For nearly six years the venerable sketch show failed to comedically vet President Barack Obama as it has presidents starting with Gerald Ford.
Perhaps Obama’s sinking poll numbers provided the current caffeine jolt. Or, aware that a politician built on “Hope and Change” carried through on few of his campaign promises, “Saturday Night Live” decided it was finally time to let loose.
It’s too little, too late.
Saturday’s new episode opened with Obama (Jay Pharoah) doing damage control on Ebola. Sure, he admits, his administration hasn’t looked effective in dealing with the matter, but compared to its stumbles on ObamaCare, ISIS, the Secret Security and the IRS scandals it’s not so bad.
Consider the list of scandals Pharoah’s Obama mentioned. Did “SNL” feast on any of those subjects like the notion of a female vice presidential candidate from Alaska? Did a meme form about Obama’s incompetence, like how the late Phil Hartman and Darrell Hammond serially mocked President Bill Clinton’s eye for the ladies?
“SNL” barely touched the IRS scandal, frankly, an example of government abuse that should have outraged its writers.
The NBC series famously spiked a skit mocking Obama for doing a victory dance over the death of Osama bin Laden. A recent book on “SNL” showed how show creator Lorne Michaels once fought hard for a racial profiling skit to air on the show, but ultimately let Obama himself have the final say on whether it was appropriate to air.
When given the opportunity to tweak Obama, the show often punts. Michaels recently opined that the show can’t hit a political topic like Benghazi more than twice, yet the series made its hay on recurring features and characters. They even crafted a VHS special based on all the “SNL” skits featuring the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal.
Michaels also admitted the show hits GOP targets harder because they can take a joke better.
The new Ebola skit mentioned how Vice President Joe Biden suffers from foot in mouth disease, an easy laugh line. But how often has “SNL” mocked Biden for his serial gaffes over the past six years? Does the public at large even know the “SNL” player who currently does a Biden impression?
“SNL” once took pride in being tough but fair with presidents. Phil Hartman, when he first met President Bill Clinton, felt awkward about the experience because he was so hard on him.
“The first thing I said to him is ‘I guess I owe you a few apologies,'” Hartman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“SNL” standout Will Ferrell refused to let go of his President George W. Bush imitation, which portrayed the leader as child-like and dumb. Ferrell even took his Bush to Broadway.
So why does this matter? Consider the impact Tina Fey’s impression of Sarah Palin had on the voting public. News outlets even repeated a line Fey said about “seeing Russia from my house,” as if Palin herself actually uttered it. She didn’t.
Political humor has bite … and an impact. Memes started on comedy shows infiltrate the public’s perception of candidates and politicians alike.
We’ll have to wait and see how “SNL” treats the 2016 presidential election. Should it embrace a balanced approach, the show can earn back some of its reputation as an unblinking arbiter of political humor.