By Sophia Goodwin-Rice
In October of 2008, a surprising guest appeared on Saturday Night Live. The weekly sketch comedy show, known for projecting fairly liberal views, supported a guest appearance of Sarah Palin, the then-vice presidential candidate. At that point, SNL former cast member Tina Fey had already been playing Palin for weeks on the show, delighting audiences with her uncanny resemblance to the candidate and creating catchphrases such as “I can see Russia from my house!”
Palin wasn’t the first political figure to break this fourth wall in SNL history — George H.W. Bush had made a cameo in 1994, and Bob Dole in 1996. Yet this appearance sparked a new set of questions. As Fey wrote in her memoir “Bossypants,” she had reservations about appearing next to Palin on the show, partly based on some of the rhetoric that had been coming from the McCain-Palin campaign around the time. As a comedian, she didn’t want to appear to be endorsing Palin, yet also wanted to protect her from being booed by the liberal New York studio audience. Yet the appearance went off without a hitch, and the show progressed.
Years later in 2015, presidential candidate Donald Trump appeared as a host on the show. Unlike other appearances, this event drew sharp criticism from the public, as many people saw the episode not necessarily as an endorsement of Trump, but as an acceptance of the hateful and fear-based messages coming from the candidate. For years, SNL had been a source of both comedy and news for many Americans, giving a satirical yet accurate portrayal of politics and current events. But can comedy take away from the seriousness of issues? Does it necessarily mean acceptance of the existence of its target?
I remember, as a child, seeing bumper stickers that said things like, “Fox News is my comedy channel and Comedy Central is my news channel.” In my own life, this was pretty accurate. While NPR and magazine news articles went over my head, I would watch skits with my parents and glean my understanding of politics that way. SNL packaged current events in a way that was entertaining and easy to understand, and when I got older, I realized that it also made light of situations that were otherwise sobering.
Yet it’s one thing to poke fun at a figure and their actions, and another to invite them into the fun. When Sean Spicer appeared at the Emmy awards earlier this fall, it caused a huge public outcry. To see a man who had spent months propagating a hateful presidential agenda joking about his former boss’s exploits and points of notoriety was appalling to many people, and the comedians involved in the cameo were condemned.
So what is it exactly that comedy does for politics? It’s certainly a healthy thing to keep in our lives. As times get darker and issues more serious, it provides a break for laughter and lightheartedness. The SNL episode directly following the 9/11 attacks, for example, featured the executive producer turning to mayor Rudy Giuliani and asking, “Can we be funny again?” to which Giuliani responded, “Why start now?” It can be clever and witty and bring up aspects of issues that we’ve never even thought of before. It can be a source of education, in a way that’s accessible and easy to understand. At the same time, though, it can be almost dangerous. It’s unhealthy to live in a world where everything serious is simply reduced to mockery and satire, and where upsetting issues are simply mended by a comedic twist and explanation. In short, we need comedy, but not all the time.
In a way, Saturday Night Live stands at a crossroads. Tina Fey’s recollections show her worry about Sarah Palin’s cameo back in 2008, and now, two elections later, the worries reappeared with Donald Trump amplified a thousand times. Is it the show’s duty to be funny or to spread information? To be open to all perspectives or filter out the hatred? For a show that never intended to be political in nature, it’s become a vehicle for such things, with a great responsibility to do it correctly. We need to laugh. But we also need to stay awake.
Read another opinion of politics and comedy from this issue here.