SNL has become more political than ever, but could these sketches show partisan bias and have a negative effect on society?
Has SNL Become too Political?
Every 4 years, during the election cycle, the political commentary grows louder. Despite already living in a 24 hour news cycle, with round-the-clocknews channels and the perpetually accessible internet, the political commentary seemingly permeates to all aspects of media: sports, entertainment, comedy, etc. As the collective interest in the political sphere crescendos during the election, the interest and coverage, typically return to the mean. Saturday Night Live (SNL), was not unique in its inclusion of politically relevant topics. SNL routinely comically recapped important events on the campaign trail.
While the two primary candidates for the election were Democratic Candidate Hillary Clinton and current president, Donald Trump, the jokes were disproportionately doled at the expense of Trump. SNL being an entertainment show, has one predominant focus, to continue to produce content that garners good ratings. Given the two personalities, irrespective of their political leanings, the more polarizing figure is Donald Trump, and Trump certainly does not quell that notion, or the attention. His personality has always been brash and outspoken, Trump does not shy away from headlines or sound bites, and at times may even embrace them. Clearly a strategy that won the favor of many, given that Trump, ultimately won the presidency.
But as we begin to enter March 2017, two months after Trump’s inauguration, SNL has not eased up on the Trump material. As the skits including Trump and his administration are a staple of the once-per-week show. President Trump is indeed any easy target, as evidenced by the nightly TV monologues on just about every late-night talk show, but at some point, SNL, and the creative team (including creator Lorne Michaels) have to wonder if the well will begin to dry, or if the net gain of repeatedly going to said well, is greater than alienating some of its viewers. The material is certainly not endearing to those who are fans of the President, but also, the material is frowned upon by those who simply want less of the political commentary. Comedy, a medium, that understandably has to reside in the realm of current events, is also a medium that people embrace as to escape from the real world. The constant inclusion while, popular and providing comedy to some maybe, providing resentment and fatigue to others. And, from a non-partisan comedy purist perspective, some viewers just want to see new original material.
SNL Bordering Between Parody and Fabrication
Trump is no stranger to sketches on the SNL, as his likeness has been parodied since 1988, by over 5 different actors: Phil Hartman, Darrell Hammond, Jason Dudeikis, Taran Killam and most recently Alec Baldwin. Since 2015, Trump’s character has appeared in more than 22 sketches, and since he’s taken office, Trump and his staff have made almost weekly appearances as characters on the show. On February 4th, 2017, Melissa McCarthy who was guest host, made her hilarious debut as White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. McCarthy’s role as Spicer featured abrasive exchanges with the media and an overall crude demeanor, essentially mocking the White House Press Secretary’s competency. McCarthy reprised her role as Spicer again the following week on February 18th, 2017, in a similar appearance, which featured Spicer ingesting mouthfuls of gum in an unflattering manner, while speaking and subsequently attacking a news reporter with his podium.
The SNL parodies have extended to other members of the President’s cabinet, including Trump’s senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, played by Kate McKinnon. The sketch stepped outside of simply caricaturing the senior adviser and included a Fatal Attraction - like parody, in which Conway plays a psychotic stalker similar to that of the movie, where she unceremoniously shows up at the house of CNN anchor Jake Tapper, threatening him with a knife in order to be allowed on CNN again. The skit was alluding to a recent controversy that involved the senior adviser reportedly being declined to appear on CNN for “credibility” concerns, after her “Bowling Green Massacre” slip-up.
It is hard for a prominent sketch comedy show to ignore “trending” issues, but in the Conway skit, SNL demonstrated far-reaching creative freedom by including a real member of the president’s cabinet and portraying them in a completely fictitious scenario, one that implies Conway may be violent or afflicted with certain mental health issues, as to involve her likeness, in stalking and threatening a real-life CNN anchor. As a show that has been on since 1975, SNL is more than the average sketch-comedy TV show, and despite creator Lorne Michaels, suggesting that the show cannot change viewers’ minds when it comes to politics, evidence would prove the contrary. As the widely popular Tina Fey impersonation of Sarah Palin, mistakenly attributed the now infamous, “I could see Russia from my house” line, a quote that many people actually believe was uttered by the 2008 Vice-Presidential nominee, but was in fact only ever spoken as Tina Fey, on a 2008 episode of SNL, in which she imitated Palin. While SNL does not necessarily have an obligation to be factually accurate, it creates a dangerous precedent in which the parodies and spoofs are not based on reality but merely conjecture. With that possibility, it proposes a potentially dangerous question in that, will the next skit, regarding the President and/or his Cabinet members include a completely fabricated premise that is in no way based in real-life and introduce perceptions that are not justified. Having already insinuated that a Presidential adviser can commit stalking and potentially homicide, what is to say that the next skit will involve something more heinous, such as drug-abuse, violence against women or pedophilia.
Is SNL Showing a Partisan Bias?
