The joke might be on us

Published 2:16 am Saturday, October 25, 2008

Since the very beginning, politics and humor have been closely related. In fact, it was a cartoonist — Thomas Nast — who gave the American political parties their most indelible symbols, the Democratic donkey and Republican elephant.

Perhaps no modern entity has been more involved in mixing real-life politics with satire than the NBC show Saturday Night Live. SNL, as it is known, always seems to shine in election years, as its talented cast members show the ability to impersonate and characterize political figures. Sometimes, those impersonations become even more famous than the political figures themselves.

If you ask the average American who the Admiral James Stockdale was, you’ll probably be met with blank stares. But if you follow it up with SNL cast member Phil Hartman’s famous line, “Who am I?! What am I doing here?!,” you might get the response, “Oh, yeah! He was Perot’s running mate.”

Chances are if you name a major political figure of the modern era, you can also point to a SNL cast member whose impersonation became famous. Whether it’s Chevy Chase’s clumsy Gerald Ford, or Dana Carvey’s nasal-voiced “not gonna do it” George H.W. Bush or Tina Fey’s “you betcha” Sarah Palin, the line between serious politics and satirical humor has become less and less distinct.

Fey’s modern Palin impersonation has been a goldmine for SNL, which was struggling to bring in strong ratings as it entered its 23rd season on the air. Last Saturday, when the real life Gov. Sarah Palin shared the stage with Fey’s impersonation, an estimated 14 million people watched the show and it pulled in its highest single-night rating in 14 years.

There is no doubt that politics is a serious business. It affects our economic security, our national security and the lives of each of this nation’s citizens and even the people of the world as a whole. Why, then, are we so entertained by seeing such a serious subject ridiculed?

It’s telling that one of the traditional campaign stops for any presidential candidate is the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner. It is one of the few times that the candidates are together in the same place, outside of the debates. And in almost all cases, the candidates will give a speech that is humorous and light-hearted, often poking fun at themselves in the process.

It seems that we like it when our politicians are involved in jokes. We enjoy the chance to see their quirks and foibles exaggerated to a humorous degree. We all know that Gerald Ford wasn’t really as clumsy as Chase portrayed him, but that didn’t stop us from laughing just the same.

Humorous shows like SNL offer the chance to show the more human side of politicians, that they have their own share of stupid moments and embarrassing gaffes.

In other words, that they’re just like us.