The Political Responsibility of SNL

Ever since Chevy Chase debuted his “Ford on the Phone” sketch on “Saturday Night Live” in 1975, the comedic portrayal of high-profile politicians has been a staple in late-night comedy and American pop culture. Comedians seemingly had the power to influence the American voting public with their satirical portrayals of political figures. For example, Vice Presidential Candidate Sarah Palin’s reputation and public perception was heavily influenced by Tina Fey. Soon after Palin was announced as John McCain’s running-mate in the 2008 presidential election, Tina Fey debuted her impression of the then-Alaska governor on “Saturday Night Live.”  Seemingly overnight, McCain’s poll numbers dropped. This phenomenon became known as the “Fey Effect.”

The “Fey Effect” illustrated the power that political satire has on the American voting public. In the Trumpian era, however, this effect has seemingly diminished. Though comedians, including Alec Baldwin’s flawless impression of the American President on SNL, continue to produce political satire, Trump’s support remains strong. This lends credence to the belief that perhaps political satire no longer holds the substantial weight it once possessed.

Political satire is no longer a source of truth for the American public. Yes, it has galvanized the left and right factions in both disapproval and support of Trump, but satire is doing nothing to sway those who are undecided into either of these factions. Perhaps it is not the responsibility of the media or comedians to uphold the political integrity of the United States. Nevertheless, satire has traditionally served as an effective mediator between politicians and their constituents.  Political satire can reveal the truths hidden by political jargon and provides an understanding of political issues.

Now, we have a president who is immune to the effects of political satire. Trump is a political outsider and comedians don’t know how to joke about him in a poignant fashion. Comedians have rehashed his ignorant and offensive comments to emphasize his clear lack of professionalism. Soon after Trump’s blatantly sexist conversation with Billy Bush surfaced during the 2016 election, Alec Baldwin guest-starred on “SNL” to satirize the controversy. In the same sketch, Kate McKinnon, portraying former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, threw a party to celebrate her seemingly definite win that would come as a result of such a troubling controversy. “SNL” clearly exposed Trump’s misogynistic tendencies and attempted to predict their effect on the voters. Nevertheless, Trump still won — and he and his administration continue to be satirized without a real loss of his core support and power.

We see this effect outside of the “SNL” universe as well. At the 2017 Primetime Emmy Awards, former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer made a guest appearance on a moving podium, alluding to Melissa McCarthy’s SNL impersonation of him. The former White House Press Secretary has been criticized countless times for blatantly lying to journalists and the American public about inauguration crowds, voter fraud, Paul Manafort’s influence in the Trump campaign. Furthermore, he even admitted to being unaware of his blatant misinformation, perhaps leading to the perpetuation of the “alternative facts” phenomenon. So, what is the difference between Melissa McCarthy doing her Sean Spicer impression and Sean Spicer simply doing it himself? His involvement at the Emmys rebranded him. After the performance, Spicer was heavily criticized. Therefore, it is obvious that America and the media have not forgotten about his wrongful acts, but there is danger in the potential of forgiving him anyway. While he was once a defender of many controversial Trumpian policies, he is now a recurring character in the elongated joke that Hollywood has made out of the Trump administration.

Because of the liberal/conservative divide in the current political climate, Trump supporters remain unaffected by Trump’s portrayal in comedic media. Trump jokes are not making any major differences in his reception because much of America already thinks of Trump as a joke. President Trump’s persona is clear and unmistakeable  — no comedian can reveal any truth that he has not already revealed himself. Being aware of Trump’s immense power has made it too harmful to think of him as the same television personality that he was prior to his presidency. Trump’s unique persona is changing the way the American public interprets media, from “fake news” to political satire. Perhaps shortcomings of political satire reflect the ever-changing relationship between media and the public. As long as Trump continues to preach the idea that the press is plotting against him and his administration, the relationship between media, satire or not, and the public will continue to be reduced to entertainment alone.