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The Hidden Secret of American Politics: Satire

From gladiator battles in the Roman coliseum, to Shakespearean plays in the Globe theatre, humans have always been enthralled by entertainment. With the turn of the century, a new form of entertainment was on the rise. John Logie Baird invented the television in 1927, which brought visual entertainment into every home. Since then, the system of American pop culture has been shaped by NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL), a weekly comedic variety show hosted by different iconic celebrities. For the past forty years, American audiences have tuned in to enjoy the satirical skits. Over the past forty years, the sketches have evolved and changed with new talent presented each season, which have led to an assortment of unforgettable characters such as Stefon, Wayne Campbell, and the Church Lady. Over the past decades, the show has connected to the audience on a different level through their use of political satire.

Since the days of Gerald Ford to current President Donald Trump, Saturday Night Live has developed into a crucial and influential stage for politicians over the past decades. Over the years as Saturday Night Live has adjusted their use of political satire on the show, America audience’s have changed their point of view and values of American politicians.


This sketch comedy show is one of the longest running television network programs for it’s portrayal of American pop culture, parodies, and especially political satire.  SNL was originally created and developed by Lorne Michaels and Dick Ebersol. The show’s main concept was a late night variety show featuring musical performances, celebrity hosts, and a comedic cast. The show debut was on October 11, 1975 on NBC and with immediate success, the show’s cast members became comedic icons over night. With each season, SNL highlights and mocks Democrats and Republicans equally. 

After the success of SNL‘s first season, Michaels brought new blood and ideas, especially within the political element of the show. Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd hosted the first political debate on air. Through their satire, they mocked President Gerald Ford and Governor Jimmy Carter influenced American audiences. There are many assumptions that Chase’s impressions of Ford eventually costed Ford the election, thus showing how Americans began viewing politicians in political satire rather than their public appearance. 

Throughout 1975 and 1980SNL became popular among younger audiences for it’s catch phrases and memorable characters. A few examples are of the “Blues Brothers,” “The Cone Heads,” and the “Nerds.”

By 1980, SNL had found it’s rhythm within the American television stream. Season 5 came tension and problems in the writers room, which led to the departure of Lorne Michaels, Al Franken, and others. The show would try to find it’s rhythm again without these vital writers and creators. With the arrival of Season 6, Eddie Murphy was given the spotlight and joined the show. With a mostly new cast and straight forward sketches, the show could not compete with Michael’s ratings. Overall, this season was a commercial disappointment and Michaels was eventually hired back to the show.

With Michaels’ return, some familiar faces such as, Randy Quaid, Robert Downey Jr., Dennis Miller, and Jon Lovitz began their careers. With trial and error, SNL was always testing out new actors and eventually returned back it it’s original rhythm in the 1980s. The ratings went through the roof and with their success the cast began to repeat popular sketches such as “Pump it up with Hans and Frans” and “Wayne’s World.”

In 1988, with the new momentum and media attention, SNL began using political humor with Dana Carvey’s impression of George H.W. Bush. He would play that iconic character for four years creating a pop culture phenomenon. His counterparts on the show were Phil Hartman’s Bill Clinton and Jan Hooks’ Hilary Clinton impressions. These impressions implemented the common theme for political satire for the show in the years to come.

Another transition soon came along. New players in the cast found fame, such as, David Spade, Chris Farley, and Adam Sandler. These actors became known for their characters like “Matt Foley Motivational Speaker” and “Opera Man.” The following years saw huge turnovers within the cast. As many cast members left and new ones were hired. The cycle of cast members never stops, always adding fresh ideas to the show. In the late 1990s, Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan broke through with their famous sketches, such as the over zealous Spartan cheerleaders and celebrity Jeopardy.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, the cast grew with even more talent and charisma. On the political side, the 2000 election season were performed by Will Ferrell’s impression of Gov. George W. Bush and Darrell Hammond’s impression of Vice President Al Gore. Not only was the accent and facial expressions became distinguishable compared to past impressions on the show, but the makeup and costuming became an important element added to the formula of iconic impressions. After the debate skit in Boston, the actual Al Gore viewed the skit and saw his mistakes that he made in the debate. He was determined to change his perception based on the impression from SNL. An aide of Al Gore once said that Gore “recognized that the skit demonstrated that the image of his exasperation had taken root in the popular culture.” His exasperation was a characteristic trait within the skit. This attribute of ridiculing politicians for their character traits and mannerisms were adapted into impressions. But this was not enough to save Al Gore in the presidential race. Will Ferrell’s impression of George W. Bush was more likable than Darrell Hammond’s Al Gore which influenced the election. 

