Saturday Night Live & Political Satire
Today’s media is rich with political satire. It’s embedded into the mainstream culture and it’s apparent
in newspapers,magazines, radio, the Internet and television. Programs like Real Time with Bill Maher,
The Tonight Show,Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Saturday Night Live (SNL) are platforms for
subversive content that’s designed to poke fun at pop culture, celebrities, institutions and political leaders.
This type of content provides viewers with a skewed but fresh perspective on relevant issues and the
people behind those issues. It’s entertainment, but of a very particular kind. Political satire informs while
it entertains. That’s its relevance. Modern comics and humorists don’t simply tell jokes. They provide a
form of social commentary, and their jibes help fuel the larger conversation.
Anthony Thai, a contributor for The Harvard Crimson writes,“… humorists connect with their
audience more effectively than news anchors do” (1). Perhaps that’s true. There’s no question that this
type of commentary engages people in affective and meaningful ways,but it’s arguable that political
satire also erodes the public’s confidence in society’s leaders- that it’s actually detrimental to the health of
society. Some believe that satirical content has the potential to harm reputations and only fosters a sense
of cynicism among viewers and voters. For instance, “there have been studies of The Daily Show viewers,
and it’s not surprising that those who watch it are more likely to think negatively about political leaders
(although it is not clear whether political cynicism leads to watching the show or watching the show leads
to cynicism)” (Wolfsfeld 79).
That’s an interesting point, because communication is a reciprocal process. It’s give and take and
everyone contributes. But programs like The Daily Show,Late Night with Seth Myers and SNL probably
contribute more to the health of society and the world of ideas than they do to subtract from it. Wolfsfeld
Late night talk show hosts frequently begin their show by mocking politicians. When George W. Bush was
president, David Letterman had a frequent segment entitled “Great Moments in Presidential Speeches.” He would
showtwo short sound bites from memorable speeches from past presidents … and then George Bush saying
something inane … The fact that comedians make fun of the president every night is a sign of a healthy democracy
What’s clear is that political humor definitely challenges the status quo, and ideas, even subversive
ideas, have power. Ideas and language have the power to alter social realities even at the political level.
“Taken together with traditional news sources, political humor at least molds a more informed public and
at best increases political involvement and excitement” (Thai 1). Few television programs are more
experienced, or are better equipped to do this than SNL. It’s a TV program steeped in political satire, and
its writers and cast members have been hilariously scrutinizing political leaders for decades. Actors like
Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Dan Akroyd, Julia Sweeney and Chevy Chase (who was famous for his wacky
impersonations of former President Gerald Ford) made names for themselves with their witty portrayals
of government officials and media personalities. It’s important to note that these performances have been
viewed and reviewed time and time again, not only on television and through home video channels, but
through the Internet- a channel that’s contributed more to the recycling of older media than any other
medium: media that might otherwise have been forgotten- thereby keeping it fresh, relevant and thought
provoking. Wolfsfeld writes,
“ … Saturday Night Live … has a long history of mocking political candidates … actress Tina Fey was both
exquisite and merciless in her imitations of Republican Vice President nominee Governor Sarah Palin. The clips
were not only seen by millions on the Internet but were also shown on countless news and entertainment programs.
It is hard to imagine there were many Americans who did not see Fey’s portrayal of Palin as a stupid and unqualified
What follows is an analysis of one particular sketch that recently appeared on SNL. The piece deals
with Hillary Clinton’s presidential announcement, her personal life and the political scandals she’s
commonly associated with. The sketch suggests that that there are two Hilary Clinton’s- the actual Hilary
Clinton and the one she knows she’s supposed to be. But what’s most interesting about this bit is that it’s
intentionally ironic. The sketch clearly mocks Clinton (both Clinton’s), but by critiquing the candidate’s
so-called personality problems, the bit also manages to paint Hilary in an interesting and somewhat
The sketch is set at the Clinton’s home in Chappaqua, New York and takes place entirely within
Hilary’s private office and runs about five minutes long. The sketch features Hilary (played by Kate
McKinnon), Bill (played by Darrell Hammond) and Hillary’s personal aide (played by Vanessa Bayer).
The premise of the bit revolves around Hilary’s candidacy for the office of the President of the United
States and the best way to announce her candidacy to the world. The aide suggests that Hilary record a
video message with her own phone, reminding her that this election isn’t about her,and that a cell phone
video would be, “ … more personal and intimate” (“Hilary Clinton- SNL”).
It’s a funny sketch, but more importantly, it’s relevant and relatable. It has to be in order for satire to
work. Hilary Clinton is a very public person and has been for a long time. That’s common knowledge.
