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October 22, 2008

Palin Proves It: Anti-Establishment Saturday Night Live Is Now the Establishment


By D.F. Krause

Saturday Night Live has jumped the shark. Not because it’s stopped being funny (sometimes it still is), and not because it never does anything noteworthy anymore (on occasion it still does).


It’s all because of Sarah Palin. Actually, not just Sarah Palin. This involves Barack Obama, Rudy Giuliani, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, John McCain, Mike Huckabee and many other politicians. If you are running for president or vice president – or even thinking about it – we have reached the point where you must do SNL. It is part of the test of a prospective president’s mettle.


If you’re not required to stand there while someone impersonates you, then you have to do something absurd. You have to sit in a hot tub like Gore did. (Hey! Did global warming make that tub hot?) You have to sing karaoke like McCain did. Or, like Palin, you have to stand there talking to Alec Baldwin and resist the urge to say, “I thought you were moving to France, tubby.”


The problem here is not what the politicians are doing. Some of it is funny. The problem is SNL providing the venue. It means that SNL has crossed a line and can never go back.


Let us return for a moment to 1975, when SNL was in its infancy, to recall what made it such a groundbreaking show. It wasn’t just that it was live, although that was a big deal. It was more about the things the show wasn’t afraid to do, especially given the times. The idea of putting George Carlin on live television, knowing what he would surely say, is hard to compare to anything today in terms of edginess. Maybe putting porn on primetime, network television would be comparable in 2008, but I’m not even sure about that.


But it was also about the character of the humor. Recall Dan Aykroyd putting a bass in a blender in a commercial for the Bass-o-Matic, and replying to Jane Curtin’s Weekend Update commentary with “Jane, you ignorant slut.” Recall Garrett Morris as Anwar Sadat being tended to by the Micro-Dentists. Recall Chevy Chase announcing that “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.” Recall John Belushi welcoming guests to Samauri Motel.


SNL captured the nation’s attention because it was the counterculture at its most creative and hilarious. You could tell that these guys would be at home at an anti-war rally, but they channeled their energy into satire instead, and the result was both hilarious and amazing. Perhaps the best example came when Aykroyd played Jimmy Carter, sitting in as a guest on a call-in radio show, talking some drug-addled freak down from an acid trip.


Television had never tried anything like this. It didn’t dare. A candidate for president showing up on SNL would have been antithetical to the whole idea of the show – and it wasn’t because they represented some sort of enemy. It’s just that they didn’t belong there. They were the establishment, and SNL was anti-establishment. Granted, it was being broadcast to millions via a network owned by General Electric, and you can’t get much more establishment than that, but that only added to the impact of the irony.


Shortly after leaving office, George H.W. Bush suddenly showed up on a postage-stamp screen via satellite while Dana Carvey was imitating him, and started light-heartedly chastising him for doing the imitation all wrong. It was sort of a funny moment, but it opened the floodgates. It wasn’t long before you, if you were running for president, almost had to appear – if not as host, at least in a sketch cameo or in a Weekend Update commentary – or else people would wonder why you didn’t.


Palin’s appearance saw the phenomenon go to its most ridiculous lengths yet. Not only did she appear, but her appearance was the source of media speculation for weeks. Once it was confirmed, it became the big story of the weekend. If you don’t like to stay up that late (like me), the first thing you did the following morning was watch the video on the Internet. People on both sides of the political spectrum debated “how she did,” and whether her appearance helped or hurt her.




So this is what it’s come to for SNL. It’s a proving ground for people who want to lead the free world. Before you can go forth to deal with Putin, Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Il, you have to show you can hold your own with Tina Fey and a rapping moose.


Congratulations, SNL, I guess. Once the epitome of anti-establishment sensibilities, you are now the establishment defined. Once a staple of the counterculture, you now define the culture.


Whatever works for you. I liked the Bass-o-Matic.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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