Ozel: Commedia dell’Politica

Political comedy is one of the defining cultural features of the Trump era.

by Pelin Ozel | 2/23/17 12:24am

Remember five years ago, when the most popular television comedy characters on Saturday Night Live were Bill Hader as Stefon and Kristen Wiig as Gilly? Seth Meyers would introduce Stefon, who would recommend absurd places to go during the weekend, leading the two to end the sketch holding back tears of laughter as Gilly obnoxiously wreaked havoc in her elementary school classroom. Today, lighthearted comedy has evolved into politically centered comedy.

Melissa McCarthy as White House press secretary Sean Spicer and Alec Baldwin as President Donald Trump are some of the most talked about comedic characters in the news. What I find most interesting is the effect these shows have on the larger audience — the viewers who tune in weekly or nightly to watch. The show’s sketches have become such a sensation that a local newspaper in the Dominican Republic mistakenly printed a picture of Alec Baldwin from the show over one of Trump.

Some people first hear of political figures like Sean Spicer from Saturday Night Live. These comedy shows are not conventional news sources: they do not have real interviews, and they certainly do not need copious amounts of statistics — real or “alternative” — to get anyone to buy into their message. But what these shows do is make their audiences aware of current events. Importantly, through comedy, interest in current issues peak when the audience is exposed to these skits. People want to watch press conferences: they are intrigued in cabinet confirmations, and they feel obligated to follow current events to tune into next week’s episode.

Comedy shows are best at reaching out to a niche population of individuals who do not care for opening the news channel on their television or checking their phones for the next political opinion. In addition to garnering attention to the news, shows like SNL reaches a population that no other media source can: people who just want to laugh. Furthermore, this audience does not have to accept SNL’s opinions (or criticize it as a source of “Fake News”) to understand the message such comedy is attempting to delineate. The audience is cognizant of the ludicrousness of modern day politics. Exposure is the beginning of attentiveness.

Meanwhile, as the audience learns more about political tensions, the politicians being impersonated cannot reasonably attack in response. When SNL criticizes someone through comedy, the only way the individual being criticized can react is to accept the joke as is and be a “good sport.” Otherwise, the audience labels these politicians as unable to take a joke or have a laugh. There is pure brilliance behind this method of bringing attention toward politicians whose policies are polarizing. Not only can SNL writers address issues that are vital for the audience to know, they can attack the credibility of politicians. Everyone remembers Tina Fey iconic performance as Sarah Palin during the 2008 elections. SNL’s work helped tank Palin’s credibility and approval ratings. The political figures behind the show’s sketches are left attempting to save face.

The answer to expressing disapproval of such politicians to the larger public is not attacking them in interviews or bashing their “fake news” arguments but rather conveying dissatisfaction through comedy. Not only does this method protect from backlash but also guides the audience to be more critical when watching the news. Go make fun of the fact that there is no such event as the “Bowling Green Massacre.” Write jokes with Kate McKinnon playing an overzealous Elizabeth Warren. Although politics should be taken seriously, if we want the public to call these politicians out on their nonsense, then we need comedy. Comedy enables awareness for an audience that is not incentivized to turn on Fox or CNN. Comedy helps us target political figures. Comedy helps us act and get the public to speak against bigotry and dogmatism.