Reports of SNL‘s decline are, and always have been, greatly exaggerated; the comedy institution has its ups and downs, but 40 years in, the show remains a reliable source of talent and, more importantly, good sketches. It’s no secret, however, that the show’s political humor isn’t exactly at the top of its game. Of the recent highlights, like Mike O’Brien’s short films or Kate McKinnon’s Justin Bieber impression, few originated in the broadcast’s opening minutes, SNL‘s traditional home for topical bits. And in a recent interview with Grantland’s Bill Simmons, alum Horatio Sanz offered his theory as to why.
“In the spirit of the show as it was when it started, it should be a little anti-establishment, a little less conservative,” Sanz said. “I think that the message of the show has become less about these leftist politics and more about being popular.” He also singled out veteran writer Jim Downey as the source of SNL‘s “conservative bullshit,” a sentiment he’s voiced before; in the Live From New York interview Simmons references at the beginning of the segment, Sanz called his sketches “out of tune with the audience” and “written like Downey wants to put this [right-wing] message out.”
The problem with pinpointing Downey as the source of SNL‘s issues, however, is that his sensibility is an integral part of the show’s DNA. Downey joined the show in 1976, arriving at the same time as one Bill Murray. Along with now-Senator Al Franken (if for no other reason, read Live From New York to learn the former drug habits of a current legislator), Downey is responsible for much of “the show as it was when it started” — and despite his politics, parodies of Republicans from Ronald Reagan (the “Mastermind” sketch) to George W. Bush (“strategery”). Which is why SNL‘s humor suffers not from an excessively conservative worldview, but from a lack of any easily identifiable worldview when it comes to today’s political landscape.
SNL is a sketch show, meaning that its political commentary derives not from straightforward monologues or slow-burning satire, but individual characters brought to life by cast members. When it comes to celebrities, that means impressions, and those impressions generally fall into two camps: mimetic performances that prioritize capturing someone’s tics and cadences, and performances that opt for lampooning a personality rather than perfecting his or her mannerisms. Darrell Hammond’s slooooow-talking Al Gore falls into the former camp, Chevy Chase’s buffoonish Gerald Ford the latter — so much so that the show once introduced the character with the caption, “This is not a good impersonation of Gerald Ford, but Rich Little won’t work for scale.”
For the past two years, SNL‘s political lineup has been anchored by Jay Pharoah’s President Obama. Like Hammond, Pharoah is an extremely talented technical impersonator, making his rendition of the commander-in-chief a definite improvement over predecessor Fred Armisen. But there’s no real thesis statement behind his Obama the way there was to Dana Carvey’s George H.W. Bush, nervously walking back on his overambitious campaign promises, or Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, ditzy yet alarmingly close to charming her way into the White House. Pharoah’s Obama is mostly a straight man, an archetype that’s difficult to make the center of a political satire.
The same problem afflicted the Nancy Pelosi sketch that Sanz points to as one of the show’s low points. The issue isn’t that the bit lampoons a Democrat; it’s that the punchline, in the form of Pelosi’s leather-clad wingmen, is lazy and says nothing about Pelosi. Sanz even seems to agree, admitting that he’d love to see more of Kate McKinnon’s recently debuted Hillary Clinton. The impersonation is hardly flattering, but it’s an extremely specific — and, judging by audience reaction, resonant — take on Clinton’s ambitions and how long they’ve gone unfulfilled.
SNL may not have had much to say about politics lately partly because there hasn’t been much to say, at least in the show’s personality-dependent language. Because impersonation-based humor requires outsized, recognizable people to impersonate, SNL political comedy tends to do better during elections, when politics is at the forefront of viewers’ minds and its cast is reduced from hundreds of players to just a handful. And even then, not all elections play to the show’s strengths, as Seth Meyers, who wrote the Palin/Clinton sketches that many point to as SNL‘s last great piece of political satire, told Vanity Fair in 2011:
“In 2004, I played John Kerry during that election, which I think, in general, was just a less interesting election,” Seth Meyers said. “So sometimes it breaks for us, and sometimes it doesn’t. It helps us when the D.C. characters are bigger because, as actors, we have to play those people, and just like with any impression, it helps if the target is just bigger, with funnier things about them. We don’t do policy pieces as well. We do sort of big character pieces well, and certainly the 2008 election couldn’t have been more down Main Street for us with regards to us.”
Which also explains why the political satire that has thrived since 2008 hasn’t targeted individual figures so much as the system. Veep doesn’t even specify Selina Meyer’s party affiliation, targeting the bureaucratic inanities of governance and electioneering rather than its characters’ beliefs. Parks and Recreation, too, withheld Leslie’s status as a Democrat until the eleventh hour, deriving its comedy from the indignity of local government grunt work rather than the bigger picture (though Ron Swanson’s libertarianism does come up for evenhanded examination). Key & Peele‘s Obama, or rather his anger translator Luther, is the exception to the rule, managing to do what SNL couldn’t and find a shrewd angle on a president who’s hard to mock.
Lulls are inevitable in current events-based comedy, particularly comedy as dependent on good subjects as SNL‘s. But because SNL is in the midst of one of those lulls, rather than a fundamental shift in its politics — which, in a two-party system, have to be somewhat centrist anyway — there’s ample room for hope. We’re entering a new election cycle, with a powerhouse performer/future Ghostbuster already cast as one of its main players. SNL is always over the hill until it isn’t, and 2016 is as good a time for a comeback as ever.