Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Sarah Palin and Tina Fey Redux

I was going to just post a short comment on my SNL skit analysis responding to all the thoughtful and compelling comments I received from others around the blogosphere, but then I realized that my response might actually warrant its own post (because it got way too long for a comment), so here goes.

I don't think that it's SNL's job to change the world nor do I deny that its satire can and has made a difference in this campaign--at the very least, it's thrown all the hypocrisies and incongruities we've witnessed in the debates specifically and in the presidential race in general into sharp relief. Perhaps it's done more than that, but it's hard to measure a television show's effect on the politics of individual voters (unless someone's done a poll, though I don't know of any so far).

What I was getting at in my analysis is two-fold. On the one hand, in their comments both Erin and Kekla emphasized my point that "it's not SNL's job to bring home the political reality that Palin is a threat" (although commenter Bruce doesn't quite agree: "Tina Fey isn't just trying to amuse, she's trying to provoke as well.") This is exactly right--that SNL is comedy and should be held to comedy, not news show, standards--but it's also a bit like saying that fake news shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report don't affect people's outlook on politics just because they're supposed to be funny. So we can't overlook SNL's influence or the impact of the Fey-Palin association.

On the other hand, commenter drink me writes: "I find it very hard to believe that there's anyone who loves watching Tina Fey satirize Palin, and also is planning to vote for McCain/Palin. I understand the disconnect you're feeling, but in actual votes, I don't think it will make a difference." This commenter's point is well taken. It's probably true that most people who love Tina Fey's satire aren't McCain/Palin voters. However, I'm more worried about Democratic voters than Republican ones. The impetus for my analysis was working out why I found the SNL skits so disconcerting. One of those reasons, which I perhaps did not emphasize enough, is that these skits seem so funny, so obvious--and Fey is so good at making Palin seem ridiculous and, therefore, harmless (which was Le Loup-garou's original point)--that these skits may seduce us into thinking that everything's fine, that Palin's inexperience (for example) is clearly apparent to everyone in the country.

It disturbs me when I see that SNL skits and Daily Show clips get more (or even equal) net time than actual news stories, political analyses or clips from the real debates. I'm basing this concern on my very personal and completely unscientific experience with my friends' Facebook postings and email forwards, but that's how information travels these days, so I don't think it's an entirely specious assessment. That said, I'm not admonishing anyone. My previous post was a personal working-through, but I came to a conclusion that I think is important in a more widespread way. SNL is fantastic, but we need to keep striking while the iron's hot and bolster the effects of satire with continued political vigilance and public outcry. We can't rest on our media-sanctioned laurels.


Kekla Magoon said...

I agree with your summary here. Comedy is entertainment, though good satire is meant to push the envelope and make the absurd recognizable as such.

But perhaps part of what you're reacting to is the degree to which the lines between "entertainers" like Tina Fey and "politicians" like Sarah Palin have begun to blur. It seems to me that a lot has changed in what we expect of political leaders, even within the last several elections. Voters apparently value charm, personability, attractiveness and other "celebrity" qualities over leadership skills and actual political savvy.

Just look back: In '04, people thought Bush was a fun guy, Kerry was criticized for being stiff. Same with Gore in '00. In '96, B.Clinton was dynamic, Dole was a walking corpse.

Also, look back at debate clips from before 1990. It's stunning how dry and...wait for it..."issue-based" those conversations were, compared to now. We are requiring candidates to prove they know less and less, but we crave sound bites that make us groan or chuckle. We want to be entertained, and it's getting us into bad trouble.

vast.tv said...

Kekla, you're absolutely right. And that entertainment factor, in essence, is one of the things I've been struggling to articulate, so I'm glad you were able to put it into words so succinctly. It's like the old stereotype of the high school election as popularity contest instead of meritocracy, except it's expanded to a national scale. Scary.

Dr. Jay SW said...

