I am of the firm belief that Saturday Night Live has an incredibly important role in crystallizing the impressions of the Presidential candidates. While any number of factors could be said to be decisive in a race as close as the Bush-Gore 2000 race, I really believe that Will Ferrell's portrayal of George W. Bush helped make his greatest weaknesses into lovable traits (e.g., "strategery.")
Much has been made of the decline of Saturday Night Live over the years. In 2005, the New York Times ran an article that I think correctly identified the main reason for the decline: after 9/11, the nations' humor appetites shifted away from politics--and SNL filled the void with celebrity based humor:
The skit perfectly summarized what has become the dominant form of humor on "Saturday Night Live": parodies of the foibles of hapless celebrities. In recent months, both Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan have appeared on "Weekend Update," which is generally devoted to political humor, to poke fun at their party-girl reputations.
Filling the SNL political void, the place for au courant political humor shifted first to The Daily Show, and then extended to The Colbert Report as well. Both shows had the advantage of being broadcast four days a week, and the pedigree of both shows attracted many of the best New York City-based comedy writers who may have otherwise ended up on Saturday Night Live in years past.
However, in this Spring's Democratic primaries, Saturday Night Live proved that it's still a relevant actor on the political comedy scene. After the writer's strike ended, Hillary Clinton benefited tremendously from both the "do you need a cushion, Barack" skit and Tina Fey's "bitch is the new black" monologue.
In my opinion, this was the result of an accident of timing that aided Hillary Clinton. Saturday Night Live was dark for much of the early primary season because of the writer's strike--and went off the air while Hillary Clinton was still the favorite. When they returned from hiatus, Hillary was down, and the stage was set for SNL to challenge the status quo, turning their comedic guns on Obama, the front runner. This was significant because Hillary was not the fashionable choice at all in the zeitgeist, but Saturday Night Live gave her boost—“strategery” redux.
One benefit of the polling inversion over the past two weeks is that Obama will now benefit from a similar accident of timing. Saturday Night Live is coming back on the air at the precise moment where Obama has seemingly become the underdog. This should, in my opinion, provide an opportunity—and political cover—for the SNL writing staff to tee off on John McCain and Sarah Palin—much, as I suspect, is the political wont of most the writing staff to begin with.
There is a second issue that Obama faces in the Saturday Night Live Primary: Fred Armisen’s impression of him is, to be generous, abysmal. He comes across as buffoonish and aloof. There is nothing remotely appealing about him. Darrell Hammond’s John McCain is a variation on his Dick Cheney, and not terribly likable either, but there’s no doubt that Saturday Night Live—like many other comedy shows—has really struggled with a comedic take on Obama.
I think SNL and Lorne Michaels recognize this. Before Hurricane Ike, Barack was set to cameo tonight. In many ways, this would have been a neat parallel to last year, where Obama appeared in a Halloween skit as himself (“And may I say, you make a lovely bride, Hillary.”) at a moment where he was looking weak in the polls as well.
It’s a bummer that he won’t be on the show. My guess is that, instead, the skits will focus on McCain and and especially Tina Fey’s rumored casting as Palin. With luck, the skits will take their shots at the Republicans, and Obama’s cameo will happen next week--just in time for him to take the early lead in the critical Saturday Night Live primary the weekend before the first Presidential debate.