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SNL and the Public Discourse: Political Sketches Through the Years

NBC’s long-running late night staple, Saturday Night Live, recently came under intense scrutiny after its cast member Pete Davidson made an incendiary remark about Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican congress candidate and veteran. During a segment about the 2018 midterm candidates, Davidson remarked in front of a picture of Crenshaw, “You may be surprised to hear he’s a congressional candidate from Texas and not a hit man in a porno movie." Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL, wears an eye patch because of an injury he sustained from an I.E.D. explosion in Afghanistan.

The following week widespread denouncements of Davidson’s remarks ensued as elected officials, public figures, and organizations on both sides of the aisle demanded an apology. The show invited Crenshaw to appear in the weekend update segment the following week, in which Crenshaw accepted Davidson’s apology and took a few humorous jabs at the comedian’s disheveled appearance and recent breakup. More importantly, the pair made an effort to find some common ground and called for the public to “remember what brings us together as a country and still see the good in each other.”

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Although the segment was well received, some still persistently questioned if the show had overstepped its boundaries and became excessively political. Now in its 44th season, SNL is no stranger to politics and has arguably played a significant role in the public discourse. In this assessment, we will take a look at some of the most iconic portrayals of political figures and issues since the show’s conception in 1975.

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1970s - ‘Debate ’76’ (10/16/76)

In the show’s Season Two Premiere, the relatively young cast and writers took a bald approach with this acute satirical take on the presidential election. Due to the show’s moderate budget, no advanced cosmetic makeover was applied and the players barely bore any physical resemblance to their characters. However, that did not hurt the delivery of the performance. A spacey Chevy Chase delivered an exaggerated yet dead-on portrayal of then-President Ford that helped pin down the popular concept of Ford as a clumsy, bumbling man. Ford’s famous klutziness and brain-farts were fully exploited as Chase, with a syringe awkwardly sticking out from one arm, utters the now-famous one liner as a response to a complicated question about the GNP, “It was my understanding there would be no math.” Chase, known for his mastery of physical comedy, broke his groin as he tumbled off the stadium at the end of the sketch and had to sit out the next two episodes.

With the success of its political sketches in its early seasons, SNL is widely considered to have pioneered the popularization of political parody, which was still relatively new to American mainstream television in 1975. The show’s critical portrayal of President Ford was considered by many as instrumental in helping the Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter win the 1976 election, as it especially resonated with the younger voter demographic. A month after the airing of ‘Debate ’76’, Ford made his infamous debate gaffe, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, ”which effectively terminated his political career.

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1980s - ‘President Reagan, Mastermind’ (12/6/86)

After a chaotic season and near-cancellation featuring a cast “perhaps too young” for the show’s ambitious takes on social commentary, SNL returned to form and regained popularity with a new cast that included greats such as Phil Hartman and Jon Lovitz in the 86-87 season.

In this sketch shot during the height of the Iran-Contra scandal, Phil Hartman delivered a comedic yet compelling portrait of President Reagan as a sly and tactic actor who pretends to be dim in front of the public. In actuality, however, the commander-in-chief was shown to be the demanding, brilliant mastermind orchestrating everything ranging from the Arabic language to Swedish interest rates.

Hartman’s portrayal of Reagan as a blatantly shady figure stood in stark contrast with the image some pundits of the time tried to paint for the “Teflon President,” as a gullible and benign figure exploited by malicious underlings. Known for his spectacular record of evading public scrutiny by disassociating himself from his administration’s scandals, the Reagan Hartman depicted was a closer representation of the actual POTUS in his heyday.

A significant departure from Chevy Chase’s slapstick parody of President Ford, Hartman took a more sophisticated approach in his caricatures. Remarkably, Hartman’s longtime partner and friend Dana Carvey also produced a superb impersonation of Vice President Bush during the same period. The former Texas congressman was often ridiculed for his habit of rambling on inarticulately while stumbling to appear as a folksy man. Together, the duo allowed for one of the most fruitful and successful periods of political parody on SNL that consolidated the show’s leading status within the industry.


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1990s - ‘President Bill Clinton at McDonald’s’ (12/5/92)

Hartman’s genius inarguably lies in his spectacular ability to observe and capture the essence of his characters’ personality traits. As the 1992 election closed in, Hartman showed ease in transitioning from portraying Hollywood cowboy Reagan to smooth-talking Southerner Clinton. For his Clinton impressions, Hartman tried to stay true to form by not wearing a large prosthetic nose. Instead, he employed less obtrusive alterations including a wig and highlighters; he copied the president’s "post-nasal drip" and the "slight scratchiness" in his voice, as well as his open, "less intimidating" hand gestures.

In this iconic sketch, Hartman’s President Clinton is seen visiting a McDonald’s restaurant, conversing with and explaining his policies to other customers—by eating their food. The charismatic president, whose shortcomings and contradictions are as well-known as his idiosyncratically pleasant mannerism, is put on full display almost effortlessly by Hartman. Despite his obvious less desirable and manipulative traits, the President is able to dazzle his constituents while quite literally cheating them out of their lunches. Quite ironically, the president’s flaws lampooned in this sketch foreshadowed the infamous scandal that unfolded in the following years, which overshadowed Clinton’s final years in office and much of his legacy.

