The Politics of Saturday Night Live: How the Presidency Affects the Media
“Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”
These words are familiar to any casual viewer of late-night television. Saturday Night Live (SNL) could be considered the most prolific and popular comedy show in recent history. The show first aired in 1975 and has since supported hundreds of actors, garnering hundreds of thousands of fans. Typically, the show consists of a host monologue, various comedy sketches, a musical act, and a comedic weekly news update.
The show is famous for containing a variety of politically charged sketches from the famous Donald Trump impression done by Alec Baldwin (Donald Trump Press Conference Cold Open - SNL) to slights at the Hillary Clinton email scandal (Hillary Clinton Cold Open - SNL). After the success of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin ahead of the 2008 presidential election (Gov. Sarah Palin's Press Conference - SNL), SNL truly realized the power of their political sketches. So they kept doing them. Over and over again, SNL premiered new political takes and comedies. In fact, many viewers are starting to wonder if Saturday Night Live has become too political, and if so, what effect does it have on its audience?
The Donald Trump Era
Contrary to popular belief, SNL has always been politically unfiltered. In the early days, Chevy Chase became famous for his Gerald Ford impression, and Dan Aykroyd’s Jimmy Carter was a massive hit with early fans of the show. These impressions have traditionally been done with light-hearted, playful intent. The sketches featuring a popular (typically) American politician generally poke fun at some of their recent actions, or maybe tease them. For many years, it didn’t get much more serious than that… Until the 2016 American Presidential Election. After Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, audiences could see a sharp turn in SNL’s political content. Come the first Saturday of that November, the quantity of political sketches spiked.
The rate of which increased by at least one extra political sketch each week. Then came the nail in the controversy-coffin; a swerve in the agenda of SNL. The new wave of political sketches seemed to be more assertive, more targeted at Donald Trump, more focused on trying to poke the bear in the big house, and more willing to step past what many would consider to be the bounds of parody. Throughout the Donald Trump era, many sketches on the show seemed to lean too far into an area of mocking and ridicule, leading to a general intention of disrespect, and eliciting petty rage from any right-wing viewers. Of course, these two separate experiences of the show certainly contribute to the polarization of media and politics in America. Media has been shown to help foster the “Us Versus Them” mentality in politics, and Saturday Night Live is certainly no exception. As much as idealists would love for more people to enjoy viewing political content, the truth is that the vast majority of viewers simply turn off their televisions when something becomes too political for their taste, even if they agree with what is being said. Of course, more modern viewers who dwell online typically rip SNL episodes apart merely minutes after the show ends each week, often creating intense debates and battles between opposing factions. Driving the two sides of America further apart has intense repercussions. Yet this isn’t the only way that Saturday Night Live has been discouraging viewers from participating in politics.
The Joe Biden Era
Similarly to how Saturday Night Live’s political content changed after the election of Donald Trump, another change was visible after the 2020 election of Joe Biden. It was clear that SNL was no longer able to revel in the creative joy of having someone to mock every week. Instead, they pivoted to a new style of content: performative political comedy with no real message or meaning. These sketches are present in practically every episode. While this era still falls victim to the gimmicks of the Donald Trump Era (Jim Carrey as Joe Biden anyone?), this flaw is certainly a bigger sin. It appears that the writers and directors of the show want to get all of the “bonus points”' or credit that comes with making a popular political statement, but don’t want to do any of the actual work that comes with such a political take. The show can comment on problematic Republican policies, discriminatory practices in the arts, and the need for more voter education all they want, but unless they back it up with actual support for aid in these issues, it’s essentially meaningless. Viewers can tell that the current brand of SNL is entirely performative, and it’s beginning to deter people from supporting political movements. Essentially, Saturday Night Live is creating a farce of important notions and movements within American politics. This can lead to misunderstandings about the importance or intention of movements, unrealistic expectations for individuals and groups in the arts, and the stifling of creativity in favor of being overtly political. The Joe Biden Era of Saturday Night Live is certainly different from the eras that came before it. The show has a different feel, a different style. As the United States is only a year into the Biden presidency, the content they produce while he is at the helm will certainly adapt, although it is unsure as to where this content will go.
Overall, it is no question as to whether or not Saturday Night Live will remain political. It’s a key part of their brand. The real question is how will SNL’s political content change throughout Joe Biden’s presidency and into the future of American politics. Recently, fans and critics of SNL alike have noticed that the show has been returning to some of its early 2000s silliness, with recent sketches featuring over-the-top and goofy premises, like the iconic “Drivers License” Bar sketch and the “Three Sad Virgins” song with Taylor Swift, and allowing the actors to commit to unique characters. Many people feel as if the show has been refreshed since the 2020 election and the riddance of direct ridicule of politicians. But truthfully, SNL has just transitioned into another era of misguided political content. Saturday Night Live is supposed to be about comedy, and comedy with an agenda isn’t really comedy.
D. Gooden. (2019). Is Snl Even Funny? YouTube. Retrieved December 27, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvVASCnsal8.
NBCUniversal News Group. (2016, September 30). How 'Saturday night live' has shaped American politics. NBCNews.com. Retrieved January 15, 2022, from https://www.nbcnews.com/pop-culture/tv/how-saturday-night-live-has-shaped-american-politics-n656716
Placido, D. D. (2020, October 18). The political comedy of 'SNL' is becoming downright painful to watch. Forbes. Retrieved December 21, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/danidiplacido/2020/10/18/the-political-comedy-of-snl-is-becoming-downright-painful-to-watch/?sh=116e71236fa5