Green Room

SNL and the Obamalypics: Only the beginning?

posted at 11:33 pm on October 4, 2009 by

This weekend’s SNL cold opening, in which Pres. Obama (impersonated badly by Fred Armisen) riffs over his list of non-accomplishments, may be a blip — or the beginning of something larger. Allahpundit notes the omissions from that list, e.g., doing anything about Iran’s nuclear program, but that is no surprise. Even including the infamous bailout sketch, the number of SNL sketches written with any sort of conservative viewpoint over the show’s decades on-air can probably be counted on one hand.

More broadly, while SNL always tries to cultivate an “edgy” image, the reality is that its treatment of the presidency has never had much of a sharp, satiric edge. Nor has it been based much on policy. Writing at Big Hollywood earlier this year, Chris Stigall accurately describes what the show really does:

Pick your high-profile candidate or president of the last 30 years and Saturday Night Live created a lasting and often crippling parody of their character and leadership flaws. Chevy Chase’s Ford was a bumbling klutz and Dan Aykroyd’s Carter, a smooth and smiling empty suit. Dana Carvey’s elder Bush was stilted with scripted throwaway lines. Phil Hartman’s Regan [sic!] was gentile on the outside but a calculating power-broker on the inside. Every year, every election they kept them coming.

Bill Clinton was a McDonald’s-starved sex fiend. George W. Bush was a cocky moron led by the cold, sinister Dick Cheney. Remember Ross Perot and his charts, Admiral Stockdale’s loony rants, and Al Gore’s petulant, haughty sighs? Michael Dukakis had bushy eyebrows and a losing attitude. Hillary Clinton was a woman desperate for power at all costs and Joe Biden is a slick-talking, loud, brash, phony everyman with a Cheshire Cat grin. All classic SNL created characters still sold on collector DVDs to this day.

Stigall had already covered the show’s treatment of Sarah Palin, which was much in the same vein.

That SNL treated Pres. Obama essentially the way it treated Carter, after months of sketches where wacky things happened around the cool, collected Pres. Obama, is not a good development for the White House. It may be, in itself, a small thing, but it is potentially a telling one. The sketch included a reference to Chicago’s failed Olympic bid, and — as an e-mailer to Jonah Goldberg noted:

Unlike much of the political and economic arcana that has illustrated Obama’s failures, this one comes in an area that tens of millions of largely apolitical Americans are very emotionally invested in, sports. This is the lead story on ESPN right now. Lots of people who to this day have never heard of ACORN or Tim Geithner or TARP are being exposed to a major Obama failure. So I don’t at all see this as just an “inside the Beltway” failure; it’s more outside the Beltway than anything that’s ever been laid at his feet before.

Similarly, it is a fair guess that much of the SNL audience is not glued to C-SPAN the rest of the week.

The fact that Obama has yet to accomplish much of his agenda, even with a Democratic Congress (a fact the sketch pointedly mentions) is bad for the administration on several levels. It encourages his critics, depresses his supporters, and suggests to the apolitical middle that Obama is not competent. The last is significant because competence is perceived as a non-partisan issue. Whatever someone thinks of the Obama agenda, his failure on so much of it to date reflects badly on him.

Competence may not be a voting issue per se (In 1988, Dukakis tried to run on competence to run away from ideology), but it can be a accelerant to pre-existing discontent as he makes further missteps, much as Pres. Bush’s perceived failure in response to Hurricane Katrina further fueled his waning popularity over Iraq. It is the sort of thing likely to leave a mark, subconsciously or otherwise, on the weekend when unemployment reached its highest point since 1983. It is not a narrative Obama wants to take hold in the popular culture.

Such jokes carry more political sting than than jokes about Bill Clinton not being able to keep his fly closed, as some could dismiss that as a private matter. Indeed, Clinton survived the Lewinsky scandal in large part because he could always talk about working hard for the American people. He also survived in part because the economy was in good shape. Here, Obama is being mocked as ineffectual in the midst of economic misery.

Of course, if Obama can muscle a government takeover of the US healthcare system through Congress, folks on the staff of SNL will go back to honeymoon mode. But if he falters, he can look forward to being the butt of incompetency jokes for years.

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It will be interesting to see how the Obama/Carter comparisons play out over the next three years, since the original SNL turned on Carter big time between 1977 and 1979, but then gave him a pass during the 1980 election.

