SNL’s place in politics and public opinion

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When I think of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, I do not think of specific policies he supported or news articles about him. The only thing I think about is Kate McKinnon impersonating an opossum.  As a college student with little motivation to read news articles in addition to my homework – and a lot of motivation to watch some YouTube “Saturday Night Live” clips as a form of procrastination – a large amount of my weekly political intake comes from the long-running Saturday sketch comedy show. 

In the case of Jeff Sessions, that means I’ve seen more of Kate McKinnon acting as a weasley, rodent-toothed caricature of the politician than I have of the man himself. I have never watched an interview with Donald Trump Jr. or Eric Trump, yet their bit on “Weekend Update” is one of my favorites. In it, Trump Jr. is portrayed as a smooth-talking, grandiose babysitter for his childlike brother. Do I understand that “SNL” is a satirical comedy program meant solely to entertain, not inform? Of course. Have these skits shaped my perception of political figures? You better believe it. 

When McKinnon portrayed White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway in an “IT” spoof, I went from thinking she was a laughably harmless Trump-worshipper to a dangerous manipulator. These sketches do have the power to shape public opinion, which has caused President Trump to call out “SNL.” 

“Nothing funny about tired Saturday Night Live on Fake News NBC! Question is, how do the Networks get away with these total Republican hit jobs without retribution?” tweeted Trump Feb. 17. 

While I understand that the impersonations of political figures and events on “SNL” can skew public opinion and should not be taken as fact, Trump got this one completely wrong. Political satire is a key component of our democratic system. We use humor to express opinion, call out real issues in our government and encourage people that dissent is accepted. Endangering the writers’ freedom of speech by threatening retribution for a little comedic teasing is deplorable.

The second thing that Trump got wrong is mentioning “Fake News” NBC. This automatically equates “SNL” with news – which it’s not. It does not claim to be a news program. Yes, sometimes “SNL” is the only news that I get, but that’s my fault. It’s no fault of the show or its writers. We cannot blame SNL for our political apathy. 

The third thing that Trump’s tweet got wrong is saying that it isn’t funny. It’s funny. Even former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who Tina Fey portrayed in a completely unfavorable way, embraced the mocking and appeared on the show in a sketch about herself. Politicians need to be able to make fun of themselves, same as all celebrities who get impersonated on the show in often embarrassing ways. 

Trump appears narcissistic when he criticizes the performances of himself. “SNL” sketches aren’t supposed to be accurate – although the more accurate they become, the more concerning our current political climate becomes. If actual words spoken by the president can be spoken verbatim in a comedy sketch and be outrageously funny, we have a problem. 

The Washington Post did a side-by-side comparison of Trump’s emergency declaration and Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of his declaration on “SNL.” The sketch was a little closer to reality than caricature, which was unsettling. The day we can watch “Saturday Night Live” instead of watching the 6 o’clock news is a day I hope never comes – and I have to remind myself that that day has not come. 

We cannot use “Saturday Night Live” as a substitute for real reporting. It’s a television show, a spoof, a work of fiction. Jeff Sessions is not a rodent. Eric Trump knows how to read. 

We also cannot stifle the show’s writers by forcing them to write stuff that pleases everybody – especially not the politicians they impersonate. We can’t make them treat every person fairly or represent Republicans and Democrats with the same frequency. If they had to be perfectly unbiased, factual and flattering, their creativity would rot away and the show wouldn’t be funny. An “SNL” episode that doesn’t toe the line of what’s acceptable at least once is not a true “SNL” episode. 

Some people believe “Saturday Night Live” has gotten too political, but one or two political sketches per episode doesn’t seem like too much politics to me. While these sketches can’t stand on their own as information, they encourage me to Google the events they are based on to check and see how much is accurate. In this way, I actually – and ashamedly – become more informed by watching “SNL.” 

Maybe you think “SNL” is too political because it doesn’t align with your politics. It might offend you or make you uncomfortable, in which case I’d say good. Getting offended every once in a while is healthy for our political climate. It encourages us to ask why we are offended, to better understand our own views and why we hold those views. What does what we get offended about say about our values? 

For me, “Saturday Night Live’s” value should not be about its ability to inform the public. It should be about its ability to entertain the public and encourage viewers to discuss typically taboo political topics. Most importantly, “SNL” is there to make us laugh and think about why we’re laughing. 

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