Political impressions, comedic chaos: ‘Saturday Night Live’ in Democratic primaries

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In 2016, after the presidential election of Donald Trump, it seemed to many viewers that there was no better place to seek requiem from the shock and confusion of the moment than “Saturday Night Live.” Throughout that year’s presidential primaries and general election season, it seemed as if “SNL” had kept at a consistent pace with the news, tackling current events with equal parts candor and joviality.

And yet, when the first “SNL” episode after the election began Nov. 12, 2016, audiences were greeted with a somber performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” by Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton. Before the character delved into the signature “And live from New York” to start the show, she turned to the cameras to give an assuring, “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”

For so many viewers, it was this moment that cemented the relationship between “SNL” and the world of U.S. politics, but in a much different fashion. “SNL” had a long history of poking fun at public figures, never shying away from satirizing those in power regardless of party affiliation. Now, instead of serving either as comedic escapism from current events or as undiscriminating satire of politicians, the show has begun to portray its figures with a degree of sympathy.

In 2019, “SNL” has adapted its coverage of politics since the 2016 elections. While the show has focused on satirizing weekly events under the Trump administration for the past few years, it has also begun to examine the role of several of the Democratic candidates that have risen to prominence over the last year. Sure, the show leans into impressions and off-handed jokes at the expense of the candidates quite often; but rather than serving as some sort of respite from the massive field of candidates, the show is often an accurate, if exaggerated, reflection of the Democratic primaries playing out in real life. It often encourages audiences to root for candidates as often as it pokes fun at them, bringing an adequate balance of sympathy and satire.

Through its emerging coverage of the Democratic primaries, one thing has become increasingly clear: “SNL” seems to have left the sardonic, pessimistic satire of the last general election cycle behind in favor of a more optimistic portrayal of the candidates’ campaigns. In the last election cycle, in sketches satirizing both the Grand Old Party and Democratic primaries, “SNL” often portrayed candidates as exclusively clueless and unsympathetic. More recently, the show has balanced its goal of poking fun at the candidates by incorporating viewers’ perceptions of the candidates; some are given distinct celebrity status, and every time the actors hit the stage with their impressions, the enthusiasm of the audience in the room seems clear.

Take, for example, the DNC Town Hall sketch from September of this year. Alongside fan-favorite impressions such as Larry David’s Bernie Sanders and Kate McKinnon’s Elizabeth Warren, the show introduced a number of clever and creative spins on some of the candidates. In the sketch, Cecily Strong’s Erin Burnett moderates a town hall with several of the candidates present. After introducing a handful of short, but winning impressions (Bowen Yang’s Andrew Yang, Chris Redd’s Cory Booker), she gives a hearty “And now, let’s meet the actual candidates.” In addition to Sanders and Warren, the sketch gave “SNL” an opportunity to give audiences some of the most memorable impressions from this season, including Maya Rudolph’s “cool aunt” Kamala Harris, and Woody Harrelson’s perpetually smiling, gaffe-prone Joe Biden.

More recently, “SNL” parodied the CNN Equality Town Hall, in which candidates discussed issues pertaining to the LGBTQ+ community. While the sketch hilariously highlighted a number of fan-favorite impressions, it was especially bolstered by the presence of Billy Porter announcing the arrival of each candidate.

Both of these pieces manage to highlight a major shift in “SNL” from the previous election cycle; rather than focus exclusively on holding these candidates accountable through direct humor and satire, the show often bolsters the candidates’ cultural power.

Moreover, what becomes increasingly clear throughout these sketches is the show’s emphasis on screen time for some candidate impressions over others. McKinnon’s impression of Sen. Warren has gotten a number of standalone sketches and appearances on the Weekend Update segment; Larry David’s Sen. Sanders has gotten less screen time than the character did in the last general election cycle but has still been a consistent presence this season.

While it’s likely that “SNL” emphasizes these candidates because of the sheer charisma and star power of the actors portraying them, the show often seems to have a pulse on national polls. In addition to incorporating the typical discourse on candidate popularity, the show seems to be setting up major players as we head into the election year.

Comedy across platforms plays a key role in the cultural image of so many political figures, and “SNL” is far from the exception — in fact, it might be the biggest actor in the entertainment industry’s portrayal of the Democratic primaries. With 2020 just around the corner, fans of satire and political comedy can expect a more sympathetic — and perhaps more activist — season of “Saturday Night Live” than ever before.

Anagha Komaragiri is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @aaanaghaaa.