Dan Akroyd’s Jimmy Carter in the call-in show skit was a man who was overly-serious, but portrayed as smart in answering all questions, including ones on drug overdoses in an early skit, but by the 1979 Three-Mile Island skit, the show had no problem portraying him as an in-over-his-head know-it-all. But the original cast left the show in the spring of 1980 and the new cast and writers, headed up by producer Jean Doumanian, picked to replace Lorne Michaels beacuse she was part of the “hip” New York crowd and was recommended by Woody Allen. Woody’s judgment then was as good as his judgment on Roman Polanski now, and the ideology of the crowd was every bit as mean-spirited as today liberals.

As a result, the SNL shows in the fall of 1980 took almost all of their shots at Reagan, as part of the staff’s hubris that they could help get Carter re-elected (Chevy Chase had already credited his Ford portrayal with helping Jimmy win the election in ’76). Of course, the 1980-81 season was so bad they fired everyone but Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy before the season was over, but quality control at NBC has gone downhill since then, while the ideology has gotten worse. So any attacks on Obama right now are probably temporary things, and the close it gets to the 2012 election, the more we’re going to go back into 2008-early 2009 mode, where the barbs are saved for the Repulican challenger(s).

jon1979 on October 5, 2009 at 2:07 AM

I saw this skit and thought it was neither funny, nor creative.

Breitbart ought to team up with some folks and start an alternative to SNL that actually parodies the left.

There is so much unmined comedy gold out there.

ted c on October 5, 2009 at 1:48 PM

I wonder if they will go after Senator Al Franken.

Dhuka on October 5, 2009 at 1:51 PM

Phil Hartman’s Regan (sic) was gentile on the outside?

Methinks that’s not the word he’s struggling for.

John the Libertarian on October 5, 2009 at 1:53 PM

Were she still among us, Emily Litella would be confusing Osama and Obama.

“Nevermind.”

Akzed on October 5, 2009 at 1:57 PM

Phil Hartman’s Regan (sic) was gentile on the outside? Methinks that’s not the word he’s struggling for.
John the Libertarian on October 5, 2009 at 1:53 PM

Gentile on the outside, Jewish on the inside, like corned beef on white.

Akzed on October 5, 2009 at 1:58 PM

His “Na, not really,” (after the “I’ll have to take drastic measures,”) where he flops back into the chair, had this depressed, dissolute feeling to it, that to me was the most damning part of the whole video. More than anything else in the video, it communicated, “I’m not a serious person, and I’m not serious about this job.” Given how close that is to the truth, it’s a powerful indictment.

smellthecoffee on October 5, 2009 at 2:04 PM

SNL: Still Not Laughing…

lawtwin on October 5, 2009 at 2:05 PM

The big question is will they go after Dear Liar again this weekend.

I am surprised they haven’t done a Glenn Beck skit. I enjoy his shows, but he can be a target rich environment.

rbj on October 5, 2009 at 2:07 PM

I didn’t think this skit was from the conservative viewpoint at all. My reaction is that the far left of SNL are upset that he hasn’t already accomplished all the liberal ideals they thought he should.

Critical yes, but from the liberal point of view.

Ann on October 5, 2009 at 2:12 PM

Does anybody remember the skit where the Ted Kennedy character shows up, dripping wet, with seaweed on his shoulder and completely disoriented? Who was playing him?

My wife bought me the first season of SNL and I was delighted – until I watched it. Lord, they were awful! Why did I remember them as funny?

Cricket624 on October 5, 2009 at 2:23 PM

Phil Hartman’s Regan [sic!] was gentile on the outside …

Somebody can’t spell.
And can’t tell the difference between gentile and genteel … or something.

MetaThought on October 5, 2009 at 2:28 PM

I am surprised they haven’t done a Glenn Beck skit. I enjoy his shows, but he can be a target rich environment.

rbj on October 5, 2009 at 2:07 PM

They did. Obama/Aroma. It was pretty hilarious.

John the Libertarian on October 5, 2009 at 2:29 PM

That SNL treated Pres. Obama essentially the way it treated Carter, after months of sketches where wacky things happened around the cool, collected Pres. Obama, is not a good development for the White House.

Admittedly it’s been a long time, and I saw only re-runs, but I don’t remember SNL treating Carter like a ‘do-nothing’ President. They made him look like a complete bungler… trying to personally clean up Three Mile Island and getting himself irradiated; and later going to “referree” Third World elections, and being treated like a child by dictators.

