Last month, “Saturday Night Live” launched its 34th season. By television standards, that’s as ancient as the Pyramids.
And with advancing age comes ridicule: “The show isn’t nearly as good as it used to be,” the critics cry. “It’s past its prime.” “It’s no longer relevant.”
Sad to say, most of the knocks are valid. Too many times in recent seasons, “SNL” has been painfully, maddeningly, brutally unfunny.
But then a presidential election year rolls around and something amazing happens: The venerable sketch-comedy show - or at least chunks of it - shakes off the rust to regain its pop-cultural and political mojo and proves that it still very much matters.
By now, many of you have noticed that “SNL” is back to doing what it does best: satirizing and spoofing politicians with gleeful gusto (Sarah Palin, meet Tina Fey). And, lucky for us, the show is being rewarded with some bonus play time.
Beginning Thursday night, “SNL” expands its reach with the first of three half-hour “Weekend Update” specials, the others scheduled for Oct. 16 and 23. Then, on Nov. 3, the eve of the election, “SNL” will air a “Presidential Bash” special featuring new material as well as archival footage of everything from Chevy Chase’s klutzy Gerald Ford to Will Ferrell’s tongue-tied George W. Bush.
Of course, it’s one thing to impersonate a president (or presidential hopeful), but quite another to inject yourself into the nation’s political conversation. And that’s what “SNL” has become quite adept at doing.
In 2000, Darrell Hammond mocked Al Gore’s first debate performance against George W. Bush by portraying the vice president as robotic, pompous and way too blustery. That image became welded into the minds of viewers and Gore’s frustrated aides reportedly showed their man the skit in the hopes it would prompt him to make adjustments.
This year, “SNL” exerted its influence during the Democratic primaries with several headline-making skits that bashed the media for its supposed reverential treatment of Barack Obama (“Are you comfortable? Is there anything we can do for you?”). In the ensuing days, journalists questioned their coverage of the Illinois senator and, during a televised debate, Hillary Clinton referenced “SNL.” She went on to win three of the next four primaries.
“SNL” exectuive producer Lorne Michaels downplays the show’s clout. “We can reflect something,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “But I don’t think we affect the course of human events.”
Let’s hope not. If people are using “SNL” - or Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, for that matter - to determine their electoral choices, we’re in big trouble. On the other hand, satire done right can have an impact.
The latest and most obvious example is Fey’s hysterical spoofing of Palin. Fey, former head writer of “SNL” and dead ringer for the Alaska governor, has returned to the show in recent weeks to portray Palin as a perky but scatterbrained political neophyte who relies on looks and charm to tiptoe her way through interviews and debates.
The skits have been the funniest aspects of a otherwise mostly unremarkable season, and in this new-media era, their power becomes magnified. According to a survey conducted by Solutions Research Group, about 51 percent of the people who have seen at least one of the skits watched online. Meanwhile, the show itself is generating some of its best ratings in years.
We probably will never know exactly what kind of effect the Palin parodies have had on the hearts and minds of voters. But oddly enough, they probably contributed to the low expectations viewers formed for Palin going into last week’s vice-presidential debate, thus making it easier for her to exceed those expectations. And it was telling that, in all the post-debate blather, more than one pundit spoke of how she avoided stumbling into an “SNL” moment.
Whatever the case, good, sharp comedy can often resonate with viewers - and drive certain points home - in a much more powerful way than a straightforward news clip. Clearly, the merry jesters at “SNL” know this.
Now, if they can only come up with a way to have a presidential election every year.
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