Cortney O'Brien

This article first appeared in the January issue of Townhall Magazine.

In October, shortly after her controversial MTV Video Music Awards act, Miley Cyrus hosted an episode of “Saturday Night Live.” She gave audiences another R-rated performance by donning a brown wig to cover her blond Mohawk and grinding to the song, “We Did Stop”—a spoof of her summer hit, “We Can’t Stop.”

Who was Cyrus supposed to be?

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), partying with a flamboyant Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), portrayed by cast member Taran Killam. Bachmann (Cyrus) and Boehner (Killiam) were celebrating the successful shutdown of the federal government, thus proving they could “do whatever they want.”

Ha.

Politically themed duds like these suggest that SNL’s producers may have an agenda other than laughs and ratings. Certainly the show has mocked members of both political parties in the past, but history suggests the jokes have more often than not been one sided. The parodies may seem like they’re all in good fun, but survey experts, political science professors and students make a strong case that SNL can have a noticeable impact at the polls.

“The SNL Effect”
Kevin Daley, a junior at Canisius College who did undergraduate work on humor in politics, sees an inextricable link between comedy and Capitol Hill.

“Comedic impressions can have the multi-faceted effect of entrenching ideological voters while persuading undecideds—a rare feat in American politics,” Daley says.

His theory is corroborated by some empirical evidence.

Mike Dabadie, co-founder of Heart + Mind Strategies, a communications strategy consultancy, helps conduct a post-election survey each presidential election cycle to gauge the scope of what he and his team refers to as “The SNL Effect.” In 2008, they surveyed 1,049 voters to determine if SNL’s political satires had any influence on November 4.

“There was an absolute impact,” Dabadie told Townhall. “There was an extremely high viewership [of SNL] in 2008. Sixty-seven percent said they’d seen the skits.”

So, how exactly did the votes pan out?

“SNL in 2008 had a huge advantage for Obama,” Dabadie explained. “He had a 20 point advantage over McCain of those who saw SNL – 59 percent of people who saw SNL voted for Obama, 40 percent for McCain.”

These numbers may reflect that those who watch SNL are already likely to vote Democrat, but as Daley suggested, the show has the potential to sway independents as well. The positive impact SNL had on Obama’s 2008 campaign can perhaps be explained by the comedic efforts of one woman— Tina Fey.

“The Fey Effect”
The high viewership and political advantage for Obama, Dabadie inferred, was likely due to former SNL writer and cast member Tina Fey’s wildly popular impersonation of Sarah Palin.

“There was a media intensity around Palin and Fey’s character—there was such a likeness and a connection.”

Fey introduced her Palin impression to SNL fans on September 13, 2008 for the show’s 34th season premiere. Her faux press conference with fellow SNL alum Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton was then played on straight news shows for months to come.

In her best Alaskan accent, Fey spewed a number of airheaded statements and appeared more interested in winking at the camera than talking public policy. Fey’s ditsiest line, which Palin never actually said in real life, also became her character’s most memorable moment, “I can see Russia from my house.”

After NBC aired the skit, people started believing the “Russia” line belonged to Palin and not her TV doppelganger.

To some degree, therefore, the politician became more famous for her SNL character’s fictional taglines than any of her actual policy stances or accomplishments – a confusion which seemed to take its toll come Election Day.

“Sixteen percent said it did [impact their vote],” Dabadie explained. “Ten percent say it negatively impacted their view of the McCain/Palin ticket.”

Daley explained SNL’s reach in 2008, “Fey’s oft-mentioned Palin performances had the dual effect of confirming left wing stereotypes about conservatives while raising legitimate concerns about Palin’s fitness for office among independent voters.”

And SNL continued to attack Palin after Obama was elected. In 2012, the show aired a fake movie trailer called “Palin 2012,” that portrayed an apocalyptic world in which Sarah Palin was president, warning viewers, “Planet Earth is going rogue.” Did SNL make a ‘Lieberman 2004’ or an ‘Edwards 2008?’ horror film? Nope.

Surprising Confessions

SNL has mocked its share of Democratic politicians too. Cast member Jay Pharoah, for instance, recently parodied President Obama as a clueless bystander unaware of his own health care
law. However, such hits on Democrats are the exception, not the rule.

Former SNL prime time player Chevy Chase has even admitted that harming Republicans drove his bumbling portrayal of President Gerald Ford. Ford, who played linebacker for the University of Michigan, was among the fittest presidents the United States has ever had. But Chase somehow managed to make Americans believe Ford used his ties as Kleenexes, walked into walls, and fell off ladders. “He turned one of our most athletic presidents ever into a guy who couldn’t walk and chew gum,” Dr. Kevin Hardwick, a political science professor at Canisius College, told Townhall.

In the opening skit of one particular episode, Ford (Chase), clumsily fell down a whole flight of stairs before announcing, “Live from New York…it’s Saturday Night!” Apparently Chase didn’t mind almost giving himself concussions in his attempt to paint Ford as daft.

Days before the 2008 presidential election, Chase gave a surprising and brutally honest interview with CNN’s Alina Cho. Reporting on the impact SNL has had on politics since the 1970s, Cho introduced Chase by stating, “Some believe his portrayal of Gerald Ford as a bumbling buffoon cost Ford the election in 1976.” The journalist urged her guest to provide insight on this point and this fascinating exchange ensued.

Cho: “You mean to tell me in the back of your mind you were
thinking, ‘Hey, I want Carter ...’”
Chase: “Oh, yeah.”
Cho: “And I’m going to make him look bad.”
Chase: “Oh yeah. What do you think they’re doing now, you think they’re just doing this because Sarah’s funny? No, I think that the show is very much more Democratic and liberal-oriented, that they are obviously more for Barack Obama.”

Chase is not the only SNL cast member to admit that politics trumps humor at SNL.

Like Chase, Will Ferrell also pleased viewers with a wildly popular political impression that he eventually admitted was influenced by political ideology. As George W. Bush. Ferrell constantly made the 43rd president sound unintelligent by making up words such as “strategerie” and confusing common phrases: “I’m gonna be around for a long time, on the job, making the tough decisions 24/7—that’s 24 hours a week, seven months a year.”

Ferrell would later tell the A.V. Club in an exclusive interview, “I had a couple of opportunities to go and meet him [Bush], and I declined, partly out of comedic purposes, because when I was on the show [Saturday Night Live] at the time, it didn’t make sense to really meet the people that you play, for fear of them influencing you. And then the other side of it is, from a political standpoint, I don’t want to meet that guy.”

SNL producer Lorne Michaels, however, regardless of his former employees’ declarations, denied any such bias on the show. He told Cho, “We’re not partisan. And we’re not putting on anything that we don’t believe is funny.”

Whether SNL’s effects on voters are intentional or unintentional, there’s no doubting the show has the unique opportunity to spread a message far and wide. As Chase told CNN, “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.”

The 2012 Election
Readers increasingly alarmed by SNL’s political influence may find some temporary solace knowing it declined in 2012, along with the show’s viewership. Obama’s advantage with those who had seen the election-related parodies dropped from 20 points to 12, according to Dabadie. This can be attributed, in part, to the fact that the cast had no characters as strong as Chase’s Ford or Fey’s Palin.

That doesn’t mean the production team and cast didn’t work with who they had, however. Jason Sudeikis, portraying Republican candidate Mitt Romney, cast the former Massachusetts governor as an out of touch politician who couldn’t relate to middle class Americans because of his wealth. He first cemented this characterization during SNL’s 38th
season premiere.

Pharoah, playing Obama, opened the season by stating his campaign had a secret weapon: Mitt Romney. The camera then panned to Romney (Sudeikis), holding a town hall with voters, “I
understand the hardships facing ordinary Americans. For example, this summer, one of my horses failed to medal at the Olympics.” Pharoah then deadpanned, “Stick with what’s barely been workin,’ or take your chances with that.”

SNL’s portrayal of Romney as an out-of-touch politician reflected the real life efforts of the Obama campaign. In September of 2012, for instance, the president’s team released a damning ad called, ‘Heavy Load,’ which accused Romney of turning a blind eye to the struggles of the middle class, suggesting he was only interested in catering to the elite.

Millennials and Comedy
SNL’s political bent is particularly troubling considering where young
voters get their news.

A research study that Comedy Central conducted with TRU Insights and Insight Research, released less than three weeks before Election Day 2012, showed that half of Millennials get their election news updates from political satire shows such as Comedy Central late-night talk programs or Saturday Night Live.

Despite these numbers, some Millennials insist they are not so persuaded by SNL when deciding who gets their vote.

“I feel like their prime has passed a while ago,” Alexander Morales, a Guilford College student told Townhall. “During the past election, I did find some of their impressions amusing, although completely ineffective in changing my vote if that was the intent of their sketches. I really think that SNL is no longer the trendsetter for political satire anymore. I think that shows like the Daily Show and Colbert Report are contenders for that spot.”

SNL may be losing political clout with some of its viewers, but Dabadie still foresees the show having an impact in 2016.

“For two election cycles now, at a minimum at least 15 percent of voters polled said SNL impacted their votes.”

As long as SNL is “Live from New York!,” it will bring Capitol Hill to viewers’ living rooms whether politicians like it or not—an unnerving reality for conservatives considering the show has a history of saving its most memorable punch lines and outrageous impressions for the GOP. •


Cortney O'Brien

Cortney O'Brien is a Townhall web editor. Follow her on Twitter @obrienc2.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography