How a joke can make or break this election
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If you watched the 42nd season premiere of “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend—even just the first few minutes of it—then you likely saw the most important political sketch of the year. In a satirical rehash of the first presidential debate, a wild-eyed Hillary Clinton (played by Kate McKinnon) goes head-to-head with an overly bronzed Donald Trump (played by Alec Baldwin) and the results are both hilarious and illuminating.
In this sketch, Hillary Clinton is clearly the winner—over-eagerness and canned responses be damned—which parallels the opinion of most pundits that she won the actual first presidential debate. Donald Trump, on the other hand, came across as a nonsensical, bigoted chauvinist with few redeeming values, which accurately mirrors his behavior in real life. Backtracking from the anger-inducing “SNL” episode Trump hosted last November, this take seems to be far more critical than previous Trump impersonations. Baldwin’s version of Trump satirizes his refusal to admit any wrongdoing and calls attention to his blatant racism, a portrayal that adds more weight to the argument that political comedy has some responsibility to inform viewers.
“SNL” does an expert job of distilling candidates’ personality traits into characters that often last longer in the public mind than the candidates themselves. Who will ever forget Tina Fey’s hilarious portrayal of Sarah Palin or Will Ferrell’s George W. Bush? Certainly it’d seem these iconic personas either help or hurt a politician’s public perception, though the show’s creator, Lorne Michaels, would counter that opinion. As he argued in an interview with The Washington Post, the purpose of “SNL” isn’t to sway voters’ opinions, but to highlight the information they already know. “I think it has an effect, but we don’t influence people in how to vote,” said Michaels, “It helps on the nicest level. It informs people.” It also explains why these depictions are so satisfying to watch; they exacerbate the traits we’ve already picked up on, and in that way, we can all be in on the joke.
Though, in some cases, the jokes seem secondary to the delivery of information. Comedic news shows have had the habit of informing people in recent decades—sometimes more than the actual news programs they parody. Take “The Colbert Report” as an example. While clearly a comedic show, Colbert brought attention to countless issues many viewers may have never heard about otherwise. Despite having endless outlets in this digital age for acquiring information, one Pew Research Center report showed that about 10 percent of Americans got their news from the show in 2014. This preference for newsworthy content with a heavy dose of comedy has changed the landscape of standard reporting and raised the question, who should be responsible for telling it like it is? While we expect major news organizations to present unbiased information, we similarly expect comedic outlets to skewer public figures when necessary and offer a nuanced perspective.
Still, making fun of politicians isn’t a modern invention. In fact, political satire has been around since the rise of governmental institutions. But giving politicians a platform to make fun of themselves? That is a fairly recent development. While Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were known for poking fun at themselves here and there, no one does it better than Barack Obama, who has appeared on every major talk show, satirical show, and social media platform to get the message across with the help of a few well-timed punchlines. In the wake of Obama’s deft use of humor, it’s become an essential political tool. As New York Times Social Media Editor Talya Minsberg explained to Paste Magazine, “Everyone wants to stay relevant and, effective or not, playing off of pop culture and humor is an easy way to do so. You see it with brands and we see it with politicians.”
More than anything, revealing a funny side humanizes politicians, especially with candidates we typically assume to be buttoned-up and reserved. Just look to Hillary Clinton’s appearance on “Between Two Ferns” for evidence of that phenomenon. These days, well-delivered jokes rival public apologies and moments of redemption. Perhaps, more than anything, it comes down to wanting to believe politicians are like us, that the people representing us are relatable on at least one intrinsically human level.
This year, more than any other election season before it, the line between politics and entertainment has blurred, sometimes beyond recognition. Intelligent humor has a way of cutting through the misinformation and dramatization, trimming down modern political discourse to paint a simpler, if not startlingly accurate, portrait of the issues at hand. And, at the end of the day, humor acts like an intellectual digestif. Through the lens of comedy, we can better deconstruct these heavy topics and maybe—just maybe—hang on to our sanity.