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Tina Fey's Sarah Palin: When "Saturday Night Live" finally got political satire right

The show's ultra-mild "political satire" looks badly outmoded today – but there have been unforgettable moments


Andrew O'Hehir
February 14, 2015 10:00PM (UTC)

“Mission accomplished!” says Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush to Jason Sudeikis’ Joe Biden in a now classic “Saturday Night Live” sketch. (Bush has been hiding out in the corridors and closets of the West Wing, successfully avoiding Barack Obama: “That guy is such a buzzkill.”) But wait, Biden wonders, what the hell does “mission accomplished” mean? Bush-Ferrell looks downcast: It’s what he says when there’s a problem that isn’t fixed but he doesn’t want to talk about anymore. The two crack open a couple of brews (a couple of O’Doul’s, a nice touch) and chillax. If Biden had been his vice president, Bush says fondly, they’d have burned this town to the ground. Does he mean that figuratively or literally? W’s not quite sure: “Which one is it where there’s a real fire?”

That’s one of the better and funnier sketches of Ferrell’s mini-career as GWB impersonator, coming – not coincidentally – after Bush was no longer president and could be viewed as a wacky, essentially lovable pop-culture figure, rather than a small-minded rich boy with way too much of the fate of the world in his hands. It’s also a sketch that exemplifies both the strengths and weaknesses of “Saturday Night Live’s” long-running approach to political satire: It isn’t really satire, in the true sense of that word, and it isn’t all that political. That approach has had its golden moments – and don’t worry, we’ll get to Tina Fey, who serves in this history as the exception who proves the rule. But in an age of intense political division, reflected in the ideological and even epistemological conflict between Comedy Central and Fox News, it also seems increasingly tepid and irrelevant.

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"SNL’s" antiquated approach to politics is not the only reason why the venerable variety show looks so badly faded on its 40th birthday, with both its ratings and its sense of cultural currency at or near an all-time low. But it’s a pretty big one. To a large extent this media-wide birthday party feels like a ritual sendoff for a decrepit cultural institution, more than a celebration of its greatness. Against the contemporary media and political landscape, “Saturday Night Live” resembles a congressional elder statesman who has decided to serve one more term, a veteran of the bygone days of political comity and compromise who makes ineffectual speeches, is politely applauded and shuffles off to lunch.

Ferrell honed and sharpened that Bush character to a fine point over the years, after beginning as broad caricature. (Unlike most of the comedians who’ve rotated through the "SNL" cast, Ferrell is a gifted and observant actor with a wide comic and dramatic range.) But even as the public mood shifted against President 43 and his ill-fated wars, it remained an essentially affectionate portrayal. Building on established aspects of the Bush persona – he’s not all that bright, he finds the details of governance annoying, he’d rather be partying than struggling to pronounce foreign names – Ferrell and the "SNL" writers developed a Homer Simpson-style everyman, way over his head in a job he didn’t particularly want.

Ferrell’s Bush was Bush rendered harmless and even lovable, a Bush for those who admired the real guy as much as for those who would literally have voted for Suge Knight or Charlie Sheen instead. It was a swing-voter Bush, the “relatable” Bush who actually got elected president twice. (OK, one and a half times.) It was fun to watch, but it was wishful thinking on at least a couple of levels: a weak-minded and deeply misguided president as we wish he were, rather than as he was; and politics depicted as pure personality, divorced from any questions of ideology, policy and power.

There’s something to be said for "SNL’s" gentle celebrity-spoof tradition to politics, and I'd better say it fast before it goes away. That tradition goes back to the show’s roots in an enormously different and arguably milder cultural era, when “cable television” was an exotic luxury, primarily signifying unlimited access to Atlanta Braves games and “Star Trek” reruns. You can’t begin to understand the history of “Saturday Night Live” without understanding the bizarre alternate universe of the 1970s – and nobody, including those of us who lived through it, really understands that. When Chevy Chase did his first nationally televised pratfall in the fall of 1975, Gerald Ford was in the White House and Rep. Carl Albert of Oklahoma held the speaker’s gavel in the House of Representatives. (Yeah, a Democrat from Oklahoma -- weird, right?) If you can actually remember anything about those two guys – well, first of all, you’re even older and more of a political nerd than I am. But my point is that both were profoundly boring Washington insiders with no discernible ideology. Only a dyed-in-the-wool policy wonk could have told you where their differences lay.