If even this relatively inept crew turned that kind of satire on Barak Hussien Obama’s short but astoundingly checkered career…

Well, it’s kind of hard to even imagine what that would be like. Trying to parady an inveterate narcissist is like mocking the intelligence of a retarded person. Not that it would matter, anyway. If they tried it, they’d probably be off the air faster than Venezuela Cable News.

logis on October 5, 2009 at 2:34 PM

PopCult geek tidbit of the day: SNL didn’t give Carter a
break in 1980; they weren’t on the air for most of the campaign. That was the period when the original crew quit en masse and the new crew was given many, many months to get on the air. The first show didn’t go on until a week or two after election day.

Good luck finding any of that 1980-81 season, BTW. It’s been suppressed like the NYT would an Obama scandal scoop.

The Lone Platypus on October 5, 2009 at 2:36 PM

Great write up, Karl.

All those liberal soccer and baseball parents who say that everyone wins, there are no losers, behold Obama.

Rush just mentioned that Valerie Jarrett is crying “bad intelligence report”–they were led to believe that Obama only needed to show up to win the IOC vote for Chicago.

Bad intel?

The UN and Bush based our consensus against Saddham Hussein on the BEST INTELLIGENCE AVAILABLE FROM ALL INTERNATIONAL SOURCES, that Iraq was building WMD. Following the US alliance invasion (during which time anything could have been buried anywhere in that vast desert of sand), no stockpiles of ready-to-go WMD were unveiled. And Obama screamed bloody murder that we pursued our enemy based upon the BEST INTELLIGENCE AVAILABLE, not just Bush’s CIA intel, but French, German, British, Israeli, and ALL of our allies intelligence, even the UN determination.

Now Obama (Jarrett) wants sympathy for trusting non-existent (beyond internally fabricated whole cloth) intelligence. Sick pussy.

The way Obama played his hand with the Olympics (Special and Copenhagen IOC) is what the world now uses to determine how to use and abuse Obama and America. China has already proven their affectionate affiliation with N.Korea’s nuclear missile policies, as their leaders just exchanged a public hug. And for 30 years, Iran has evaded all of American presidents’ negotiated demands to prevent Iranian nuclear missile power. Russia has enabled Iran, and is not about to side with Obama when that is to side with America. As with China and N.Korea, you’ll see the leaders of Russia and Iran embrace before you’ll see ANY of them embrace Obama.

I was listening to Fred Thompson discuss the Obama’s miscalculations against McChrystal and Afghanistan. The world is watching Obama, and not just laughing at him. Our enemies are calculating exactly how to defeat him, knowing that he’s an ill informed push-over in their hands, if not ours. Obama has no excuses for his own wrong plays.

Backtrack, as soon as Obama released the news that he’d met with McChrystal for 20 minutes on the Air Force One in London, I KNEW Obama had used the opportunity to brow beat his General. There is no way that Obama would willingly learn a lesson from McChrystal, to be briefed on the report that Obama ordered yet refuses to read.

My question remains, since McChrystal is the NATO General in charge of Afghanistan, not simply of our US forces there, then by what authority does Obama presume to order the NATO Commander in Afghanistan to not discuss matters with the specific NATO allies involved?

maverick muse on October 5, 2009 at 2:38 PM

MetaThought @ 2:28

gentile, like David called Goliath the uncircumcised Philistine–hope that was referencing Phil Hartman as the gentile on the outside (not Reagan since that was misspelled).

maverick muse on October 5, 2009 at 2:43 PM

Does anybody remember the skit where the Ted Kennedy character shows up, dripping wet, with seaweed on his shoulder and completely disoriented? Who was playing him?

Cricket624 on October 5, 2009 at 2:23 PM

I remember that one. Bill Murray played Ted. The skit was done at a time when there was a lot of speculation as to whether Kennedy would enter the presidential race. His character in the skit had scheduled a press conference and Bill Murray showed up in the condition you described. They asked where his wife was and he said, “I think she’s still in the, uh, car.” Everybody thought the worst until his wife (Jane Curtin) showed up and explained that they got caught in a traffic jam, and Ted was afraid they wouldn’t make it to the press conference on time so he jumped out of the car and swam Boston Harbor.

At this point it was time for the big announcement. Murray stepped to the microphone and said, “At this time I would like to announce, Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!”

backwoods conservative on October 5, 2009 at 2:51 PM

His “Na, not really,” (after the “I’ll have to take drastic measures,”) where he flops back into the chair, had this depressed, dissolute feeling to it, that to me was the most damning part of the whole video. More than anything else in the video, it communicated, “I’m not a serious person, and I’m not serious about this job.” Given how close that is to the truth, it’s a powerful indictment.

smellthecoffee on October 5, 2009 at 2:04 PM

I didn’t think this skit was from the conservative viewpoint at all. My reaction is that the far left of SNL are upset that he hasn’t already accomplished all the liberal ideals they thought he should.

