If “Saturday Night Live” aired on Sunday morning, it would be called “Mock the Press.”
Two recent political sketches on the show have focused solely on the media’s supposed consecration of presidential candidate Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and desecration of his rival Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), possibly to the chagrin of Campbell Brown but to the glee of Howard Wolfson.
Since it began, “SNL” has been on the front lines of political parody, lampooning a clumsy Gerald Ford and a “prudent” George H.W. Bush. But with Clinton using the recent skits as a rallying cry, some question the show’s comic neutrality. Others say there is no objectivity when it comes to satire.
“Hillary Clinton seems to be as delighted as a schoolgirl in a new party dress with what ‘Saturday Night Live’ has done,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University.
The sketches in question opened the last two shows. They parody the Democratic presidential debates, with Fred Armisen — sporting the dusted-off ears used for Bush sketches — playing a perfectly pitched Obama and Amy Poehler as the cackling Clinton.
When Obama speaks, moderator Brown (played by Kristen Wiig) gets all verklempt, and Jorge Ramos (Will Forte) is identified as “Univision Anchor/Obama Stalker.” When Clinton speaks — well, she doesn’t really get the chance to.
In real life, Clinton — misquoting the first “SNL” debate sketch, but getting at the gist of it — said at the recent Cleveland debate, “And if anybody saw ‘Saturday Night Live,’ maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow.” Clinton won the Ohio primary a week later.
Washington-based comedian Randolph Terrance, known on the circuit as “Randolph T,” scrutinized the opening skits.
“To me, everybody at ‘SNL’ is completely in the bag for Hillary Clinton,” Terrance said, but he added that he was not bothered at all by the bias, since “SNL,” like “The Daily Show,” does not pretend to be a serious news program.
“Unquestionably, ‘SNL’ has a liberal slant, and, as a group, the cast is probably more Democratic-leaning than not,” said Doug Hecox, author of the book “Star Spangled Banter.” He added that he saw the “SNL” cast as more “anti-establishment” than Hillary supporters.
Mark Katz is the principal of the Sound Bite Institute, a strategic communications firm, and former head joke writer for the Clinton administration. Katz said the debate sketches could represent a balancing act on the part of General Electric, the company that owns both NBC and MSNBC.
“In some ways, it may be a kind of mea culpa on behalf of the media in general,” explained Katz.
MSNBC and NBC could be “working both sides of the equation,” continued Katz, with the cable network being accused of being tough on Hillary and the prime-time network poking fun at those same accusations.
In a February article about the cable network’s treatment of Clinton, New York Times reporter Alessandra Stanley said “MSNBC has a vein of bratty, adolescent insensitivity, especially toward women, that keeps popping out.”
“I feel like it’s two hands working in tandem,” Katz said.
Jeff Weingrad, co-author of the “SNL” bible, “Saturday Night: A Backstage History of ‘Saturday Night Live,’” said he doubted the show was putting its “satirical might” behind one candidate over another.
“The fact is, quite often, the ‘they’ is really one or two people,” said Weingrad, referring to the notion that the show’s bits are representative of the entire cast’s political leanings.
But there could be other gag gears shifting when it comes to how “Saturday Night” chooses to play the senator from Illinois.
Katz said there was a strict comic rule during the last months of the Clinton White House — “joke about the smoke and not the fire.”
Some of that could be happening this year as well, with “SNL” preferring to skewer the perception of Obama as opposed to Obama himself.
Though he was understandably hesitant to make the comparison, Hecox allowed that the difficulties with lampooning Obama’s character could be along the same lines as those associated with clowning Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X in the 1960s. “Well-meaning social icons” are tough to laugh at, he said.
Add to that the fact that Obama is being played by eerie-look-alike Fred Armisen — who, according to the Internet Movie Database, is “of German, Japanese and Venezuelan descent” — and the debate sketches could take on another meaning.
Playing Obama with a furrowed brow and staccato speech, Armisen does an excellent job of mimicking the senator, but for some black comedians, that is far from the point.
“I expect Fred Armisen to do a good job. Why wouldn’t he?” Terrance said, before adding: “But come on. If Tim Meadows was there, it would have been Tim Meadows.”
Katz argued that “the racial framework” misses the point of the sketches, which thus far have centered on the Obama campaign as a “messianic phenomenon.”
“Obama is black the way Elvis was a truck driver,” said Katz. “It’s part of the narrative, but it’s hardly the point.”
Leighann Lord, a comedian based in New York, said her first reaction to Armisen’s Obama was laughter, “and then that other thought came in.”
“Yeah, he was good and he was funny, but did they even try” to find a black actor for the part?
What Lord found interesting were the sketches to come, particularly if Obama clinches not just the Democratic nomination but the presidency. What will we make fun of then?
“Toes will be stepped on, boundaries will be stretched, and you’re going to find the new edge of funny,” explained Lord, who called comedy “the town crier” on sensitive topics such as race and gender.
Like Terrance, Lord praised Armisen as Obama but said “it would have been nice” to have a black cast member play him. “But, again, that’s me dreaming,” said Lord. “You know? Saying, ‘Yes we can.’”
Still, the question of whether any of this matters at the end of an hour and a half, Lord said, “depends on the day of the week and how many drinks you’ve had.”