During the election cycle, both candidates were parodied, and whether these appearances were beneficial or detrimental to the election result is up for debate. Many political commentators believe that Trump’s appearance as a host actually helped his popularity, and that Mckinnon’s portrayal of Clinton was ultimately unfavorable. According to Lorne Michaels, SNL has always delved into politics, citing classic example of Chevy Chase as Gerald Ford in 1976, Dan Aykroyd as Richard Nixon in 1978, Dana Carvey as George H.W. Bush in 1996 and Jay Pharoah as Barack Obama in 2012, despite the numerous appearances of presidential parodies on SNL, this current chapter involving President Trump is shaping up to be the most vitriolic. During the entire presidency of Barack Obama, SNL did not antagonize the president and certainly not his cabinet members in the same manner that they have attacked Trump. Although, it is hard to deny that Trump may be feeding into the baiting by demonstrably reacting to the antics of SNL through Twitter. In which the President tweeted that SNL was not funny and really bad television. Trump also reportedly took offense, to the February 14th skit, in which assistant and Chief Strategist Steve Bannon (played by a grim reaper) was influencing Trump to make rash diplomatic decisions with other countries. In Trump’s relatively short time in office, SNL has made a poignant effort to include and attack the President, and while it is in the spirit of comedy, it does have shades of partisanship. In a November interview with Esquire magazine, SNL comedian Michael Che, agreed that the criticism of Trump on the comedy show was “too one-sided”, he continued to explain that comedy should take both sides and make fun of both parties. As it stands now, SNL has clearly taken a political leaning to the left, a perception that cannot be good for its brand long term.
Political Inclusion Resulting in Record-High Ratings
The election and post-election cycle brought ratings numbers SNL had not seen in 20 years. According to a marketplace article. SNL experienced a 22 percent jump from the previous season, resulting in 10.6 million viewers. Throughout the years SNL ratings have been cyclical and they are currently relishing in an upswing, aided by the election cycle and their political coverage, but as with the rest of the entertainment and news media, anything related to the current president and his administration is still an easy, cheap laugh. Still less than a quarter into Trump’s first year of presidency, viewers are already feeling “Trumped” out. SNL has been able to capitalize with increased viewership thus far, but it remains to be seen whether the show will be able to maintain this ratings surge if they continue to utilize the same tactics of hammering the current administration and coming off as a left-leaning satirical machine, in the same vein as The Daily Show on Comedy Central.
SNL’s Effect on Public Perception, Worse than Fake News?
The backbone of SNL is satire. The more popular a topic is, the more logical it is for the show to hone in on that topic. No matter how funny a skit maybe, it’s appeal to the masses relies on how many people are exposed to that topic. The presidential election, provided a quantitative bump in news-related media across the board. The New York Times reportedly added 41,000 paid subscriptions across its platforms since the presidential election, an amount that represented its largest subscription increase since 2011, according to CNN. SNL pounced on the opportunity to ride the coattails of the election buzz and it has paid dividends in record-high ratings but given its recent string of skits that are so evidently biased against the current president and his administration, SNL and its creative team have to be aware of the message that people are receiving. Whether it is their intention or not, consistently attacking Donald Trump and his administration is shaping the perception that SNL is an anti-Trump machine. News channels, MSNBC and FOX News are categorized as left and right - leaning media outlets, respectively, but that perception is based on their content and both conglomerates do not shy away from those perceptions. Whether news should be partisan is an argument in itself, but it is a reality of American media. When a comedy program, with as much clout as SNL, decides to dabble into the political spectrum it teeters on the edge of a precarious slippery-slope. In an age where “Fake News” is rampant, be it by numerous click-bait websites infiltrating hundreds of thousands of people’s social media feeds, or by actual “credible” news organizations themselves, delivering such agenda driven information that the actual facts are obfuscated in such a way, the message is inaccurate, SNL is clearly on the spectrum of media that is shaping the opinions of it’s viewers.
Unlike the news outlets, SNL can hide behind the veil of comedy, and its inherent plausible deniability that it is a not a news network; but the material on SNL is obviously anti-Trump, and prohibitively favoring the left. Both candidates were embroiled in scandals during the campaign trail; however, SNL focused primarily on Donald Trump’s controversies (Trump’s temperament on Twitter, the Billy Bush incident, allegations of misogyny and racist remarks), while being seemingly copacetic with the controversies surrounding Hillary Clinton, (email scandal, Benghazi incident, controversy surrounding the Clinton Foundation) based on the amount of times these topics were involved in SNL’s skits. It also makes it all the more obvious when Alec Baldwin, who plays Trump, actively endorses Clinton and has publicly feuded with Donald Trump on social media and publicly voiced his bitterness with the result of the election. Now Baldwin is tasked with lampooning the individual, who is the current president of the United States, on a weekly basis, while also having a personal vendetta against him. SNL can claim to be apolitical, but the reality is that the actor satirizing the president is not, and while that may not make the skits less funny, it presents an illusion that SNL is complicit in antagonizing Donald Trump. An idea that SNL and NBC has not actively tried to dissuade, and an idea that is beginning to become more and more apparent. In regards, to the most Conway Skit on SNL, a New York Times Reviewer, was quoted as saying the show suffers from a sense of exhaustion, and questioned how much longer the show can keep up with the anti-Trump material, a question that will continual to grow louder and louder as the SNL Trump bashing continues.