This past weekend, Barbara Walters appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” in a brief segment apparently intended to blunt the effect of years of very funny Walters parodies. After showing a reel of sharp parodies of Walters done over the years by impressionists including Gilda Radner and Rachel Dratch, “Weekend Update” co-host Cecily Strong let some air out of the balloon by welcoming the real Walters onstage for a brief, adoring interview.
The first revelation was that Walters, for many years a co-host of the live chat show “The View,” is uniquely ill-suited for live comedy. The second — though this is hardly news to anyone who’s read Walters’s memoir — is that she entirely buys into her own myth. Walters, in apparent service of comedy, referred to her “groundbreaking career in journalism” as having been “reduced” by “SNL” sketches through the years; she made allusions to the soft-focus lenses used in her interviews and to her “What sort of tree would you be?” question to Katharine Hepburn as though they needed no contextualization.
In “SNL” writers’ minds, too. “Saturday Night Live” toes a very odd line as a show that lampoons celebrity, media, and political culture, but relies on guests from those worlds to draw in viewers. The Walters sketches through the years have been scathing — one that the show highlighted in its clip reel noted Walters’s chumminess with 20th-century villains like Henry Kissinger. To give Walters a spot on the show to speak at some length about how great she is contradicts everything that’s come before.
This is no new phenomenon. During the 2008 presidential campaign, the show allowed, on separate occasions, John McCain and Sarah Palin spots on the show in order to humanize them, for instance.Sarah Palin’s episode featured the vice-presidential candidate in among the most shocking acts of political satire since Stephen Colbert’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner address, as Amy Poehler performed a vicious rap about Palin’s backstory right in front of her; it also featured Palin coming face-to-face with her impersonator and not doing much of anything. The net effect was a wash — Palin had been able to humanize herself, and “Saturday Night Live” had a huge night in the ratings, even as it neutered the parodies of Palin that had come before. The show’s engagement with McCain, who had hosted the show in 2003 and appeared in a sketch right before the 2008 election, has provided him a safe space to appear “human” and funny in a manner that had no relationship to his politics.
Chris Christie appeared in a sketch after Hurricane Sandy, while Alec Baldwin — a frequent guest host — appeared after getting thrown off an American Airlines flight for acting like a jerk, and made fun of the pilot. George Steinbrenner, seeking to shake off a reputation as an authoritarian jerk, hosted the show in 1990; in 2004, a hosting gig was the capper to Donald Trump’s brief renaissance in public opinion after the debut of “The Apprentice.”
“Saturday Night Live” offers easy absolution for anyone who’s a bit of a jerk or has had a regrettable career. “Saturday Night Live” has, through the years, mocked Barbara Walters’s celebrity obsession, her feverish craving of access, and her pretensions to “serious journalism” despite the fluffiness of “The View” — not just her funny voice. But in inviting her on in order to puncture the satire, “SNL” is subverting its own coverage in a very typical way. What’s the point of satirizing powerful, controversial figures if you want them to come on the show and laugh along?