Satire-day Night Live: Too Political?

Ever since the infamous comedian George Carlin hosted the first episode of Saturday Night Live on October 11, 1975, no prominent figure or current event has been safe from skewering satire. However, few could have forecasted how influential SNL’s comedy sketches would become in shaping American public opinion on such current events. Over the last decade, SNL has placed a stronger emphasis on political satire than ever before. But at what cost?

To begin with, one must examine how Saturday Night Live has adapted to the tumultuous times. At the height of the 2008 presidential election between Obama/Biden and McCain/Palin, the show featured more political satire than ever before. Weekly sketches featured Tina Fey’s infamous impression of Sarah Palin, which painted the Alaskan governor in a wholly unflattering light. Notably, during that year, the show reached its highest Nielsen ratings since 1997

These jabs reached new heights two years ago when President Donald Trump was campaigning against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. Ever since the months leading up to the election, every SNL cold open and many sketches contain blatant elements of political satire. These sketches include Alec Baldwin portraying a confused Trump who torpedoed his chances of winning any debate, or Kate McKinnon singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” dressed up as Clinton in her typical pant suit the weekend after she lost the election.

How has this increase in political satire influenced ratings? A purely quantitative analysis would substantiate the claim that SNL has only positively gained through its sardonic shots at these politicians. According to NBC and Variety News, Saturday Night Live reached 10.6 million viewers in the 2016-2017 season compared to the 8.7 million over the comparable period in the 2015-16 season. The increased viewership correlates with the time in which SNL satirized the 2016 presidential election.

While these numbers seem convincing, the uptick in audience size is not an indicative factor of success. Saturday Night Live has managed to turn off a section of the country while simultaneously berating the current President of the United States. Many avid SNL fans looked to the show as a way to escape from the seemingly ubiquitous political climate that could very well be the most divisive in American history. However, with political satire included in every episode, the show no longer serves as an escape from reality. Further, opponents of this humor are outraged these these unfair and unjust depictions had real-life consequences. According to Telegraph, Newsweek polled people before these sketches began about their perception of Palin. The polls showed that since Tina Fey began appearing as Palin in sketches, 16% of people changed their opinions and now considered Palin "unqualified" to be in a position of power.

Critics of the show claim that Saturday Night Live pushes a liberal agenda. However, those who believe this notion may be prisoners of the moment. Those who have watched the show since the 1990’s would vividly remember SNL’s and actor Darrell Hammond’s ridiculing of Bill Clinton for years. Though they hardly mocked Barack Obama during his presidency, head writer Seth Meyers told Huffington post that he attributed that to the belief that Obama was an “overthinker” and was hard to mock “because [he] thought everything through”. It is still evident that SNL has made more jabs at Trump than any other president; this may be because Trump’s seemingly more brash nature provides the media with constant sound-bites to scrutinize. Many people who watch the shows are likely around the age of 30 or younger, and this demographic tends to be more democratic in the United States. However, is SNL portraying itself as more liberal because its audience tends to be more liberal, or is it because they are looking to swing the public’s political beliefs towards the left? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Perhaps the problem is not the show itself, but the fact that some viewers accept SNL’s satirical skits as truth: in a world full of distractions, some viewers watch short SNL skits for a quick dose of “news.” However, SNL is clearly a comedic program and is not meant to be taken at face value. While it is possible for SNL to educate viewers, it would require extra research on the viewer’s part. For instance, a young person could watch late night talk shows or comedy sketches, and certain references to current events may intrigue him. If this person is inspired to research these topics further, reading articles from neutral sites and with multiple perspectives, he or she will become more informed. Unfortunately, most people do not take the time to sit down and perform the extra research due to busy schedules, online gaming drama, and other burdensome activities.

It should be noted that SNL is a comedic show that makes fun of both political sides, so challengers of such satire may be basing their arguments on weak, momentary ground. The show does not claim to be a source of accurate news representation, as it admittedly embellishes some storylines to make them more entertaining. Further, the political figures on both sides (especially one man in particular) acted in a manner that presented a lot of material that SNL sketches could easily utilize to mock them. Where is the line? Political humor has become too incessant, especially to those who watch television in hopes of tuning out the worries associated with reality. However, one fact is certain: as long as people continue to tune in to SNL, NBC writers will hesitate to change their gameplan.