How did Saturday Night Live greet the second inauguration of President Obama?
See for yourself: a sketch of Obama meeting the ghost of Martin Luther King Jr., with the famed civil-rights leader being strangely obsessed about Beyoncé. “I had to keep pinching myself. I thought I was having one of my famous dreams!”
Outrageous? Offensive? Whatever your thoughts on it, it was . . . odd, and by the historical standards of Saturday Night Live, not all that funny.
It also says something that at that moment, less than a week after the Inauguration, Saturday Night Live chose King, rambling on about Michelle Obama’s bangs, the sitcom New Girl, and Twitter hashtags, to be the sketch’s punch-line, and for Obama to be the straight man.
Skip past the tired discussion of whether Saturday Night Live is afraid to mock Obama too harshly and the claim that the show is past its prime, a conversation that’s been going on since the late 1970s. Let us widen our scope and consider that this recent bizarre creative choice by the writers, producers, and cast of SNL illuminates the dire state of satire at the midpoint of the Obama presidency.
Satire is ridicule, and we find ourselves at a moment where our most eminent satirists are having a tough time either finding good targets to ridicule, or bringing themselves to ridicule public figures they support, like Obama.
Satire requires a deserving target, and that target is ideally someone who is prominent (there’s no point in mocking someone no one has ever heard of) and perceived to be highly regarded, but who is in fact widely disliked. If you mock someone who is genuinely highly regarded, and/or perceived as vulnerable — wounded veterans, charities, children — the audience will hate you, and with good reason.
Of course, if you mock someone who is genuinely and deeply disliked, even hated, by the public, the jokes may or may not work. Could you ridicule a serial killer? Bernie Madoff? Bashar Assad slaughtering his own people in Syria? The genuinely detested figures in public life are safe from satire, because their actions are too dire to be a subject of mockery.
(You could imagine, say, a Sasha Baron Cohen sketch of Assad — fake blood all over his clothing and dripping from his hands — addressing the United Nations, speaking heatedly about Syria’s bright future. “Don’t let anyone tell you that people are afraid to invest in my country! My staff tells me that every time they walk around Damascus, everywhere they go, things are BOOMING!” But in that scenario, the real target of the satire is the United Nations, all too comfortable with treating ruthless dictators as legitimate sovereign leaders and averting its eyes from horrible truths.)
So the ideal target for satire is someone whom the audience doesn’t respect, but believes that other people respect. In that case, they’re not offended by the satire, and they in fact feel good that the subject is finally getting the mockery he deserves.
You can see why comedians latch onto Republicans as targets of satire. The comedians don’t respect them, they’re fairly confident their audiences doesn’t respect them, but they believe they’ll get some points for daring or edginess by mocking them and suggesting that they don’t deserve respect. Of course, mocking a Republican on a major network show is just about the safest joke imaginable; the only problem is that the satirist can easily find jokes about a target he detests funnier than they actually are.
The liberal inclinations of most comedians and comedy writers means that roughly half of the figures on the national scene can’t really be satirical targets. Any strong partisan or ideologue believes that the political scene is full of heroes and villains, and the satiric worldview doesn’t have room for heroes. The only way a satirist can salute people he perceives as heroic or noble or worthy of public esteem is by ignoring them.
The web site TV Tropes, which obsessively dissects and categorizes various types of fiction, summarizes the satiric worldview with the term “comedic Crapsack World.” Cleaning up the site’s language a bit, they define this as a world “made up of idiots, larger-than-life jerks, hapless losers who are victimized by life’s circumstances with metronomic regularity, characters whose lives are an endless Olympics of slapstick violence, and the occasional last sane man in an insane world.” They note that in fictional worlds that depict this — today’s best examples are The Simpsons, Family Guy, and South Park — the consequences of all the insanity and misfortune and chaos are not long-lasting; by the beginning of the next episode, the characters’ lives have returned to normal, and a new round of shenanigans is about to begin.