Hey, Aviva,

I've gotta say I'm really not seeing the logic of the comedy=complacency argument. Not that it CAN'T, particularly if you're talking about somebody like George Carlin who, while mostly making fun of conservatives, generally portrayed any political position as stupid (or like Letterman or Leno, whose ridicule of politicians tends to be inversely proportionate to their current popularity, as eyes on the ratings rather than getting any meaningful points across they tend to go with the prevailing winds, and really aren't concerned if what they're making fun of is substantive or not). However, every serious political activist I know is a fan of Stewart, Colbert and, now, Fey, among others, and I think it's generally a complement to being active. Keeping political anger at a fever pitch without some release (such as laughing at what you're fighting against) generally leads to burnout long before anything gets accomplished.

I've gotta say, too, that it doesn't bother me at all to see Daily Show clips get more net time than actual news stories when those clips are actually more informative and honest than what we're likely to get from any major "actual news" outlet. That's particularly the case with the montages Stewart does, such as the now-legendary one right after the RNC, matching up leading Republicans' trying out the word "sexism" with their own, earlier statements about Hilary Clinton. Overall, I don't know of any mainstream pundit who I respect or trust more than Jon Stewart. Of course, that says something horrible about the state of the mainstream media in America, considering that the guy's a comedian who, before he started hosting the Daily Show, was best known for pot jokes, but it's true. In fact, if it wasn't for him, I and a lot of other progressives probably would have sunk into despair and given up on the political process entirely during the early years of this decade as the media and a large majority of the population slavishly followed Bush and Cheney's bidding without question.

As for SNL, I actually don't think it's fantastic at all, apart from the first five minutes of the last three shows. In fact, its political humor has a strong pro-Republican slant for years (Lorne Michaels, a Giuliani Republican, actually admitted that for a number of years after 9/11 he made sure the show took it easy on Bush), so I've been pleasantly surprised to see that it's making fun of Palin at all rather than doing skits mocking the "elitists" who make fun of Palin (I'm guessing that Tina Fey, who's made it clear that she doesn't want there to be any need for her to play Palin after November 4th, saw to that).

Then, as Jon Stewart himself has pointed out, more jokes were made about Bill Clinton than any president in history, and he probably would have sailed to a third term if it were allowed. At the same time, Dan Quayle, who's probably a better point of comparison for Palin, was pretty much destroyed by late night comedians. And, let's not forget, that a large portion of the viewers of these shows are young people who's political opinions haven't fully formed yet (or older people who are clueless but are at least sensing that something's going seriously wrong)(and who probably aren't going to read The Nation). I can't see anything but good in these folks seeing searing satire of the Republican party. In fact, I wonder if the phenomenon so bemoaned of people getting their news from the Daily Show isn't a major factor in the overwhelming support for Obama among the Stewart/Colbert demographic.

Jeezus, but I can be long winded. I'll stop now....

Unknown said...

I understand your point, I definitely do. However, shows like The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and SNL's skits reach a different audience than do real news reports and stories. It is a shame that more Americans don't take the time to read real news, but at the same time, a lot of people aren't smart enough to comprehend what they read.

For many people, reading real news stories and facts on politics is overwhelming and, if they don't really have a great grasp on politics in general, can be hard to understand. They may be reading things and not fully understanding what it is that they are reading. I DO understand a lot about politics, and sometimes even I need a simpler version of what is being presented so that I can process it better.

These media outlets that satirize politics and politicians are helping a different sort of American audience recognize at least some of the stupidity that goes on. And if it helps just one person realize that, wow, this candidate is an idiot, or wow, this candidate said one thing but then there they show him/her contradicting themselves so many times, or wow, maybe these claims that this person is making AREN'T true, then I think they have done a service.

Even me, who does read real news, still enjoys watching the satire. It makes it relatable. It brings it down to a basic level that we can all relate to, because we all love to laugh. And remember, "many a truth is said in jest," so while it comes off as funny, it is based in fact. There is still some fact there, otherwise we wouldn't have it at all. And that is important.

And sometimes, when things get so pathetic and so scary and so out of control, the only thing we can really do to keep from going crazy is to laugh about it. Because really, what else can we do?

vast.tv said...

Jay, I think you might be taking me too literally. I never said that humor isn't important and, of course, it wouldn't do anyone any good to just be serious all the time (I thought I made my thoughts on that clear in the first post).

You're right about SNL. It's generally sucked since the late 1990s. I should have specified that I meant these skits are fantastic, not the show in general.

