Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Want to take down a politician? Don't be angry; be funny

Will Ferrell as George W. Bush on Saturday Night Live. Photo courtesy of monacome.com.

A lot of people have been criticizing Fred Armisen's increasingly dull portrayal of Barack Obama in the wake of the painfully unfunny cold open of last week's Steve Buscemi-helmed Saturday Night Live. It's not that Armisen's impression is necessarily bad - he usually nails the president's speech patterns, although he's been getting sloppier as the sketches have been getting worse - but it suffers in comparison to the show's history of impersonations that define the politician they're skewering. As a recent New York Times article pointed out, Chevy Chase's work as Gerald Ford turned the athletic former football player into a clumsy oaf, and Tina Fey's impression of Sarah Palin did more than anyone (except Palin herself) to destroy the McCain-Palin ticket's chances of victory.

The Times article points out that Armisen's Obama impersonation - as well as Jason Sudeikis' similarly uninspired work as Mitt Romney - also suffers in comparison to the passionate, often furious political comedy of Jon Stewart. However, while Stewart always has a lot of criticism for American politicians and politics in general, his comedy comes from a well of anger and frustration. Stewart's comedy is certainly searing, pointed and always intelligently delivered - he's probably the smartest comedian working today - but the personal touch that he brings to his work puts him in the middle of the debates and opens him up for attack. (His spats with the hosts of Crossfire, Jim Cramer and Donald Trump are offered up as evidence.) Jon Stewart's passion is an important part of the comedy landscape, but it also keeps his influence spreading too far.

Saturday Night Live has more potential to influence public opinion because of the show's position outside the political debate. The show savaged Democratic political figures such as Bill Clinton (via Darrell Hammond's marvelous impression) just as much as Republicans. Yes, Fey's Palin impersonation may have killed her political career, and Will Ferrell's George W. Bush solidified the former president's image as an idiot who made up words like "strategery" (which the actual Bush never did), but Hammond's portrayal of Clinton as a slick playboy was equally sharp. This sort of equal-opportunity mockery gives SNL a kind of power that Stewart will probably never have: the power to influence politics through mockery.

This is where the current SNL political sketches fail. Bill Hader's excellent Rick Perry and Andy Samberg's hilariously confused Rick Santorum aside, the current political sketches have been weak. The 2012 election is, in all probability, going to boil down to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and neither impression is particularly strong. You can certainly blame this on the candidates themselves rather than Sudeikis and Armisen, who are skilled comedians: Romney is mostly known for being the least offensive Republican candidate, and Obama's speech patterns are, as the Times points out, "flavorless or elegant, neither very funny." But while Palin, Bush and Clinton all had features that were eminently mockable - after all, Fey's lines in the sketch that lampooned Palin's interview with Katie Couric were mostly taken verbatim from the actual interview - Chase's Ford impression was as unrealistic as your average Michael Bay movie, and it resulted in a complete re-evaluation of the president. So far, Armisen and Sudeikis haven't accomplished that.

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