After watching the first two post-strike episodes of Saturday Night Live, the political commentary left me laughing but also wondering if SNL was endorsing Hillary Clinton.
As much as I love Tina Fey’s smackdown of misogynistic voters/Hillary Clinton haters, it’s pretty obvious that she’s for Ms. Clinton. It’s the “Texas and Ohio, it’s not too late!” that really pushes it over the edge. In fact, all the jokes—both that week and the Ellen Page episode—criticized Obama and left Amy Poehler’s Hillary fumbling to get her word out. The much-discussed sketch—referenced by Hillary Clinton in the Ohio debate (5:10 mark)--came across as very much pro-Clinton, since the audience could sympathize with her. She just wants fair treatment. Even though Tina Fey was head writer, it’s hard to tell how much of that particular episode she wrote, and that sketch was written by veteran SNL political sketch writer James Downey. Yet all of a sudden the line between what’s funny and what is actually an endorsement has blurred, in a way I don’t remember ever happening in the other two elections SNL has covered that I’ve watched: 2004 and 2000. This has become a way of measuring if the political comedy is valid, if it is underscored by some sort of favoritism by the creators.
When Hillary appeared on the March 1 episode, there was so much speculation on this topic that she referred to it: “That scene you just saw was a reenactment, sort of, of last Tuesday’s debate, and not an endorsement of one candidate over another. I can say this confidently because when I asked if I could take it as an endorsement I was told absolutely not.” The line elicited laughs and cheers. But while they do skewer her in the sketch, calling out those things that others won’t say, how she’s determined to be “so ingratiating, annoying, and bossy” that everyone will cower to her as president, an argument can be made that the sketch leaves the impression of again pitying Ms. Clinton for how unfairly she is treated compared to the white gloves Obama is given. It’s in the Weekend Update that the zingers are leveled on Hillary, but unfortunately (or fortunately) they are not repeated online; we’ll only see those in reruns this summer.
But it’s the cumulative effect that matters.
So far, over the past three episodes, I’ve found the skewering roughly equal. SNL, like the rest of their media brethren, have focused more on Hillary overall than Obama, mainly due to her visibility and because frankly there’s more to go on: her desperation, her personality, her wonkishness, her husband, her history…Obama’s critiques are even in Clintonian terms, in that they are framed around lampooning Clinton. The opening 3 am sketch—a parody on the red phone ad—was more about Hillary than Obama; it’s her dark vision of the future, but it’s also acknowledging that Obama could be president, and that even if he is, she’s still going to hold the reins, so either way America’s electing her. It’s a very clever skit.
I noticed the Hillary focus last week, too. This time there was no Tina Fey to hold responsible. Maybe it was because I was looking for it, maybe it was because so many other people have Obama blinders on—and certainly, SNL makes sure to remind the world that this is true and the mainstream media have since begun to take pains to rectify that. The show's been a change agent before--in 2000, Al Gore famously used the lockbox sketch [thank NBC Universal for not having old sketches up online for my inability to link it] to correct what his advisers felt was his woodenness on the podium.
Whether or not Tina Fey actually endorses Hillary Clinton is irrelevant. There are some fans who take her character Liz Lemon’s line in 30 Rock (“There is an 80% chance in the next election that I will tell all my friends that I'm voting for Barack Obama but I will secretly vote for John McCain.”) as proof that she has no political allegiances and she’s just trying to be funny. None of the writers on the show have appeared or announced their endorsements and I don’t think they will. It will ruin what they’re trying to do.
SNL will never endorse a candidate and they shouldn’t. But as their political satire has gotten sharper and relevant, they have to pay attention to what they are doing. This shouldn’t make them sissies nor make them hard-nosed on anything, and despite what Tina did on her hosting night, she made one of the most memorable and funny moments on not only the show in a long time but also one of the most pointed. She knew what she was doing, and she didn’t care. If only more people would take such risks.