Does SNL Pay Attention?

To update my last post, nope — McCain’s refusal to look at Obama hasn’t become a thing yet. SNL made no reference to it in their debate sketch, which surprised me, given the attention it had gotten elsewhere. Not only that, they had a joke about Jim Lehrer insisting that the candidates look at each other — not an innaccurate depiction (except I remember him admonishing them to talk to each other more), but an inclusion that made the exclusion of lack-of-eye-contact-gate all the odder.

The return of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin has gotten a lot of attention already, and I can’t add much, save to join the chorus of those noting, as I just heard Joan Walsh say on Hardball, that some of the parody dialogue was pretty much a verbatim transcription of the real interview. The writers didn’t have to work very hard on that one.

Which brings me to today’s question: do the writers of Saturday Night Live even follow the news, beyond the bare minimum their jobs require? I’m not just being snotty because they didn’t go the way I predicted with the debate sketch (and I’ll point out I wasn’t advocating that comedians should focus on the eye-contact business).

Moreover, this is a question that really matters, because SNL has proved, in this election season, to still have a fair amount of power as an engine of conventional wisdom. More than any complaints from Hillary Clinton’s campaign, or from media critics, SNL legitimized the idea that the press was fawning over Obama. I never bought it, myself — and as I’ve mentioned before, a look at the actual coverage doesn’t bear it out — but SNL led the way on this narrative, and the news media and The Daily Show followed.

The Palin sketches, too, are proving to have a long reach. Given Palin’s actual performance in the Couric interviews, I wouldn’t say SNL has been terribly unfair, but I don’t think they’ve been as solidly on target as my friends at The Palin Prophecies, or the version of the Palin Gibson interview seen above (featuring Lisa Donovan, whose Palin impression strikes me as more accurate than Fey’s).

Good satire — or even good parody — depends on accurate observation, and I don’t think SNL stacks up very well in that regard. Too often, they go overly broad, because it’s the easiest thing to do. I recall a painfully lame attack on Ann Coulter (Poehler, who is plenty funny, but not a good mimic) a year or two ago. Coulter is an easy target for ridicule, of course, but not easy enough for SNL to hit effectively. After the first couple of lines they couldn’t think of anything but to have the author of Slander repeat nonsensical variations on the word (flander, glander, etc.). I guess the joke was that when cornered, Coulter would have nothing to say. But it looked more like the writers had nothing to say about Coulter. (I’d link to it, but I can’t find it online.)

The recent debate sketch contained some funny ideas, but again, they went broad. It was appropriate, for instance, to mock McCain’s mavericky “suspending my campaign” ploy, but the pie-eating/naked debate stuff (funny though it was) didn’t depend upon any close observation or insight.

The best bit of the night, in that regard, at least, was Bill Clinton’s non-endorsement endorsement of Obama on “Weekend Update.” The writing was clever, and more to the point, it got at a truth about Clinton’s recent behavior in a way only comedy could. And I have to hand it to Hammond; his Clinton impression has gotten more subtle and detailed. He’s got the post-bypass, lower-energy voice; better yet, he conveyed Clinton’s evasiveness with all the subtle disingenuousness of the man himself.

It was a fine piece of work, but that kind of incisiveness has lately been in short supply on our sketch show of record. I found it telling that the idea for the recent sketch depicting McCain cutting voiceovers for campaign ads came from alumnus Al Franken. I don’t know that the current writers (including head writer Seth Meyers, who took Franken’s idea and ran not very far with it) are very interested in politics. It certainly doesn’t show in their work.

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2 Responses to “Does SNL Pay Attention?”

  1. The Celeb Buzz » Blog Archive » Does Snl Pay Attention? Says:

    […] SNL made no reference to it in their debate sketch, which surprised me, given the attention it had gotten elsewhere. Not only that, they had a joke about Jim Lehrer insisting that the candidates look at each other — not an innaccurate …[Continue Reading] […]

  2. Urk Says:

    “our sketch show of record.” – Nice. & I think you’re right aobut Myers, who some part of me desperately wants to be funny. god knows why.

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