With a new age of programmed television came new ideas and changes. Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon joined in on the fun and eventually became successful co-anchors on “Weekend Update.” In 2005, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig, and Andy Samberg joined the cast. The later half of the decade, the “SNL Digital Short” concept was born and now is part of the weekly routine.

The election season of 2008 is one for the books of political satire. American audiences were stunned by Tina Fey’s identical impression of Sarah Palin and Amy Poehler’s Hilary Clinton. The famous line from Fey’s impression, “I can see Russia from my house” was echoed  throughout the Nation. Later in this season, even Sarah Palin herself entered the studio to have a laugh herself. Her “performance…stood out from the efforts of other politicians who have made fun of themselves” because she was natural and showed her lighter side to the public. Her performance “was seen by more than 14 million people, the largest audience for SNL since 1994.” There have been the actual politicians on the show before, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain to go on the show to disarm voters by showing their lighter side, but Palin showed them all up. She became the life of the party on SNL, which affected her public persona. 

SNL has never been afraid to push the boundaries of comedic relief in political satire. After launching the careers of many performers, the Emmy award winning program is a staple of the system of modern political satire that signifies the opinion of American voters.


Chevy Chase once said, “When you have that kind of a venue and power where you can reach so many millions of people and you’ve become a show that people watch, you know, you can affect a lot of people, and humor does it beautifully, because humor is perspective and has a way of making judgment calls.” SNL has the power to influence millions of Americans each election season. The 2016 election season was a comedic, chaotic example of how SNL has adjusted their use of political satire on the show, America audience’s have changed their point of view and values of American politicians through the signifying skits of Kate McKinnon’s impression of Hillary Clinton, Larry David’s Bernie Sanders, and Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump. These new signs demonstrate  the signs of the reflective change over the past forty years and how Americans value politicians and the political structure.

Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton

The earliest portrayal of Hillary Clinton was in 1991 by Jan Hooks, since then there have been a total of 8 actors impersonating Hillary Clinton on SNL. In the 2016 Election, Kate McKinnon’s version of Clinton is different than the past versions of Hillary. She is more on a “psychotic edge to Clinton, while lampooning her desire to be seen as an accessible everywoman.” Not only does the actor have to be looking like the politician, but in McKinnon’s case, she has created her own creation of Clinton. Within these attributes of the physical appearance and the impression, McKinnon made a Clinton for the 2016 election.

The American people view the actual Hillary Clinton as a inhumane political robot and others view her as a symbol of female change in the White House. On SNL, McKinnon shows the medium of the spectrum of opinions. From her physical appearance similar to the past costume appearance, to her accent, she seems like the same old Hillary. But, her “crazy eyes and a maniacal laugh” is the center of the character. McKinnon has the head tilt, the smirk, the smile, the power suit, and the attitude of the Democratic Party Nominee. The impression demonstrates a comedic stance of how the public views Clinton. Overall, “the impression is based on the premise of Hillary’s competence, it also promotes some of the most durable and, in many ways, sexist, popular tropes about her: that she is narcissistic, grasping (in her first performance, McKinnon literally grabs at the air), shrill, and, at this late stage, desperate for the office.”

Kate McKinnon’s Clinton impression during this past election was an unforgettable roller coaster. She showed a little crazier, neurotic side of Clinton that no other cast member had done before. She showed Clinton as a power hungry monster instead Hooks’ impression of the First Lady.“I share all of your exact same beliefs,” McKinnon-as-Clinton said in a mock TV ad. In another sketch, McKinnon’s Clinton was asked whether she was an introvert or an extrovert. “I would say I’m a little bit of both. I’m an extrovert because I love meeting people and connecting with them and smiling with them. But I’m an introvert because no I don’t.” This eventually led to a negative connotations for many audiences and voters. Thus, signifying the changing scope of how Americans view politicians, specifically Hillary. The connotation of Hillary being double sided affected the final decision of voters on the presidential ballot.

Larry David’s Bernie Sanders:

Some actors are born to play a certain role. For Larry David, that role was playing Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Presidential election. For many viewers it was difficult to distinguish between David and Sanders. They even both appeared on stage together during one skit that season. Both having a receding hairline and nose tip glasses, they could be twins. During the campaign trail, Sanders took a brief trip down to New York, where he reached a national audience and poked fun at himself. Unlike other politicians, “Sanders’ campaign widely promoted the appearance before SNL, texting his supporters shortly before he appeared on air and changing his Twitter photo to a photo of David.” In the beginning of his campaign, Sanders was attempting to run the race against Clinton in the primaries and he was giving it all he had.

