"SNL" in stew over Paterson skit

Fred Armisen's "Weekend Update" imitation of blind New York governor causes backlash.


Thomas Schaller
December 16, 2008 7:43PM (UTC)

There's been plenty of fuss about Fred Armisen's imitation of New York Gov. David Paterson in "Saturday Night Live's" "Weekend Update" segment this past Saturday. Armisen feigned blindness, even mimicking Paterson's lazy eye. At one point in the sketch, Armisen holds an economic chart upside down. You can watch it here: 

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Yahoo News reports that searches for video spiked, but so did the ire of the National Federation of the Blind and the governor's office:

The National Federation of the Blind issued a statement calling the characterization "absolutely wrong" and criticized the show for playing up the stereotype that blind people are "incapable of simple tasks." Meanwhile, Governor Paterson's office issued a statement that the show should be able to "find a way to be funny without being offensive." Indeed, while comedy is in the eye of the beholder, many of the knee-slappers at Paterson's expense seemed to be, as the New York Post put it, rather "stock." Wandering aimlessly? Confused? One could argue that Mr. Magoo pulled the same gags a lot better 50 years ago.

Paterson deputy Risa Heller said: “The governor engages in humor all the time, and he can certainly take a joke. However, this particular ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit unfortunately chose to ridicule people with physical disabilities and imply that disabled people are incapable of having jobs with serious responsibilities."

I'm honestly of two minds about this. All politicians are parodied, and most deserve exactly what they get. When they are mocked for being duplicitous or criminal or just criminally stupid, that's undoubtedly fair game. Their personal tics -- Hillary Clinton's laugh by Amy Poehler or her husband's thumb-and-lower lip-bite gesture by Darrell Hammond, e.g. -- are also fair game.

But a disability? On the one hand, that just seems out of bounds -- period. But to avoid Paterson's blindness (or, say, Max Cleland's wheelchair) is to treat him differently from his own political peers and, in an odd and even unintended way, therefore accentuates his disability, doesn't it?

I'm sure Salon's readers have their own opinions, so fire away.


Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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