Can Comedy “Humanize” Anybody?

Sarah Palin’s cameo on SNL doesn’t seem to have moved the needle very much, on way or the other, in terms of the public’s perception of the GOP VP candidate. To borrow a very nice turn of phrase from New Hampshire journalist/blogger Gina Carbone, I don’t think it will turn out to be her “saxophone moment.” It was probably both too little (she didn’t risk very much in her two rather staid spots on the show) and too late for that.

Still, she came off reasonably well: she looked like a good sport, didn’t trip over her lines, seemed to be in on all the jokes, and generally performed like the former broadcast professional she is (given her train-wreck performance in unscripted interviews, it’s easy to forget she was once a TV sportscaster — as long as she’s got a teleprompter, she’s fine). Indeed, Lorne Michaels said afterward that Palin could easily have “her own show” — a compliment, though perhaps a back-handed one. (Though if, as Mark Evanier speculates, Palin has given up on succeeding Cheney and is instead gunning to be the next Ann Coulter, I guess she passed the audition.)

The most often-cited reason for politicians to appear on SNL, Letterman, The Daily Show, et al., is that it has a “humanizing” effect. Leaving aside that looking too “human” can be a dangerous thing for an office-seeker, this effect is undeniably real. Comedy — especially the caricature / impression-based comedy SNL employs — turns real people into abstractions. These abstractions, thanks to their “catchiness” and constant repetition (another feature of TV generally, and SNL especially), take on a life of their own. The ability to create and maintain such abstractions as “McCain = old,” “Clinton = horndog,” and “Palin = airhead,” though certainly not the highest form of satire, probably accounts for the lion’s share of late-night’s actual political influence.

Yet by simply showing up, and showing that there is “more to” you than that — that there is a real person, more complex and sympathetic, behind the caricature — a politician can undermine the power of those abstractions, at least a little bit.

In human terms, this is a good thing: irrational hatreds are hard to maintain when we are reminded that our enemies are “only human.” It was hard for David Letterman to stay mad at McCain when he sat right next to him and admitted he “screwed up” — and it was hard for the viewers, too. I think one reason Obama’s been gaining since the debates is that the real person people saw on their screens was so much more normal, reasonable, and moderate than the abstract-expressionist horror his opponents have been painting for the past few months.

But in political terms, is it good to see so much of the “human” side of political actors? Since Congressman John Lewis brought up George Wallace a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been pondering that.

If Wallace were alive today, would Saturday Night Live invite him to appear, alongside the inevitable Wallace-impersonating cast member? Could Lorne Michaels and Company, under the banner of anti-political “neutrality” and “equal-opportunity offense” allow such a candidate the opportunity to show his good sportsmanship? Would SNL let itself be a party to “humanizing” Wallace?

Given the Standard Operating Procedures that put “balance” ahead of all other considerations (defensible within the realm of news, I suppose, but a baffling standard for comedy), I don’t see how they could refuse.

This is not to equate Palin or McCain with Wallace (though it’s worth noting that Wallace was more a cynical exploiter of racism than a sincere racist himself — which I think is crucial to understanding the point of Lewis’s comparison). But when your central, operating premise is that all politicians are alike, and all politics is a joke, where do you draw the line?

Currently, anybody expressing Wallace’s naked racism would be relegated to the political fringe. But he was far from a “fringe” candidate (only) 40 years ago, when he carried 5 states and won 13.5% of the popular vote. The borders of the “fringe” are not fixed; how far could they shift before “equal-opportunity offenders” refused to normalize their views, and “humanize” those who espouse them?

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One Response to “Can Comedy “Humanize” Anybody?”

  1. Daisy Lu Says:

    If you haven’t seen this, check it out. While SNL sketches get a lot of media attention and even Ron Howard’s funnyordie get out the vote has had over a million hits, I’m not sure how “viral” this one is yet. It’s a remake of the “Wass-up…” commercial by the original actors, and it’s worth watching:

    http://www.wassup08.com/index.html

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