On the show there were many skits that showed the Democratic clash between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton voters. One digital short the “Hillary Campaign Ad” showed how Clinton needed to skew the voters, especially millennials,  away from Sanders in order to win the Democratic vote. In this digital short, McKinnon playing Clinton imitates Sanders’ Brooklyn accent and by the end of the skit, she is wearing a suit and a Sanders wig. These two politicians were competing for the same party for the Presidency and the decision was influenced by these skits

David playing Sanders in “Bern Your Enthusiasm,” a digital skit about how Sanders is on the campaign trail, signifies how his campaign trail had changed over time and how the voters were beginning to realize Sanders real motivations. The symbols of his true personality show how politicians show who they are versus their true personality. For example in the skit, when he refuses to shake a hand of a voter because she coughed into it, symbolizes the arrogance of his true personality. Later he tries to explain to his team his reasoning why he didn’t shake it, and he says that “people love me, I have more individual donatioms than any other candidate in history and I don’t take from millionaires…” But then his team goes on about how he needs every vote that he can get. In the end of the skit, he lost by the 5 people that he offended who are shown at the Hillary Clinton celebration for winning Iowa. Overall, Larry David’s time on SNL and development of Bernie Sanders shows the correlation of the audience’s power of voting in the primaries election of 2016.

Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump:

Colin Jost said, “politics right now is probably the closest we’ve come to a full-blown national phenomenon as anything in a long time, and anytime people are paying more attention to politics, it’s good for our show. But you almost feel like a war profiteer at times because we’ve benefited from a situation that’s so tough.” This past election was the most chaotic, cut throat election in decades. The country was on the fence about which corrupt politician to vote for. On SNL, it was a new challenge to demonstrate the arrogance of both Republican and Democratic Nominees. Lorne Michaels regards the show for being non-partisan, which allows them to use the cliché to “speak truth to power.”

Over the years there have been many Donald Trumps, even Donald Trump himself hosted the show once in 2015 while gearing up for the race.  The impression of Trump by Alec Baldwin has raised the ratings immensely. He demonstrates Trump being miserable, even win he wins, he’s still miserable. This conotation shows how one of the most powerful man in the world is miserable, then how can the rest of the country be miserable too. From each political debate, the writers watched together in order to make the debate skit as realistic as possible. Each impression by Baldwin showed the country Trump’s inconsist policies. The country, being completely divided in half by the candidates, watched on SNL how the candidates were like children fighting over a prize, that prize being the leader of the Free World.

But the fun didn’t stop after election night. Within the past 2016 political season, SNL has left their audiences begging for more and more of their political humor with Alec Baldwin leading the way. 

“Every single day is something nuts,” Che/Holt told Baldwin/Trump, at the end of their interview on the show. “Your presidency is like the craziest show on TV, and it’s on 24 hours a day, and we can’t keep up.” From impressions of Putin, Kellyanne Conway, Sean Spicer, Trump’s Family, and anyone else that’s associated with Trump, SNL leaves no one behind to ridicule. They are trying to keep up the best they can with the madness in the current presidency. The best satire can both see the ocean for it’s resources and find creative ways to make fun of the ocean. But while SNL is certainly capable of that panoramic vision—absolutely everything is free game is becoming more clear. As the show continues into political satire with Trump much more often, the show loses itself among all the resources.  The show, the media and the audience of country, seems to be having trouble keeping up with it.


Saturday Night Live is among the things that the Nominees communications directors cannot control. Eighty million people watched the debate, 130 million people voted, 50 million others are still looking for places to get their news, and comedy can fill that gap,” Dean Obeidallah, a former SNL production staffer recently told Poltico. “Maybe it’s going to take comedians to do the job that cable news has relinquished for so much of the campaign.”

Political satire has penetrated the national consciousness and has developed into a crucial stage for politicians. They have infiltrated the way that Americans think about the Politicians that influence our country. “I think SNL — frankly, a lot of the comedy in the country — matters because my kids are in their 20s and they don’t get traditional news,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and top Clinton surrogate. “They consume news in lots of different places and lots of different ways, and I think one of the persuasive places is a show like SNL.”

We consume media in many different forms from many different political parties. The  American audience has changed their point of view and values of American politicians based on what they see on their screens daily. Since Americans thrive on comedy and on satire, the SNL effect will increase each and every political season as more people are exposed to the skits online. Saturday Night Live has shaped the way Americans view politics through persuading these goofy impressions as their real character traits and amplifying the issues on the table for the media to discuss.


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