Palin by Comparison

As anyone who watched, and everyone who has mentioned it has already said, the Sarah Palin meets Hillary Clinton sketch that opened SNL‘s 33rd season was the one bright spot in an otherwise awful show. Tina Fey had Palin’s accent down (though anyone who’s seen Fargo more than once could probably do it about as well), and her already much-remarked upon resemblance to the GOP Veep-nom helped sell the bit. (For that matter, Amy Poehler’s pregnancy gave her a rounder face, and made her Hillary impression — which I’ve never found very evocative of the real HRC — a bit more persuasive.)

I don’t mean to damn with faint praise, here: the sketch was funny, well-performed, and at least a little bit pointed. But shouldn’t that be the norm for America’s premiere sketch show, with its Ivy League writing staff, zeitgeist-transcending staying power, and talent-roster chockfull of the future stars of It’s Pat — Again! and Another Night at the Roxbury?

Should a sketch that was merely timely and competent get its own segment on the NBC Nightly News? This one did, last night, on a day dominated by news of Hurricane Ike, the collapse of another couple of pillars of the financial sector, and, you know, the real presidential candidates and their running mates. Poor Lester Holt, the weekend anchor, actually looked a little embarrassed by this triumph of corporate synergy over news judgment. And I last saw Lester sitting in as the bass player with Earth, Wind, and Fire on the Today Show, so we’re not exactly talking Edward R. Murrow, here.

If there was any remaining doubt, this should count as definitive proof that SNL is a part of the establishment, not a remnant of the counterculture. Lorne Michaels is not a “rebel,” nor even a member of the “liberal media,” having contributed $2,300 to John McCain (though to be fair, he’s given the same amount to old friend Al Franken’s Senate campaign).

Of course, Lorne Michaels can spend his money as he sees fit, and its possible that he keeps his political views entirely divorced from the show he oversees. But there is still a tendency to think that politically-themed comedy is somehow inherently “liberal,” or “anti-establishment,” that doesn’t bear close examination. A lot of comedy (most of it, probably) reinforces “establishment” values, widely-held prejudices, and so forth. This is not to say comedy is by nature “conservative,” since the range of values and views within a society is not limited to those two choices. It’s more complicated than that.

But Saturday Night Live doesn’t bring any kind of “edgy,” outsider perspective to network TV; it is network TV. It’s not countercultural, it’s corporate. It’s one of the public faces of GE, along with Jay Leno, Tom Brokaw, and, back in the day, Ronald Reagan, who made his stump-speaking bones (and his first political connections) as GE’s spokesman.

SNL has never really been all that “political,” but they did have their moments, years ago: Chevy Chase’s funny, not-terribly-fair depiction of Gerry Ford; Phil Hartman as a Reagan who only pretended to be a folksy delegator, and turned into a hands-on political mastermind when the cameras looked away; Dana Carvey as Bush, Sr., so devoid of substantive ideas that he struggles to use his allotted minutes in the candidates’ debate.

Not all of their good satirical moments took place before GE bought the network in 1986, but the corporatization of media, which has brought us a generation of “journalists” more interested in maintaining access to politicians than reporting on them (pick on Tucker Bounds and John McCain will cancel his Larry King appearance!), and 24-hour news networks that will give over 48-hour chunks of time to non-stories if the suits think it will raise the ratings, now brings us our “edgy” “satirical” comedy, too.

The bottom line is not that satire is impossible under these circumstances — after all, The Colbert Report comes to you through the courtesy of Viacom. But SNL remains on the air, year after increasingly awful year, because although it’s no longer a good show, it’s still a solid brand. When a sketch “crosses over” into the news (maybe with a little cooperation from Lester Holt or Chris Matthews, whose been known to show clips of Darryl Hammond “doing” him), corporate is happy. If it’s timely or funny enough to get noticed, but “soft” enough not to stir serious complaints, that’s ideal. Good for the brand.

In terms of maintaining the brand, then, SNL is off to a good start. Like Microsoft, it is so well-established in the market that the quality of its product doesn’t even have to be very good. The network can cross-promote SNL with their Olympic coverage (Michael Phelps hosting was another triumph of synergy over integrity), plug 30 Rock by reminding people of Tina Fey’s talent, confirm the show’s continuing “relevance” on their own newscast, and start making plans for Everybody Loves Andy Samberg. Lorne Michaels can keep writing those checks to Republicans and Democrats he likes. Everybody wins.

Except the viewers.

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