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 (Digital shorts and an 80 percent brilliant cast don’t make up for the slavish adherence to a rigid, outdated sketch-comedy model.)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?