Tom Coleman explores the role and form of satire in light of political events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
Critics have claimed that 2016 was the year the political world went beyond the realm of satire; that political rhetoric had become so heated, so extreme, so ridiculous that it could not be parodied or laughed at anymore. Yet the writers of Saturday Night Live seem to think differently. In its 42nd season, the American sketch show has boldly held Donald Trump and his administration to account while also being unafraid to lampoon Hillary Clinton and political correctness. Regardless of whether you want to laugh at the true obscenity of the current political situation or see some real opposition to Trump, (take note Theresa May) you could do a lot worse than looking at the SNL YouTube channel.
If satire was truly dead then Alec Baldwin’s impersonation of the President wouldn’t have achieved such acclaim and popularity. With nearly 8 million within 48 hours of being posted on YouTube, Baldwin’s most recent skits suggest a sustained desire to watch the President and his mannerisms made fun of. When Baldwin’s Trump states he’s “too busy being super presidential” to research actual health care legislation, it’s hard not to hear echoes of the President saying something just as asinine and grandiose to defend his lack of actual policy direction. It works because it simultaneously apes Trump’s intriguing grasp of the English language, he signs “a tremendous travel ban” for example, while at other times shows how vulnerable and childlike he is, pouting and sitting confused at his desk while Steve Bannon looms over him. If you thought Trump to be beyond the point of parody, SNL will prove you wrong. More than that, the nuances and quirks of Baldwin’s impression expose Trump for what he really is; a weak-willed man with a superiority complex.
Saturday Night Live obviously panders to a liberal, Democrat voting audience but a parody of Hillary Clinton is perhaps more enlightening than their depiction of Trump. In a sketch of Kate McKinnon’s, Clinton tells her past self (played by Amy Poehler) that it is “not enough to just work hard, we have to be cool but tough, soft but strong, sweet old lady but a sweet old lady that says YAAAS Queen” in order to achieve mainstream popularity. You’d expect this to be from a skit in the aftermath of the election. Yet it’s from December 2015 where Hillary is depicted sitting up straight in bed, fully dressed, ready for a night of “productive dreaming”. SNL understood why people couldn’t get behind her before the electorate did and used this knowledge to great effect; the “Hillary Actually” sketch followed the election, reiterating that her perceived coldness and desperation for the White House was her downfall. Funny it may be to watch, but the hints of tragedy and sadness the sketch evokes when looked at with hindsight arguably explain the outcome of the election more than looking at the woman herself.
Outside of party politics, SNL has been tackling social issues and the media in an intelligent, thoughtful way. Their sketch on the recent “Pepsi Commercial” highlighted the ignorance of white Americans who see protest as a trend rather than a political stand against oppression. Their spoof last year, “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black”, perfectly exemplified certain portions of white America who hold the view that blackness is okay, so long as someone isn’t too black. In the recent “Girl at a Bar”’ sketch they derided men who use the rhetoric of gender equality and progressive politics yet still feel like women owe them sex. Of course, these are hilarious sketches, but they do a much better job of criticising the obscenities of the religious right, overly sensitive left and complexities and contradictions of political correctness than the mainstream media do. This sort of thing, sadly, just isn’t done in Britain. It is refreshing to see comedy taking on real issues while still managing to be funny.
So, despite the fears, satire is not dead. We may be yet to find the humour in Brexit, but our American cousins are making the most of the comedic opportunities the Trump presidency has given us. Not only is SNL providing laughter in the darkest of times for anyone with progressive, liberal views, it is offering an intriguing insight into a country that can’t quite decide on its own identity. We should all be grateful that the cast and writers of SNL are doing what few world leaders are willing to do; take on Trump without fear of consequence. But similarly, they must continue to expose the contradictions and flaws of the left. Whoever wants to be the Democratic frontrunner in 2020 should probably take a scan of the SNL Youtube channel to learn where Hillary went wrong and how sanity can be restored to American politics.