“Saturday Night Live” just won a Peabody Award for its political satire during the presidential race, beating out tough competition in a year where seemingly every comedian declared open season on the candidates -- especially Sarah Palin.
The Peabody folks, who hand out awards for excellence in “electronic media,” said of “SNL”: “The late-night legend stole the election-year thunder from its satirical competition on cable and may have swayed the race itself.”
Even with the “may have” hedge, that’s a pretty bold statement. Did Tina Fey’s dead-on, wickedly funny Palin imitation really change the course of American political history?
Fey, who resembles Palin and quickly nailed the “Fargo”-by-way-of-Alaska accent, got her biggest laughs by comically paraphrasing the GOP vice presidential candidate’s own self-torpedoing comments. “I can see Russia from my house!” the “30 Rock” star gleefully declared in her Palin guise.
Satire, at its best, is a reflection of the times – we laugh because we get it. But determining whether laughter can change minds – and political fortunes – is an imprecise undertaking.
Did Chevy Chase’s klutzy portrayal of Gerald Ford – who, head-bumping incidents aside, had the strongest athletic pedigree of any U.S. president – sway the 1976 election? Or was it Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon and the long shadow of Watergate?
Did Fey’s Palin romps seal votes for Barack Obama? Or was it the Alaska governor’s own record and gaffes – not to mention her role representing the party headed by a deeply unpopular president during a time of war and fiscal crisis?
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The comics skewered Palin, but she had a relatively short roast in the national spotlight. The other candidates – particularly John McCain and Hillary Clinton – found themselves on the wrong end of far more punchlines during the seemingly interminable primary and general races, getting knocked around on “SNL” and elsewhere.
Even if Fey and “SNL” didn’t sway the election, they did get the last laugh, thanks to Palin – and now they have the award to prove it.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.