And it still does bother me to see SNL and The Daily Show get more airtime than "serious" news outlets (even though I think The Daily Show is brilliant and I will freely admit that even I pay more attention to the "fake news" than the real news) because the popularity of entertainment news is a barometer of our cultural/media hierarchy of style over substance.

I wasn't trying to say comedy was bad or even that it doesn't have the power to mobilize and energize. At essence, I was just pointing out that we can't rely on comedy to do our job for us, which doesn't seem like that radical of a notion to me.

vast.tv said...

I agree with you. When I wrote that "it's also a bit like saying that fake news shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report don't affect people's outlook on politics just because they're supposed to be funny," I conceding that people are affected politically by "fake news" programs. I definitely think things like SNL, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have the potential to change someone's mind. (And I watch those programs, too, for my news...all the time. God forbid people think I'm "too
good" for The Daily Show. I adore Jon Stewart.)

You say that you "can't see anything but good in these folks seeing searing satire of the Republican party," and I completely agree with that as well. The satire should stay. Bring on the satire. But what do we do after the satire? Because no matter how biting or funny or brilliant the satire is, there's always more to say and do.

Kekla Magoon said...

Out of curiosisty, what is this "real news" that the SNL-watching public is missing out on? Do you have examples? Are you talking about print media in particular? (Dr. Jay alluded to this point, and I think mentioned The Nation...)

I'm not trying to be difficult, but merely asking if you all are really fans of mainstream television news? I can barely stand to watch CNN anymore - it's such a circus. News outlets have become more concerned with ratings than facts. It's not like we have Murrow or Cronkite types anymore, who just sit and speak into the camera. Now it's all about graphics and fabulous guests, having five or six different movers and shakers all shouting over each other to get a word in edgewise...

I love Stewart and Colbert because their segments draw actual intelligent conclusions about the world. Frankly, I think they are satirizing the media more harshly than any of the political subject matter they deal with.

I'd love to know what else people are reading/watching that's not satire but still keeps it real.

Brianna J said...

I think that the real problem here, is that the so-called 'mainstream media' is dead. It has been replaced by the Internet, and it's only function is to entertain bored people. The reason the SNL skit is so popular, is that the audience for TV only wants to be entertained. I think that people who care about real news probably don't even bother. As an example: I don't ever watch TV. I don't think that I've ever watched a news broadcast all the way through. Instead, I read all of the news on the Internet. (I do listen to the radio in the car, but not at any other time)

The wonderful thing about the Internet is that it's nearly infinite. Sure, there might be more emphasis on the SNL skit than on real news - but there's also more 'real news' than anyone could ever read.

If people chose to focus on entertainment, it's their own fault. And trying to change what people care about is another problem entirely.

Basically, people are just shallow.

@Kelka - I personally enjoy looking up voting records on the Library of Congress website, and analyzing the 'official' campaign policies, as given on the candidate's websites. That seems to me to be about as real as politics can get... Ms. Maddow seems pretty cool, too.

vast.tv said...

@Kekla: You're not being difficult at all! I'm glad this has sparked so much dialogue. And you know what's funny about all this (and, in retrospect, I should have made this more clear), I don't watch the real news either with the exception, recently, of the post-debate analyses. I do read real news though, and, like Brianna, most of that reading is on the internet (mainly The New York Times, The Huffington Post and a plethora of blogs. I realize that's not the most well-rounded reading list, but I only have so much time in a day, like all of us).

However, in the interest of full disclosure, up until this election I was completely news and politics phobic. Seriously. I only got my news from sources like The Daily Show because I just wasn't willing to deal with the real thing (like you say, the news is overwhelming and I think part of me just didn't care enough to bother with weeding through it all). So, part of what I was reacting to in both my posts is my own preference for entertainment news over "real" news. I was trying to spark my own awareness to these issues. By no means do I think I'm the most politically-informed person out there. Far from it. And I think that's the point above all else. I'm the kind of person I was talking about (a person who prefers to be entertained) and it suddenly dawned on me why that mindset could be potentially problematic. It was a eureka moment for me personally as much as anything else.

vpass said...

An NPR piece on the subject: