Saturday Night Live has always been a paradigm for cable television political satire. It seems that people often know more about the politically charged cold-opens than they do about the events on which they are based. There has always been a separation from the genuine intention of the individuals, and their obviously satirical portrayals on the television show. Nobody actually supposes that George W. Bush would go to a meeting in an American flag speedo, as Will Ferrell depicted. Nobody really thinks that Sarah Palin can actually see Russia from her house. It is definitely not the case that former president Barack Obama turns into Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson when he gets angry. These are exaggerations, jokes, extreme sarcasm intended to poke fun at some of the quirks of our politicians. It’s not often that the satire goes beyond a silly caricature or a mildly cutting critique. It’s even less often that either the candidates or their parody counterparts cross the line of implicit political correctness. The new administration, however, seems not only to be ushering in a new governing cohort, but also a new manifestation of satire.
First, let’s look at the way President Donald Trump is being “satired.” Much of the dialogue and scripting from the debate episodes are intensely close paraphrases, if not direct quotes from Trump himself. This indicates that SNL need only quote the man for comedic material. His ideology, presentation, mannerisms and general character are so similar to a staged comedic television portrayal that they are almost identical. For example, if I were to give you a quote and instruct you to discern whether it was real or from SNL, how accurate would you be? Let’s try “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed” or “Wherever Fox News is, thank you.” I’ll give you a hint: they’re both quotes from our current president. Of course, many presidents and politicians alike have been known to say idiotic things, but Trump takes it to an entirely new level. His degree of blatant ignorance, lack of decorum and horrible haircut make him almost inherently a satire.
The most alarming thing about this growing closeness between truth and hyperbole is the nature of the popular ideology. Because of the actual things being said by real politicians, the actors at SNL have material suggestive of aggressive bigotry, publicized and reinforced lying, wanton disregard for the constitutional rights of Americans, etc. This strange thing is happening where, for example, Jeff Sessions will say something extremely racist and outdated; SNL will use it for material, and the outdated, extremely racist sentiment will be disseminated throughout the public. This is interesting because it allows the actors to directly embody and poke fun at some very serious and grotesque aspects of the administration. Whether you find this absolutely endearing and hilarious, or absolutely revolting and terrifying, we can all agree that it at least harbors a kind of dismal nature and perhaps shows us a part of our society that is not as rational, tolerant and civilized as we would like to believe. Perhaps it shows us the presence of something that is much more akin to what the “elite liberal media” would usually consider existent only in the realm of parody and farce.
The portrayal of Trump’s entire jury to the White House has been unlike any other. First, the extent to which the man himself is merely a superficial portrayal of a politician greatly influences the nature of a secondary superficial portrayal. Second, the political ideology and information being spread by the administration have set a precedent for the kinds of things that can be joked about, mentioned or evoked in a setting like cable television. The result? The line between reality and satire has become almost indistinguishable, and our society is inundated with disorienting and often offensive executive propaganda.