased ratings for SNL—suggest a deeper relationship between media satire and politics?

The reaction of the executive producer of SNL, Lorne Michaels, to that first Fey-Poehler skit supports the latter analysis. He used the increased popular attention to the political aspects of the show to expound on his theory of the Democratic primary’s relationship to SNL. Quoted on the same blog, he said regarding Hillary Clinton, “I think if she had been [on the show earlier], I think people would have gotten a glimpse into who she is.” Indeed, Ms. Clinton had been slated to appear on the show late in 2007, but she cancelled her appearance for reasons not cited. Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, by contrast, appeared on the show in November 2007, two months ahead of the Iowa caucuses from which he emerged victorious.

Does Lorne Michaels really intend to link satire to a candidate’s popular appeal? For my part, when I watch the Fey-as-Palin sketches, I cringe, knowing that much of the material was taken from actual interviews, such as the one conducted by Katie Couric late last September. Because of my Democratic persuasion, I was not inclined to vote for her anyway. But because Fey’s lines are so deeply derived from real comments, the sketches are especially disturbing. The lines are not satire but, instead, an alarmingly accurate depiction of a candidate.

The other, perhaps more important point here, in addition to the fact that there is no real satire going on, is that Palin is also not mocking herself. Having Clinton or Obama appear on SNL suggests a humanizing politics that many Americans crave today. The ability to make fun of oneself is endearing; an actor’s accurate rendition of embarrassing political gaffes is not. There is indeed an important relationship, then, between political satire and popular appeal, but Palin has not exercised it. Relying on Tina Fey only serves to make her a less appealing candidate because of the shocking exactness of Fey’s performance.

For Sarah Palin to truly reap the benefits of the satire-appeal relationship, she needs to use it to her advantage by using it herself. While Palin’s aides were quoted as saying that she personally had enjoyed the sketch, I find it hard to believe that she appreciated such a seriously damning personal indictment in one of the most important elections we will ever live through.

Or maybe Palin just doesn’t get the joke.

-Zoey Orol, World Editor

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