Saturday Night Live has survived for 35 seasons by offering up cutting edge satire that has often became the water cooler talk for days after. This weekend, SNL once again managed that feat by offering up some pointed satire on the press conference in China between President Hu and President Obama. Issues such as the spending on the economic stimulus package, the cash for clunkers program, health care reform and the huge debt to China were all presented in a satirical manner. Comedy often works best when it is both timely and can focus on real issues. Often effective satire works far better than any serious editorial if well enough done.
SNL began to sharpen it's humor attacks on political leaders when it debuted in 1975 as an edgy late night humor and sketch comedy series. Familiar targets ranged from President Nixon all the way to the current president over the 35 seasons. No president escaped the humor attacks. And even candidates for office such as former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin could not resist the urge to make a little guest appearance on the show, hoping to drum up a few votes and maybe gain a little more respect from the writers and cast of the show. For a while, former head writer and SNL player Tina Fay made a few guest appearances portraying Palin.
But in the deeper realm of things, it means problems for some politicians when SNL's humor barbs grow too sharp. It means problems and the response to those problems are growing huge when for example the current White House is portrayed in a manner where their grasp on the issues seems tenuous.
Part of the why a White House should be deeply concerned about how they are portrayed on SNL is that the program is something of a mirror of public opinion. The opinions expressed on the program are part of growing public perceptions. Yet at the same time SNL sometimes seems to lose fact of the seriousness of the issues a White House faces. For example, the current White House has to struggle with the most serious global economic crisis since the Great Depression as well as twin wars against elusive enemies. Even Abraham Lincoln only had the major issue of the American Civil War to deal with at the time. However, now problems grow more and more complex to deal with. The United States is only one of 191 nations in the world, and how to cope with only the American response to the global recession is complicated by the fact that other economies such as those in China, Russia and the EU all have their own way of dealing with the crisis and their response can sometimes complicate the American response.
In order to boost auto sales, both Germany and the United States both had limited "cash for clunkers" type programs that encouraged owners of older cars to trade them in for new ones. Russia, on the other hand, is boosting their economy by upping defense spending by a big 8% to make up for the expected 8% contraction in their economy this year. China, France, England, South America all have their own policies and programs to shore up their sagging economies.
It is very easy for SNL to make up jokes. Yet, comics often fail to see the complexity of the problems that a White House deals with. It is far easier for some comedy writer to write smug punchlines than to understand all the complexities of two major economies such as China and the United States dealing with complex trade and economic issues. Both nations want certain trade policies working in their favor, and a complex balancing act ensues with many hard negotiations.
Yet, SNL has entertained audiences for many years. And whenever SNL tackles important issues with satire it often seems that days of water cooler talk will follow. SNL may not have a total grasp on the complexity of the issues, but SNL does have a pretty good grasp on the public mood and perception of how a White House is dealing with those problems. From an editorial standpoint, SNL's read of the issues is an important read.