Posted tagged ‘SNL’

How Hillary got her groove back.

March 6, 2008

I study how political humor influences public sentiment– not exactly astrophysics or cancer research, I know. I understand that some of my colleagues have a tough time believing I can watch The Daily Show and call it work. But evidence is building that I’m onto something here.

It’s axiomatic today to say late-night comedy shows are impacting the presidential campaign, but the reverse is equally true and no less troubling. The relationship between political satire and the political process is always fluid, but their current dynamic is something that Jonathan Swift couldn’t come up with on his best day. How could he imagine a world where the mockers and the mocked make a mockery of mockery?

Satire works like this: the satirist exposes the foibles and fallacies of the powerful in government and society to humble them in the eyes of the people and inspire change. Today, the satirists and the powerful are increasingly parts of a whole. Like the news media before them, the comics have lost their measured detachment from their subjects, and have become one with the Machine.

The resurgent political fortunes of Hillary Clinton are highly informative.

In its first show after returning from the writers strike, Saturday Night Live opened with a sketch premised on the press being in the bag for Barack Obama. It was a smile, but hardly the hard-hitting stuff you’d expect from the standard bearer for late-night comedy, especially after a three-month break.

It hit a little harder when guest host and former head writer Tina Fey called out Clinton’s critics, particularly the closet misogynists among them.

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Senator Clinton referenced the show at a debate in Cleveland, complaining about her treatment by the moderators.

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It didn’t go over well in the room, coming off more than a little whiny. But it had legs, as they say in the business… Were the media really giving Senator Obama a high profile and smooth ride down the campaign trail?

Studies by the Project for Excellence in Journalism suggest that the answer is yes… and no.

According to a PEJ report from Feb. 18-24, the week before the first SNL skit, Obama had the most media coverage of any candidate from any party. That was also true in the next week’s survey. But it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops.

Editor & Publisher magazine reports that the coverage in the week that followed Fey’s post-modern battle cry and the debate sketch put far more scrutiny on Obama, and took a jaundiced view of his treatment by the media. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank reported that Obama’s media corps was noticeably more aggressive after Saturday Night Live got done mocking them.

SNL has drawn some fire for what many say is actually an anti-Obama/pro-Clinton thread in their material. It has led the pundits to call out the show, accusing it of carrying water for the GOP. And it’s led SNL to respond– via writer Jim Downey– by writing more sketches about Clinton’s hard road through the primaries. And it’s led comedy writers to write about the comedy writers writing about Clinton. It got so bad that Obama reportedly joked about asking producer Lorne Michaels to even it up a bit.

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Senator Clinton’s wins this week might be partially attributable to SNL‘s treatment… or perhaps to her reaching out to the very same comedy audience.

This past weekend, she appeared on SNL to “rebut” another sketch lambasting the media’s coverage of Senator Obama. It was self-deprecating and gentle, not as funny as you’d hope but about as funny as you’d expect.

She followed that up with a satellite appearance on The Daily Show on Monday. Over the two segments with Jon Stewart, Clinton showed a sense of humor, tremendous grasp of and quickness with the issues, and was simply personable.

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Is it possible that those late night comedy forays helped her get some mojo back for Tuesday’s wins? It wouldn’t be the strangest thing to happen. As an alternative campaigning strategy, it wouldn’t even be a first.

Remember, her husband Bill took an iron grip on the youth vote in 1992 when he played his saxophone on the Arsenio Hall show. He cemented that position with two appearances in candidate forums on MTV News.

True, it led to the embarrassing “boxers or briefs” debacle, which still ranks high among the dumbest moments in campaign history. But it also gave Clinton a committed core of young voters, who helped him win 43 percent of the vote in that three-way race—just enough to put him in the White House.

For his part, Stewart responded Tuesday by mocking his Monday interview with Clinton.

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It’s a symbiosis of comedy and politics: the jokes about candidates now bring the candidates to the jokers, who then joke about the candidates coming to the jokers, and the candidates joke about being joked about by the jokers. And everybody has a good laugh.

And then they look over the numbers, from the pollsters and the Nielsens.

Will Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show help put Hillary or Barack or even John McCain over the top in November? The frequency with which the candidates have appeared on late-night comedies suggests no one is willing to bet the answer is “No.”

This may signal a whole new collision of meta-jokes and meta-politics. Remember Stewart and Colbert and Conan O’Brien “feuding” over who created Mike Huckabee? That was a mildly amusing strike-dodging time waster, but it wasn’t completely divorced from the truth.

In an interview more than a year ago, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) told me that arm wrestling with Colbert (she says he cheated) attracted more attention than 14 years’ legislative work. “I’ve gotten more calls from around the country about appearing on that show than from anything I’ve done,” she said.

And here’s something that pretty much guarantees we’ll be seeing more politicos cozying up to comics: according to a UC San Diego political scientist, it helps raise campaign cash.

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That should be enough to make Democratic Caucus chair Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) rethink his directive to new members of Congress to avoid Colbert.

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A note on the video: I’m sorry that some of the clips are very long and have some extraneous material. Apparently, NBC takes its copyright very seriously and won’t allow its online materials to be edited. Endeavor to persevere.

What if they had an awards show and only 32 million people showed up?

February 26, 2008

Sunday night’s three-plus hour Academy Awards show is widely considered a flop because it captured an unusually small audience, a paltry 32 million, the smallest since the Nielsen folks started tracking such things. I battle mightily to keep 15 students awake for 90 minutes, but I suspect Hollywood has higher standards.

Jon Stewart’s performance as Oscars host has been mildly praised, which is just about right. He wasn’t as sharp as his fans (and I am certainly one of them) would hope, but this isn’t really that kind of a gig. I don’t know precisely what the movement was expecting Stewart to do, but the Academy isn’t paying for top-shelf, incisive satire and hard-edged comedy. It’s more “Tonight Show” than “Def Comedy Jam.”

Which doesn’t mean it was without some controversy. Stewart’s joke on Barack Obama, pointing out that his middle name is Hussein and his last name rhymes with Osama, is a tired, hacky bit by now, but it was enough to raise Keith Olbermann’s eyebrow. Or at least his producer’s. Check out this exchange with Patton Oswalt from last night’s “Countdown” on MSNBC (caveat: it’s a little long, but worth it):

Olbermann makes a good point. If Ann Coulter’s gotten around to making a “joke” like this, the shark was jumped long, long ago. Watching that gag, and I use that term advisedly, I muttered aloud, “The writers came back for that? Really?” The joke about John McCain’s “100 years in Iraq” pledge was not much better.

At the end of the day, the tepid response is appropriate to a tepid performance. But that’s the gig. You don’t throw fastballs to a slow-pitch crowd.

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The latter part of the Olbermann/Oswalt tete-a-tete, addressing the new “Saturday Night Live” episode that aired this weekend, was also interesting. The opening sketch, based on the presumption that the news media are all in the bag for Obama, set the tone for the evening. It seemed to be about a half-step behind the times, and not especially insightful.

Perhaps it’s that the weekly program can’t keep up with “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” doing four shows a week, and any half-bright teenager with a webcam and a modem able to put out a parody piece on YouTube and go global in 10 minutes. MSNBC’s Victor Balta makes a rather deft analogy, comparing TV satire’s old guard and vanguard to the the Clinton and Obama campaigns.

I was looking forward to the show, if for no other reason than the return of former SNL head writer Tina Fey, whom I love (LOVE!), as guest host. But even her presence was something of a bummer. Besides her brief return to the anchor desk on “Weekend Update,” where — all due respect– Seth Myers is not quite as sharp, her appearances in sketches were negligible. The line that “Bitches get stuff done” was a nice, edgy dig at the misogyny that seems to live, at least on the fringe, in many criticisms of Hillary Clinton. Other than that, she was not showcased well.

Unlike Oswalt, I wasn’t particularly impressed by Fred Armisen’s Obama impersonation. I don’t buy into the notion that you need a person of color to play a person of color (Darrell Hammond does a rock-solid Jesse Jackson, e.g.), though it’s probably a good idea. But Armisen’s caricature was more of a cigar-store Indian than Obama’s preacher-like cadence, too wooden to capture the rhythm that defines Obama’s speeches.

Still, Dana Carvey’s George Bush the Elder was a gross cartoon to begin with, but developed into the yardstick by which presidential parodies are now measured. So if all goes well in the Obama camp, Armisen might have time to nail the mannerisms and really own the character.