Where Satire Fails: The Line Between Entertainment and Political Engagement

The Vietnam War, nicknamed the “Living Room War,” marked a shift in American conflict; for the first time, war footage from abroad was broadcast to American audiences. This coverage exacerbated both pre-existing skepticism toward America’s involvement in Vietnam and national anxiety about America’s rapidly changing social fabric spurred on by Second Wave feminism, counter culturists and Black Liberation efforts. But in addition to the rise of anti-war sentiment, and backlash against it, 20th century America was defined by the infusion of political ideas into American entertainment. While this fusion can make news and political ideas more approachable, it can also lead viewers of political satire to associate their viewership with actual political participation. Furthermore, if we acquire our only knowledge about current events and social strife from satire, we run the risk of treating real problems like jokes.

“Saturday Night Live” (SNL) premiered in October 1975, six months after the Vietnam War ended, but the notion of a sketch comedy-driven variety show with political undercurrents was not unfamiliar to the American audience. “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” and “The Carol Burnett Show” in addition to other programs established a legacy of American political entertainment long before “SNL” co-creator Lorne Michaels even pitched the show to NBC executives. However, “SNL” has had an indelible influence on the way that audiences — young viewers in particular — access and internalize political phenomena.

A recent episode hosted by Oscar-nominated actress Saoirse Ronan featured a digital short called “Welcome to Hell.” Styled as a pop music video, Ronan and female “SNL” cast members sing about the nadirs of gender inequality as exemplified by the #MeToo movement. But in addition to social commentary, “SNL” is known for using the comedic talents of its cast members to comment on American presidential candidates. Some of the more notable impressions are Will Ferrell’s impersonation of former president George W. Bush, Tina Fey’s impression of former Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin, Amy Poehler’s/Kate McKinnon’s impressions of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Alec Baldwin’s impression of President Donald J. Trump. Comedic impressions of important political figures on a late-night variety show like “SNL” may seem inconsequential, but they are actually incredibly impactful; researchers and political scientists have dedicated much of the last two decades studying what has been monikered the “SNL Effect.”

The “SNL Effect” refers to the potential influence that SNL’s commentary and portrayal of key political figures has on voting behavior during American presidential elections. There isn’t enough congruent evidence to completely credit “SNL” for elections results these past four decades. But it is clear that the portrayal of political candidates on “SNL” influences the perception audience members have of them in real life. Al Gore’s national approval rating plummeted after “SNL” cast member Darrell Hammond portrayed him as a standoffish know-it-all in a presidential debate skit. According to a 2008 Washington Post article about the “SNL Effect,” Gore watched Hammond’s impression in order to better present himself to the American public.

While it is impressive that “SNL” and other succeeding sketch comedy programs like “The Daily Show” and “Key & Peele” have impacted the way people formulate their political opinions and behavior, they can also obscure what it means to be an active participant within the state. According to a ScienceDaily study, people watch political satire shows “which match pre-existing attitudes.” The result is that those shows tend to reinforce rather than develop political opinions. Additionally, while SNL does implicitly encourage action through its comedic critiques, people can still conflate receiving that encouragement with acting on it. “SNL” and other political satire shows have no control over whether viewers use it as their single news source or are politically inactive. But if viewers in consortium come to equate laughing at a clever “SNL” cold open with being politically active, it is unlikely that the work will ever get done.

When we rely solely on humor to relieve the disquietude that accompanies polarizing political issues or reaffirm our ideas about the state of the union, we risk forgetting how necessary it is to be politically involved as well as politically engaged. The effort people place into evaluating their beliefs and the subsequent actions they take have actual consequences on lived experiences — Fey’s rhetoric during a Weekend Update appearance in Summer 2017 exemplifies this relationship.

After condemning the overwhelming resurgence of militant, white supremacist forces in the United States, Fey encourages the audience to hide in their homes and eat cake. Fey’s advice, although “just a joke,” was met with substantial backlash, and rightfully so. Not all people have the opportunity to binge eat away the struggles of racism. Race is not a negligible aspect of everyone’s life, and inaction is not a universal option. By asserting that it is, Fey wasted a crucial opportunity to encourage her audience to think critically about the way they use their relative social power. If oppressive social forces like racism are to be combatted, it is the responsibility of people who can hide from the issue to actively choose not to. Similarly, people who view political satire shows like SNL must develop their convictions and get involved in the world around them, if they have not already done so. If we treat political grappling like a pastime for Saturday nights, shows like SNL will only ever be entertainment. Some people cannot afford to keep laughing.

Adesola Thomas is a College sophomore from Hampton, Ga. 

 

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