Critical yes, but from the liberal point of view.

Ann on October 5, 2009 at 2:12 PM

I think both of these are correct. It was told from the liberal point of view, not conservatives. They were chastising their “man” for failing to follow through.

But I also agree with the first part, that for me the “most damning” part of the thing was where he said “Nah, not really!”, kicks back, laughs and almost giggles like a little kid playing a role as “President”. It was like the man in the office was having a big ‘ol party and playtime with all federal benefits he gets as president, and was laughing off the real responsibilities. And to me, that resonated. And NOT in a good way. Here’s to hoping the rest of “middle America” take it the same way!

Highlar on October 5, 2009 at 3:01 PM

This was Special Olympics for the Obamas.

No medals for him or Michele.

Meremortal on October 5, 2009 at 3:01 PM

Of course, if Obama can muscle a government takeover of the US healthcare system through Congress, folks on the staff of SNL will go back to honeymoon mode.

I think that depends on what kind of health insurance they themselves carry. I don’t know if they get benefits through NBC. If they do, their coverage is in danger.

Buy Danish on October 5, 2009 at 3:12 PM

as he makes further missteps, much as Pres. Bush’s perceived failure in response to Hurricane Katrina

Why doesn’t the media juxtapose Obama’s Copenhagen grandstanding against his AWOL status during the tsunami disaster in American Samoa?

Can anyone imagine President Bush getting such a pass?

Terp Mole on October 5, 2009 at 3:18 PM

This was Special Olympics for the Obamas.

No medals for him or Michele.

Meremortal on October 5, 2009 at 3:01 PM

Everyone I know who watched the media circus buildup to this assumed it had to be a setup. Why else make such a gigantic deal out of something that had no clear political constituency outside of the Daley administration?

After Obama’s massive corporate welfare program, Obamacare was supposed to be his huge moonbat kiss-and-make-up present. But now that’s bogged down and when you count the contestable Democrat seats in Congress, it appears to be DOA.

All I can think about now is what lame ass stunt will Obama try NEXT to prove that he can accomplish something – anything – besides corporate handouts?

logis on October 5, 2009 at 3:25 PM

You will know it over when they start to poke fun at Michelle

J_Crater on October 5, 2009 at 3:26 PM

They did. Obama/Aroma. It was pretty hilarious.

John the Libertarian on October 5, 2009 at 2:29 PM

Ah, thanks. I must have missed it.

rbj on October 5, 2009 at 3:28 PM

The only comedy sketch I remember from that era was on Fridays in which Melanie Chartoff, as the news anchor, made some remark about getting screwed out of her vote because they called it for Reagan before the polls were closed in California.

MsGail61 on October 5, 2009 at 4:20 PM

Karl … this article needn’t have been written – you’re analyzing way too much.

Firstly – there’s an assumption here that losing the olympics will somehow alert this huge politically blind mass of Americans that Obama might be incompetant. Here’s the problem with that assumption – there is no HUGE politically blind mass in America anymore. Look at the polls – the nation is polarized with not a lot of middle ground – people are watching now and people know what’s going on. Losing the olympics isn’t going to be the alarm that sets people into motion. Sorry – it just isn’t.

Second – is Ogabe’s credibility going down? Hell – that’s an understatement. The man has a reverse midas touch – he only retains credibilty with his hard core supporters at this point – and that won’t last long if he can produce something they want (like government run health care).

Of course – to produce anything for his base – he has to first demonstrate the political skillz to get his party under control. Did someone say “political skillz”?? Oh yeah – I did – what I’m talking about is the kind of skillz he demonstrated HE DOES NOT HAVE when ran off to Copenhagen to throw his whole wad down on the olympics.

THAT … the political impotence of this President – is the only story you get from the Olympics fiasco.

As far as SNL goes? Meh.

HondaV65 on October 5, 2009 at 4:22 PM

Firstly – there’s an assumption here that losing the olympics will somehow alert this huge politically blind mass of Americans that Obama might be incompetant. Here’s the problem with that assumption – there is no HUGE politically blind mass in America anymore.

That’s highly debatable, but even so, the middle doesn’t have to be HUGE to be decisive.

Karl on October 5, 2009 at 8:07 PM