Political parody in the age of Trump

TIMOTHY KRAUSE [CC BY 2.0] / FLICKR
How Saturday Night Live is changing the face of political commentary

It all started with a beauty pageant.

In 1966, billionaire Donald Trump bought the Miss Universe Organization, which includes the Miss USA, Miss Teen USA and Miss Universe pageants. Since 1960, these all aired on CBS; that is, until Trump decided that he was unhappy with the network. He eventually sold 50 percent of the stake of the company to NBC in 2002. Not long after that, The Apprentice, which Trump hosted and co-produced, premiered on this new network. The show earned him $1 million per episode, and its success led him to trademark his notorious catchphrase: “You’re fired!”

In 2004, he hosted NBC’s Saturday Night Live for the first time and appeared in a sketch with comedian Seth Meyers (who would later become one of his biggest late-night critics). In the years between that first appearance and his second time on SNL in November 2015 — this time as a presidential candidate — Trump found himself in trouble with NBC. He got into hot water for peddling the conspiracy theory that President Obama was not an American-born citizen. But it wasn’t until Trump announced his presidential campaign with a speech calling Mexican immigrants “criminals” and “rapists” that NBC cut all its business ties with Trump.

Since his second SNL hosting gig, Trump has repeatedly slandered NBC and its long-running sketch comedy show. Despite the hosting gig (amid the disapproval of many), Trump later tweeted that the show was “not funny” and “one-sided.” While Trump rightfully points out that he is mercilessly mocked on the show, his reactionary tweets reveal a bruised ego.

SNL has a long history of political parody. The tradition goes as far back as 1976, when Chevy Chase portrayed President Gerald Ford as a pathetic klutz in a series of sketches. Chase’s portrayal reinforced public opinion that Ford was an “accidental president,” influenced by the fact that he was sworn in not because he ran for the position, but because he succeeded both President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew after they resigned in disgrace following the Watergate scandal.

In 1992, Phil Hartman poked fun at President Bill Clinton with an exaggerated imitation of his Arkansas accent and by making light of his tryst with Monica Lewinsky. Other famous imitations include Will Ferrell’s dopey George W. Bush, Tina Fey’s dumb-and-underqualified Sarah Palin, Amy Poehler’s overly ambitious Hillary Clinton, Jay Pharoah’s stiff Barack Obama, and now Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump — a caricature of a caricature.

It’s worth noting that up until our current president, not a single politician has taken issue with their comic portrayals. Ford said he was able to laugh at himself through Chase’s impersonation, and Palin responded with a parody of Fey’s character from 30 Rock.

Lately, SNL’s political commentary is not as cloaked beneath a ridiculous wig. It merely reflects what it sees. The show’s monologues have become soapboxes. Since Trump’s inauguration, Aziz Ansari was the first comedian to tackle his contentious presidency. Ansari ditched the tongue-in-cheek tactics and instead directly addressed Trump and his supporters. He referred to some of Trump’s supporters as a “lower case KKK movement” and called out those who have said things like “Trump won! Go back to Africa!” Somewhat seriously, he continued: “I think Trump should make a… real speech denouncing the lowercase KKK. [He shouldn’t] tweet about me being lame or the show.” Ansari finished on a thoughtful note by saying, “If you look at our country’s history, change doesn’t come from presidents. Change comes from large groups of angry people.”

NBC’s resistance to Trump through SNL marks a new instance in which the entertainment industry uses its platform to challenge the political landscape. Previously, sketches served to bring levity or gentle mockery for its own sake. Now, they’re protests. From a rhetorical standpoint, by acknowledging its former partnership with Trump, NBC says, “Look, we’ve worked with him before. You shouldn’t trust him.” Or maybe by outrightly denouncing Trump, the network is attempting to distance itself from him. Maybe it’s a mix of both.

Written by: Jazmin Garcia — msjgarcia@ucdavis.edu

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