I think it’s fair to say that "SNL" producer Lorne Michaels’ approach to politics was nurtured by the Ford-Albert spirit of non-confrontation, and that it now looks about as outdated as they do. Michaels envisioned his landmark weekly broadcast in terms that Ferrell’s Bush would understand – as a uniter, not a divider – and also saw that a certain amount of calculated, Dick Morris-style triangulation was needed to keep his show on the air. In the early years, each "SNL" broadcast felt like a major event, one that turned a traditional dead spot in the broadcast schedule into a communal experience. It’s not like there was anything else on TV: The other networks (both of them) capitulated and showed old movies or whatever, and of course if you didn’t see the show live you didn’t see it at all. Instead of watching clips the next morning, you had to put up with your friends re-enacting Bill Murray’s best routines for an entire week.

It seemed as if the whole country was tuning in, baked college students and suburban families and Ma and Pa Kettle. (Indeed, ratings in the Not Ready for Prime Time Players years were several orders of magnitude higher than today’s.) It was imprudent to alienate any possible sector of the audience. From the outset, "SNL" was widely perceived as a wild party thrown every week by a bunch of coked-up, left-wing comedians in Manhattan, then understood by most of America as an impenetrable wilderness of crime and depravity. (My big brother was an actor in New York around that time. He paid $88 a month for an apartment on the Upper West Side.) That reputation was largely correct – at least the cocaine part -- but it made the NBC brass nervous, and drove Michaels to tack away from political humor that felt too edgy or overtly partisan.

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Making fun of both sides is an honorable impulse, although it’s maddeningly difficult to pull off in the best of times. In some better version of America, the craziness of 21st-century life would call forth a ruthless Mark Twain figure willing to excoriate right-wing and left-wing hypocrisy alike. (Let’s save the sidebar discussion on Bill Maher’s attempts to claim that niche for some other time.) But "SNL" never even tried to do that, and in any case it’s not clear that any significant segment of the contemporary public wants to hear views it doesn’t already agree with. And then there’s the fact to which Michaels and his corps of writers have never adjusted: While there are idiots to be found everywhere, reality increasingly has a political bias.

As readers of this space may have noticed, I’m no huge fan of Obama or the current Democratic Party. But I don’t need to waste time convincing Salon readers that conservative politics in America have become dramatically unhinged from reality, or that the Republican Party is now an engine of the most brutal top-down economic warfare, masked with a pseudo-populist blend of paranoid, conspiratorial and all but overtly racist ideology that was formerly restricted to the crazy-town fringe. (In my heavily Democratic hometown, the pharmacist handed out copies of “None Dare Call It Conspiracy,” and repeatedly ran for Congress vowing to abolish public libraries. He was a nice man otherwise.)

That political metamorphosis – using that word in the Franz Kafka sense – has driven the careers of all kinds of repulsive right-wing media figures who could, in a certain light (and while holding your nose), be considered comedians. If Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck are too dumb to understand that they’re circus clowns, Ann Coulter’s entire career is calculated shtick – and sometimes, I am compelled to admit, pretty funny shtick. More important for our purposes, it opened a rhetorical space on the left (or more properly in the center, which is now defined as the left) for the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and more recently John Oliver and Larry Wilmore, to serve as the sardonic and/or outraged antidotes to insanity. Clad in the drag of conventional news anchors and commentators, they mock the preening idiocy of the media spectacle and the thoroughly mendacious political debate it claims to represent.