She’s been scrutinized for her role in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya in 2012 and for
her use of a private email account during her tenure as Secretary of State. Right now she’s a contender for
the presidency, and her more recent critics (and there are many) often accuse her of being insincere-
suggesting that she’s less-than-human and a phony automaton. In June of 2014, Charles Krauthammer, a
correspondent for Fox News criticized Clinton, stating that,
“She is continually crafting what she says,crafting what her position is going to be, crafting her conduct to meet a
certain perception, and when you do that day in and day out, either on a book touror campaign trail, or anywhere in
public office, you trip up because you can’t remember the last confection, the last creation of yourself that you put
together” (qtd. in Special Report).
Statements such as these are quite common in the media today- not just about Clinton, but politicians in
general, and are the basis for the satire about to be analyzed. So with that in mind, let’s examine SNL’s
parody of the candidate.
Again, this sketch is entirely about appearances and SNL’s view of the candidate’s public image. It
begins with Hilary sarcastically pretending to be nervous about running for office- laughing about the
easy job she has in front of her. The aide tells her that she needs appear more warm and personable..
Hilary responds by removing her blazer- revealing an identical blazer just beneath the one she’s removed.
It’s a weird moment, but this small act strongly suggests that Hilary has only one public face that she’s
conscious of- that there’s little to no difference (at least in her mind) between who she is and who she’s
supposed to be. She then practices a few vocal warm up’s. McKinnon purposefully overemphasizes and
exaggerates her speech patterns for humorous effect. “Hilary is a granny with a twinkle in her eye. Hilary
is a granny and she makes an apple pie” (Hilary Clinton- SNL). The lines themselves are quite revealing,
because (and without trying to drain all the fun out of the piece) here McKinnon and SNL suggest that all
politics involve some amount of performance and that Hilary Clinton is an actor too, and that kind of
message aligns perfectly with critics like Krauthammer and the views of her other detractors.
McKinnon’s impersonation is certainly over-the-top. It’s filled with wild hand gestures and
exaggerated facial expressions. She bellows with laughter over her own wit and charm. It’s pure mockery,
and it’s a little like watching a deranged caricature come to life. Early in the sketch Bayer reminds
McKinnon to try to look relaxed and natural on camera. McKinnon responds by baring her teeth like a
hungry shark. SNL’s audience doesn’t require or expect accurate impersonations from the show’s cast
members, and McKinnon’s parody of the candidate doesn’t attempt replicate the “real” Hilary Clinton-
whatever that means. McKinnon’s performance is like a performance of a performance- meaning she
clearly suggests that Clinton is an actress who hasn’t yet learned to act. At one point Bayer says, “I think
you may be coming off as a little hard”. McKinnon replies, “Oh shoot. What part?”,and Bayer responds
by saying, “Well, sort of all of it” (Hilary Clinton- SNL). McKinnon mocks Clinton, portraying her as a
crazy, self-obsessed, attention-seeking weirdo who believes that her current prestige is permanent and that
her acceptance of the democratic nomination is inevitable. One of the more notable, and funnier moments,
in the sketch comes when McKinnon turns towards the camera again- bug-eyed and alien-like and filled
with a kind of mad glee, and shouts, “Citizens! You will elect me! I will be your leader!” (Hilary Clinton-
The purpose of this bit is to get laughs, but it’s more than that. It has to be in order for satire to work.
It’s “ … saturated in satire, and not just any satire, but a brand of piercing political satire” (McPherson
42). The sketch does what all comedy is supposed to do- it exaggerates reality. SNL isn’t just mocking
Hilary Clinton. It’s commenting on politics, leadership, government, values, pop culture, current trends,
scandals and the part the media plays in all of it. SNL isn’t attacking Clinton. SNL is trying to make her
more personable, and “… satirists need to be personal for their comedy to be understood and
entertaining” (Thai 1). It’s a critique, but a helpful one. What’s really interesting about this bit is that by
implying that’s she’s disingenuous and calculating, they’re making her less so. That’s the irony. After all,
there’s nothing more genuine than the exposure of a person’s bad characteristics. Faults are impossible to
fake. McKinnon’s portrait of Clinton is borderline inhuman, but by emphasizing and embellishing her
flaws, McKinnon and SNL make Clinton more human. They make her more commonplace, ordinary and
relatable. To further emphasize this point, another great moment comes when McKinnon again turns to
the camera and asks, “Aren’t we such a fun, approachable dynasty?” (Hilary Clinton- SNL).
The bit satirizes Clinton’s approachability. That’s all. What SNL is doing in this sketch isn’t all that
critical of the candidate. It’s actually much closer to shtick than it is to an attack, and Hilary’s an easy
target. “Some PR experts say it's now open season on politicians because fake news anchors,late night
comedians, critical cartoonists and just regular citizens, all heavily armed with satire, have plenty of good
hunting grounds” (McPherson 42). SNL isn’t taking a political stand here. They’re not trying to come off
as pro-republican or anti-democrat, and they’re not trying to publicly humiliate the candidate. They’re
simply capitalizing on a preconceived notion about a public person. It’s just a joke, because “…political
satire chooses reports based on comedic value…” (Thai 1).
Hilary Clinton seems to understand this. In fact, she recently appeared on SNL in order to generate
publicity for her 2016 presidential campaign, and by doing that she was able to accomplish at least two
things- she was able to engage with a particular demographic of voters, and she was able to respond to her
critics. The influential power of mainstream pop-culture is undeniable, and it’s not lost on Clinton. Just
by appearing on SNL,Clinton allowed herself to be exposed while endeavoring to become more
approachable and influential.
Media engagement is both unavoidable and cyclical, and today, people act as both messenger and
receiver. Political parodies, satirical commentaries and pop-culture references are not only highly
influential, they’re absorbed and repeated over and over again. The influence of the media is everywhere,
and it’s all-encompassing. In an essay concerning the connections between modern-day politics and
popular culture, Kevan M. Yenerall, a professor at Clarion University writes,
We can use a short but illustrative reference from a film or comedian as a means of expressing something more
profound or complex, or to provide specific context. For example, you might recall Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton earlier this year when she was testifying before the House Foreign Relations Committee about the deadly
September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. At one key moment, when she was trying to
express just how unnerved and dramatic, stressfuland chaotic the scene was in Benghazi—and yet also convey the
effectiveness and limitations of public servants and Marines in difficult and dire circumstances —she referenced a
specific scene in Argo, the Academy Award winning film from 2012. For Secretary Clinton, citing a key, dramatic
sequence from the film—the manic destroying of classified documents as the U.S. Embassy was under siege—was
an efficient method of communicating a broader point with a quick pop culture reference. Thus, Argo became
shorthand for expressing a perspective about the performance of diplomatic and military actors in fluid, chaotic
circumstances abroad (94).
This is great, because what Yeneralldescribes here is a perfect vehicle for satire. Here we have a
prominent public official is being questioned about a highly visible, current, controversial and dramatic
event who while giving testimony makes reference to a Ben Affleck movie in order to clarify a messy and
deplorable situation. A parody like that practically writes itself.
So what’s the harm in mocking Hilary Clinton or any other political figure? Thai writes that, “…some
have argued that political satire encourages cynicism, trivializes politics, and promotes a narrow point of
view”, and that “… constant critique of political figures and media outlets can lead to skepticism” (1).
That’s a fair point, but what argument doesn’t offer a deliberately one-sided view of a situation. Political
humor is just that- humor. It’s not meant to be taken entirely seriously. So it’s up to individual consumers
to recognize satire and humor for what they are and to seek out more objective information elsewhere.
But the point Thai makes is that the majority of people aren’t doing that, and that the strong passions and
the clever word-puzzles of both comics and satirists are often distracting from the actual truth (1).
Of course both satire and humor have an effect on the larger social conversations, but neither really
detracts from the general knowledge this humor illuminates. How could it? Information will always be
useful. Satire merely provides people with an alternative view of the world, and political humor acts as an
equalizer between ordinary people and the political elite. There’s absolutely no shortage of information,
humorous or otherwise, in today’s mainstream media. Thai writes, “This meteoric rise has led scholars
and laymen alike to question the impact humorous news outlets have on politics. One thing is clear: Satire
has made politics more accessible, leading to more informed viewers who have the potential to form more
educated opinions and discuss those views with others” (1).
Wolfsfeld, Gadi. Making Sense of Media & Politics:Five Principles in Political Communication. New
York, NY: Routledge, 2011. Book.
Dir unknown. “Hilary Clinton Election Video Cold Open- SNL.” YouTube. Saturday Night Live, 12 April
2015. Web. 16 October 2015.
McPherson,Doug. “Beating Them to the Punchline.” State Legislatures July/August (2006): 42-43.
Academic Search Complete. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.
Thai, Anthony. “Political Satire: Beyond the Humor.” The Harvard Crimson.The Harvard Crimson, Inc.,
6 Feb. 2014. Web. 11 Oct. 2015.
Yenerall, Kevan. “Politics and Pop Culture: Citizenship, Satire, and Social Change.” Juniata Voices
(2013): 93-99. Academic Search Complete.Web. 11 Oct. 2015.
Krauthammer, Charles. Interview. Special Report with Bret Baier. Fox. 10 June 2014. Television.