OPINION: 'Satire'day Night Live: How comedy fits into politics
One of the best things to come from the Trump administration is the endlessly funny political sketches being cranked out by the writing staff at Saturday Night Live. Thanks to the never-ending soap opera going on in Washington, DC there is plenty of real-life material to satirize each week.
As each episode takes form during the week of writing and rehearsing, not every breaking news story makes it into the 90-minute show. SNL is first and foremost a comedy show, not the nightly news. Over the years, the popular live comedy show has adopted a format that allows for plenty of satire including an often political cold open sketch and the popular Weekend Update segment.
The more famous political cold open characters include Melissa McCarthy as the former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Beck Bennett as Vice President Mike Pence, and of course the hilarious Kate McKinnon as now former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
It is always a risk to write satire. After all, these government officials have not consented to being represented in this way. Does Saturday Night Live’s political commentary affect the public’s opinion of the government? What are the risks and consequences of satirizing the highest members of the government? Does McKinnon’s buffoonish portrayal of Jeff Sessions have any correlation to him being fired?
President Trump has not ditched his infamous line from The Apprentice, “You’re fired!” In fact, Jeff Sessions is the 56th person to leave the administration since Trump's 2016 inauguration. Officially, Sessions was not directly fired by President Trump. He resigned at president Trump's request.
Sessions held his position as Attorney General for nearly 16 months, which is above average in this administration. Sessions, who was a strong defender of the immigration policies that separated thousands of immigrant families at the border, was never the most likable cast member of this administration. But his was not the only name in the news over the past year.
Recently, news surrounding the US government has felt more like a dramatic reality television program. Who’s fired? Who’s hired? Who’s nowhere to be found? A positive side-effect of this is that political apathy is at a record low. More and more people are paying attention to politics and voter turnout for the midterm elections was higher than any midterm election since 1914. All of this culminates in the people having the power to hold their government to a higher standard. Unfortunately, most people really only started paying attention once things started to get sticky. And when the going gets tough, satire is born.
As the saying goes, if you’re not laughing, you’re crying. Saturday Night Live brings a sense of humor to political conditions that might otherwise be too depressing to stomach. SNL is like your friend who laughs when you fall down; they lighten the mood to make the situation more bearable. As the weekly program showcases more political satire, names within the Trump Administration have become more familiar. It is possible that SNL contributed to decreased voter apathy and higher voter turnout. Of course, these are special circumstances. In Trump’s White House, the comedy writes itself.
Kate McKinnon, who joined the cast of SNL in 2012, is a master of impressions and political satire. On top of her already hilarious lineup of characters, McKinnon has portrayed 10 different political figures, men and women, Republicans and Democrats.
There is a fine yet critical distinction between a satirical impression and blatantly making fun of someone. Cast members run the risk of backlash when they make fun of public figures. Pete Davidson commented on Dan Crenshaw's eye patch last week. Crenshaw and Davidson cleared the air the following week during the Weekend Update. The crucial difference between McKinnon’s portrayal of Sessions and Davidson’s comment is the power of satire. As they say, imitation is the highest form of flattery. While clearly McKinnon’s intentions are not to flatter Jeff Sessions, she mocks him artfully. She spends time learning her lines, rehearsing, and donning a costume before taking the stage. Alternatively, a one-off comment on someone’s physical appearance is comedically lazy.
Hopefully, even under future administrations with less satirical potential, we can maintain the heightened levels of voter turnout and political involvement. Saturday Night Live did the first step of getting people interested, now it is up to us to hold each other accountable going forward.
Lydia Kellerhals is a PPEL sophomore pursuing a career in comedy writing. Follow the Daily Wildcat on Twitter.