Even at their flattest – yeah, I’ll say it: Colbert’s faux-Fox act was getting old, and Stewart’s departure is overdue – the Comedy Central satirists represent a clear political perspective, even if it’s only the negative identity of opposing the hateful lunatics and the lying corporate tools. Whether that kind of comedy accomplishes anything, in political terms, is an open question. But it connects, in terms of our narrow-casting, niche-marketed universe, and in a way "SNL" pretty much never has. It delivers the satisfying zing of feeling that we are united in righteousness, and in our contempt for the delusion and derangement of others. (Presumably Fox News addicts receive the same buzz, enhanced with irrational fear of Muslims and Mexicans and black people and whatever other shibboleth-of-the-day has been cooked up.)

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I’m not saying that the “Saturday Night Live” performers and writers haven’t produced some marvelously absurd political caricatures over the years, amid a whole bunch of half-baked, hit-and-miss material. (Dana Carvey’s weak and shtick-laden George H.W. Bush always put me in mind of the awkward teenage neighbor who insists on performing his brilliant impressions.) Dan Aykroyd’s “Ask President Carter” radio show, in which he instructs a postal worker on repairing a mail-sorting machine, and then talks down a kid who took a hit of “Orange Sunshine” acid, remains among the show’s greatest moments. (“You’re an organism in the universe. You took a strong drug. It’s going to be fine.”) It’s generous, lovely character work, capturing what made Carter seem so fascinating and so comforting to many Americans in the wake of Watergate, but it is not in any sense political satire.

Darrell Hammond’s 1990s run as Bill Clinton wasn’t much more than a set of capable and obvious stereotypes, especially given how fundamentally mockable Clinton was and is. Phil Hartman did hit a prescient note early in the Clinton presidency, telling a Secret Service agent not to get too exercised about his clandestine trips to McDonald’s: “There’s gonna be a whole bunch of things we don’t tell Mrs. Clinton!” Fred Armisen’s Obama impression is technically impressive but even more pointless, partly because the current president prides himself on his hard shell and suave self-control. (That Dada-infused skit featuring Armisen doing Obama doing Bill Cosby feels a bit ickier now, doesn't it?) Then, of course, there is the 800-pound gorilla of “Saturday Night Live” impersonations, the half-term Alaska governor sent to earth as a gift from the comedy gods.

And here’s the thing about Tina Fey’s brilliant performance as Sarah Palin, which went beyond impersonation or mockery into some higher, Zeitgeist-capturing form that Immanuel Kant had a word for but I don’t. When Amy Poehler (as Katie Couric) tells Fey-as-Palin, “It seems to me that, when cornered, you become increasingly adorable,” that pretty well summed it up. Sure, liberals acted horrified by Palin (in a delighted sort of way) and they didn’t vote for her and all that. But the basic underlying truth was that if loving Sarah Palin was wrong, the United States of America didn’t wanna be right. This was a combination of performer and public figure that comes along once a generation, if that often. The last American politician to present anything close to Palin’s comic potential was Richard Nixon, who was a lot smarter but not one-tenth as much fun. Fey and her writers understood that it wasn’t necessary to exaggerate or ridicule anything about Palin, but only to distill her in purest form. That performance was not satire; it was adoration.

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While "SNL" has been credited with making Palin into a national laughing-stock, and perhaps influencing the outcome of that election, I don’t think the equation is that simple. The greatness of Fey-as-Palin lay in its expression of pure wonder, a wonder we all felt: We lived in a country so profoundly bizarre that a person this clearly unqualified to be president could come this close. At the same time, we were all thrilled to have her, because she seemed like a real person – the kooky neighbor, who’s irresistible down the street but intolerable next door – amid the manufactured and boring and meaningless theater of politics.

Fey’s portrayal may have hastened the end of Palin’s political career, but the fact that she had one in the first place was a historical accident. "SNL" revealed Palin’s true destiny as a polarizing, Kardashian-like celebrity with legions of fans and legions of haters – a downscale brand compared to Tina Fey, perhaps, but not inherently all that different. Mercifully for us and for her, Palin never needed to hold actual power to enable her transformation from candidate to pop-culture signifier, which makes her story completely different from that of the buffoonish ex-president played by Ferrell. That fact alone goes a long way toward vindicating “Saturday Night Live’s” apolitical, non-satirical and fundamentally affectionate brand political humor -- and marked its final moment of cultural resonance.


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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