An analysis of the evolution of political humor on America’s funniest late-night comedy show.
If you’re a fan of comedy, then no doubt you’ve had some interaction with America’s longest standing comedy show, a jewel of late-night television, Saturday Night Live. And how could you not? With 44 seasons spanning over 4 decades, SNL has been a long-time reigning champ of late-night comedy, featuring an impressive roster of celebrity hosts and musical guests and countless hilarious original sketches. The show has launched the career of several celebrities including Will Ferrell, Bill Murray, Jimmy Fallon, Amy Poehler, Kristin Wiig, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, Kate McKinnon, and countless more. It has maintained a 40+ year-long reputation for making viewers laugh-out-loud with skits that like to poke fun at our past, present, and future.
In recent decades, with increasing numbers of viewers steadily turning away from standard forms of nightly news towards late-night comedy outlets, the public is seeing the rise of satirical comedy shows as the preferred source of information. And why shouldn’t we prefer them? In our democratic system, where we consider the right to free speech to be one of the most sacred and honored articles of the Constitution, the right to poke fun at and question our government has simply become a sub article of the First Amendment we hold so dear. Because of this, the perpetuating of political humor directed at United States’ presidencies has become a protected goldmine of content in late-night comedy for decades. And if late-night comedy shows were looking for a twist in their political content, or a boost to the sometimes blah-ness of American politics, boy oh boy did they find it in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.
Now let’s take a trip down memory lane. Back in 2016, America was introduced to arguably the most unusual presidential race in the history of our country, with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton going head-to-head in the Game for America’s Throne. With two candidates who clearly defied all the norms of past elections, a major shift in media attention, coverage, and content was felt across all platforms, with late-night comedy shows being no exception. As the American public used their Twitter accounts to deal with the chaos of the 2016 election unfolding before them, so did the producers, actors, and writers of late-night comedy use their humor to deal with the unease brought on by the two prospective candidates, who all but shattered the existing status quo of past presidential elections. This seemingly increasing trend manifested itself in a relatively simple conversation I had with my mother one night about our beloved show, Saturday Night Live.
Back in 2016 while talking on the phone with my mom, who holds opposing political beliefs than mine, she expressed her frustration with the “fact” that SNL had completely lost its old-time appeal in that the show was all about politics and was, for that reason, unpleasant to watch. During this time, I was taking a class at Northeastern University called Political Communication where we analyzed different communication strategies across multiple campaigns, and I couldn’t help but wonder, “Is that really true? Has SNL really become too political?” I decided to take a closer look at the political content on the show between three major (and quite frankly, hilarious) election years: 2000, 2008, and 2016. I won’t bore you with the details of the research, but let’s take a closer look into the results. This is how the cookie crumbled…
The results of my study were interesting in that they showed clear shifts in the landscape of political humor on SNL. What I discovered was that although Trump was in fact covered more frequently in the 2016 election than any of the other candidates of previous years, the 2016 election was not the most politically charged election year in terms of overall coverage on the show. In fact, the 2000 election was covered slightly more than the 2016 election. Maybe this was due to Will Ferrell’s perfected impression of George W. Bush as the buffoon of the 2000 election, which resonated well with the show’s left-leaning, liberal audience members. Maybe it was because the skits that came out of the 2000 election period were the first to become a hybrid political-comedic hit, which served as the ammo the show needed to kick-off its political future. I mean, c’mon, we all had a double-take moment during the 2008 election where we mistook Tina Fey for Sarah Palin, and don’t try to deny it. Or maybe audiences during the 2016 election simply imagined it was more political because they were paying closer attention due to its unusual nature. Whatever the reasoning may be, we know now that, in terms of frequency, SNL has remained on-par with its political content in the last couple decades. So there you go, Mom!
Another interesting finding related to the evolution of political humor on SNL throughout the election years. Through my analysis, a clear trend moving away from “harmless fun” to more biting, undermining, and substantively critical humor was drastic. I discovered that the type of political humor targeted towards Trump was significantly more undermining than previous Republican candidates, with comments frequently made about his character flaws, racist and inappropriate remarks, false facts throughout his campaign, and instances of sexual assault against women. Additionally, the political humor aimed at Clinton was heavily weighted towards mild faults or well-established complaints against her, such as her lack of emotion. I also found that most of the political humor surrounding Clinton was aimed at undermining her credibility by referencing her dishonesty and political scandals. And if you were tuning it at all, you know that Kate McKinnon’s amazing impression of Clinton, with her robotic gestures and awkward facial expressions, nailed these arguments to a tee. Interestingly enough, both candidates were also heavily targeted for their appearance, usually with references to Trump’s “orange” skin, his hair, or facial features and largely to Clinton’s wardrobe.
What I found fascinating about these findings was how they spoke volumes to the role that SNL has played in the public sphere as a form of media that criticizes the reality of politics in America. The show’s politically-charged content demonstrates a willingness to express opinions, no matter how controversial, in an effort to facilitate a transparent discussion about who we’re allowing to lead our government.What we can see in the findings is a shift in our media towards more critical, undermining content that demonstrates the public’s readiness to interrogate individuals of power and to create an open dialogue about the influence of our leaders on public policy and government stability.
So, what does this mean for the 2020 election? You can bet that with 20 Democratic candidates already in the running that we’re in store for some interesting, maybe even slightly overwhelming pieces from SNL. If you weren’t getting tired of Kate McKinnon’s sensational performance as Clinton, then surely her perfected impression as Elizabeth Warren (and perhaps Marianne Williamson to come?) will tickle your fancy just the same. Although the show is now on its summer hiatus, I think we’re all anxiously awaiting its return where it will surely dive head-first into the preliminary events of the 2020 election with new, refreshed content. What will be interesting to see is whether the shifting nature of politics presented on late-night comedy shows is continued in this election round, and how this in turn will affect the melding of politics, news, and entertainment in the future. At this point, I definitely don’t feel certain about where the 2020 election will lead us or who will make it down the line, but if you’re looking for solace in the mayhem then take comfort in this… Saturday Night Live will undoubtedly be making some not-so-subtle jabs the entire way.
By: Julia Eckstein