Sarah Palin and SNL’s cowardice

Tina Fey’s awesome Sarah Palin sketches have made Saturday Night Live worth watching this season, even as the show continues its overall post-Will Ferrell stagnation. (Digital shorts and an 80 percent brilliant cast don’t make up for the slavish adherence to a rigid, outdated sketch-comedy model.)

But if the real Palin appears on next week’s show — as has been rumored and now allegedly confirmed by the New York Post’s Cindy Adams — then Saturday Night Live will have proven its intellectual bankruptcy and moral cowardice once and for all.

When it comes to politics, SNL has always focused more on “cuddly caricature-making than worthy satire,” as Slate’s Troy Patterson wrote earlier this year. Patterson quotes Russel L. Peterson’s book Strange Bedfellows: How Late-Night Comedy Turns Democracy Into a Joke:

“The show’s political ‘characters’ are as one-dimensional and ‘lovable’ as any of the other catchphrase-spouting mannequins Lorne Michaels might hope to spin off onto the big screen (Jason Sudeikis as George W. Bush and Darrell Hammond as Dick Cheney in—Night at the Roxbury II).”

This is somewhat defensible in normal times. It’s at best irresponsible in elections like this one. Here’s Peterson again, via Patterson:

“By avoiding issues in favor of personalities and by ‘balancing’ these shallow criticisms between conservatives and liberals, late-night comics are playing it safe but endangering democracy.”

With Sarah Palin, SNL found a politician so shallow and farcical that personality-based satire was actually appropriate. The McCain campaign’s policy proposals deserve plenty of criticism, but the biggest problem with Palin isn’t her policies (or her abuse of power, or her serial lying). It’s that she’s absurdly unprepared for the vice presidency and apparently has little grasp of policy in the first place — that she’s a farce, as Andrew Sullivan put it. In this respect, SNL‘s take on Palin was spot-on: a fauxlksy, beauty-pageant contestant who thinks winks and ignorance are appropriate for a vice presidential candidate.

If Lorne Michaels gives Palin a cameo and SNL‘s writers don’t protest, they will be undermining their own criticism. A cameo would say “Hey, never mind those silly Tina Fey sketches! It’s not so bad that a vice presidential candidate is dangerously unprepared — if it were, we’d never have let her appear on the show!”

If SNL‘s writers and performers do this, they are apologists, not satirists.

If they shrug off their previous personality-based criticism but also won’t criticize the McCain campaign’s policy proposals or recent mob incitement, they simply have nothing to say. (Mocking McCain’s doddering mannerisms and making bogus Williams Ayers mentions, as they did in a debate sketch Thursday, does not count as satire, either.)

And if they put Palin on, they are cowards twice over. First, for mercilessly mocking her on national TV but pretending everything’s peachy when she comes on the show. Second, for not believing a single word they say.

So what’s it going to be, Saturday Night Live: Should we take you seriously, or are you just a big joke?

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5 responses to “Sarah Palin and SNL’s cowardice

  1. Why should Sarah Palin know what the “Bush Doctrine” is? She was busy running the largest state in the country and making the largest energy pipeline happen. I want someone with experience that counts not a couple of senators that have done next to nothing except talk big.

  2. if palin spoofs an amex commercial, that could be the only thing funnier than fey’s spoofing of palin. i can’t wait to see it.

    it isn’t snl’s job to be a tool of the left. and it isn’t david letterman’s god-given right to have presidential candidates as guests. i would’ve loved to see what letterman’s reaction would’ve been if the exact scenario played out, but with obama cancelling instead of mccain. i suspect all the righteous indignation would have been nonexistent and that letterman would have been happy to do a stupid skit with the deli owner across the street all night.

    idiot partisanship is the biggest roadblock to getting anything we need done done, and i think that palin on snl would be a step — a very small, perhaps ultimately insignificant step, but a step — in the right direction. and i suspect i would laugh.

  3. It genuinely boggles my mind that people unironically trumpet Sarah Palin’s governing the “largest” state. Are you in elementary school?

  4. Well, it does take a lot to make sure the trees all stand in a straight line. And the grizzly bears need some sort of representation.

    I think the point here has been lost on some audience members blinded by all this talk of partisanship. The real issue is SNL’s ability to provide timely commentary through satirical sketch without making a mockery of their own interests by providing realism in the place of farce. Do we really give a shit if the show is “a tool of the left?” We watch because it’s funny. And, really, doesn’t it stop being funny when it becomes “real?”

  5. I totally agree with your post and have a similar post on my blog. By featuring Palin on their show, SNL has given her the perfect platform to connect with people and appears to be trying to ingratiate her to their fans, totally invalidating all of their previous commentary on her. I guess that’s fine if they don’t want people to think they’re trying to make a statement on anything, but are only there to do caricatures and make fart jokes. It’s a shame, though that they would waste the talent and wit of smart people like Tina Fey who could have an actual impact on people’s views.