Also quite notably, this sketch employed more dynamic camera and blocking movements compared to the conventional live sketches, as Clinton is shown entering, traversing, and leaving the stage. This experimental approach would later come to fruition in form of the SNL Digital Shorts, which have allowed the show to fully exploit the comedic potential of a more cinematic and complex set.


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2000s - ‘Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton Address the Nation’ (9/13/08)

For comics searching for materials to parody, Sarah Palin is a gift from the heavens. Relatively unknown on the national stage before being named as the vice presidential candidate at the 2008 Republican National Convention, Palin soon garnered herself a reputation similar to that of the infamous Dan Quayle—the vice president perhaps best known for misspelling “potato” in front of elementary schoolers. Her tendency to make self-contradictory, confused, and generally nonsensical statements("But obviously, we've got to stand with our North Korean allies" "Polls are for strippers and cross-country skiers")–along with her controversial stand on numerous contentious political issues–made her an easy and frequent subject of ridicule.

Tina Fey, widely regarded as one of the greatest players and writers in the show’s history, who had stepped down two years prior as the show’s head writer, was noted to bear a striking physical similarity to Palin. After much anticipation, Fey returned to the show in its thirty-fourth season premiere to portray Palin in the opening sketch. The sketch depicted Palin and Hillary Clinton—portrayed by the also fabulous Amy Poehler—addressing the nation. The difference in the intellect and experience between the two were made abundantly clear as Fey showcased her mastery of Palinism with remarks like “I can see Russia from my house!” Fey won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for her impersonation.

It is noticeable that despite the perceived incompetence of Palin, this sketch also coincided with the exponential increase in the visibility of women in politics. Just as Fey and Poehler gained prominence as the show’s defining personalities during this period, the 2000s also saw a rapidly shifting political and social landscape in which women became increasingly involved in the political sphere. An unprecedented number of crucial leadership positions began to be occupied by women, a trend that continued to blossom well into the following decade. Unfortunately, it also marked the beginning of a political environment that would become increasingly delirious, as ever-widening ideological differences steadily tore the country along a partisan divide.


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2010s - ‘Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton Town Hall Debate’ (10/15/16)

Perhaps for the first time in the history of live television, the line between reality and the fictional world truly became blurred in the era of Trump. Trump, a former reality TV personality himself, embodies the restlessness, anxiety, and exasperation of a world still unsettled and recovering from the Great Recession. Trump’s faults and controversies are too many to list, and Alec Baldwin has done an outstanding job at highlighting particular qualities in each of his appearance as the underdog winner of the 2016 election. Despite the continuous appearance of the character, the comedic effect has not waned. This is in large part due to the controversial statements and decisions the new commander-in-chief makes on a daily basis, oftentimes by means of tweeting. Now Trump skits have become a regular, almost essential feature of SNL, with an expanding cast of celebrities portraying characters entangled in the president’s never-ending misadventures. However, the defining skit that truly captures the spirit of the whole farce is probably the Town Hall Meeting.

“All right, let’s get this nightmare started,” Cecily Strong’s moderator says wearily as she downs a shot with a pale Anderson Cooper, vocalizing a sentiment shared by millions of audiences still processing the most vitriolic campaign stand-off earlier that week. Clinton and Trump greet with a dramatic and farcical face-off. McKinnon’s neurotic, uneasy Clinton attempts an awkward “casual lean,” coupled with her signature forced grin. Baldwin’s Trump lurks behind her in a way that ironically fails to surpass the creepiness of the actual act. An ecstatic, dancing Ken Bone is seen on screen. Trump summarily dismisses sexual assault allegations and gives a ludicrous and fear-mongering monologue about gun-wielding immigrants. Trump wants to put Clinton in jail and compares her to “blacks.” Clinton babbles about universal healthcare, but no one seems to be paying attention. Trump encourages minority voters to vote on “November 35th.” Every line is comic gold on the surface, but deeply repulsive on second thought. “I like how generous he is,” Clinton appears relaxed as she refers to Trump’s “locker-room talk” statements. “Just like Friday, he handed me the election.”

The election results sealed this moment as the pinnacle of the season. A genuine, ingenious instance of Shakespearean-tragedy-turned-dark-comedy, made perfect by impeccable timing and circumstance. An impossible collusion of the real and the fictional, albeit unintended. 

Alec Baldwin and Kate McKinnon might not be the most talented cast members ever to be featured on the show. They are, however, definitely the most memorable impersonators of political figures to ever set foot on the stage in Studio 8H. 2016 was crucial both to the nation as well as the show; it was during this election cycle that SNL truly became a de facto part of the election process. Both Trump and Clinton themselves had hosted the show—there were no precedents. This only illustrates how crucial a role SNL has clinched in the public consciousness, not merely as entertainment, but also as a political entity and platform. Consequently, Baldwin and McKinnon have become deeply intertwined with the personalities they are portraying. To a certain extent, they have truly become a part of their characters.

With the boundaries between the real and the absurd becoming more and more indistinct, SNL has become increasingly similar to the real world. A late night variety show has become an integral factor in the democracy of the world’s proudest bastion of freedom, the city upon a hill—America. The parody has become the reality, and the joke is on us.


Raymond Cai