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OPINION: 'Saturday Night Live' should be more careful about shaping elections


Alec Baldwin performs his President Donald Trump impersonation April 8, 2017, on "Saturday Night Live." Political sketches on SNL might be influencing presidential elections. Movie Stills Database

In this presidential election year, NBC's "Saturday Night Live" should be more conscious of its influence when depicting the Democratic presidential nominee to avoid giving perfect fuel for conservative attacks.

I would give this warning to late-night comedy in general, but "Saturday Night Live" has a record of cementing the public’s perception of a candidate through comedic impressions. Consider the cold open to the season 41 premiere on Oct. 2015.

At an unknown bar, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, impersonated by Kate McKinnon, blew off steam to an unsuspecting bartender, Val, played by Clinton. As McKinnon did a flawless impression of Clinton while sipping on scalding hot vodka, Clinton began to reminisce about her long, eventful years of public service.

Clinton-as-Val: “It really is great how long you’ve supported gay marriage.”

McKinnon-as-Clinton: “Yes. I… I could’ve supported it sooner.”

Clinton-as-Val: “Well, you did it pretty soon.”

McKinnon-as-Clinton: [staring at the real Clinton] “Could have been sooner.”

This cold open was one of many SNL sketches that year about Clinton that fed the image of her as a career-oriented politician doing and saying what was necessary to get elected. By reinforcing a negative public perception, the sketch made conservative attacks on Clinton more effective.

In addition to the portrayal of Clinton as insincere, she was often portrayed as robotic. This was a stark contrast to then-candidate Donald Trump, who spoke his mind, prided himself on not using teleprompters and was going to rid Washington, D.C. of entrenched and shady politicians like Clinton.

Will Ferrell’s portrayal of former President George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential debates portrayed Bush as a Texan cowboy prone to verbal faux pas. However, Darrell Hammond’s impression of Bush’s opponent, Al Gore, depicted Gore as a nerdy bore.

Tracking polls indicated that the public viewed Gore as the debate winner before these sketches aired, .  However, once the caricature caught on, public opinion shifted to perceive him as an overbearing know-it-all, particularly among the show’s younger audience. According to the New York Times, Gore’s campaign aides actually encouraged him to watch the sketches to improve his appeal and performance.

Given SNL’s ability to reach key demographics such as younger voters, it as a great deal of influence in this pivotal election and should be more cautious in its caricature of the next Democratic presidential nominee.

It may be objected that if the show is appears to be too outwardly liberal, conservatives would be angered. On the other hand, if it focuses on lampooning the current 2020 Democratic candidates more than Trump, it presents Republicans with the opportunity to sway key voter groups in Trump’s favor.

Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of Trump on the show is TV gold. A survey by the Morning Consult found that SNL’s audience is largely made up of Democrats with only 11% of Republicans watching SNL frequently. Therefore, it might be in SNL’s best interest to maintain a liberal skew.

However, as a result sketches may alienate those who hold conservative values. Then this validates what Trump has been harping on: National media is trying to undermine their conservative values and way of life.

But people on both sides of the aisle have to remember – it’s just comedy.

I’m not calling for SNL to end all of its legendary political humor, and people should not derive their political positions from comedy shows. It is not the responsibility of SNL to fix this politically divided nation; however, if there is any chance of voting Trump out of office, SNL should use its comedic powers wisely.

Ian Nowlin (he/him) is a sophomore studying law and public policy. He has minors in Spanish and Arabic.

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