Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ghost Of Satire Past

Sarah Palin has helped push Tina Fey a few more rungs up the celebrity ladder. The moment Palin was unveiled as McCain's sidekick, Fey's name was mentioned across the spectrum, for obvious, physical reasons. Always happy to give the audience what it wants, SNL predictably featured its former head writer and Update anchor in last Saturday's cold open, the video of which is everywhere online.

I've received a number of emails asking, "Wasn't Fey great as Palin? Didn't she nail her to the wall?"

Yeah, I suppose. Imitations are easy, perhaps the laziest form of comedy, much less what passes for parody. Fey was already nine-tenths there on looks alone. Affect a pinched, northern accent, and you've got it. What SNL did once Fey got it was the typical lighthearted, breezy bit the show is known for -- shape the caricature (Palin's a perky dope) and repeat it ad nauseum, which I expect will happen with Fey's Palin throughout the election season. Palin's camp naturally said that the candidate found Fey amusing, and I've no doubt that Palin herself will appear on SNL in the near future.

This is network "satire," 2008. A comedy celeb gently imitating an emerging political celeb, who could very well be the next vice-president. Nothing too sharp or penetrating. Nothing that exposes the criminality just beneath the false, bleached smiles. Whatever it might have been a thousand years ago, SNL is currently part of the propaganda process, not making public figures uncomfortable, but making its audience comfortable with public figures. The routines are repeated all over the news channels and online, which drives home the perception that it's all in good fun, that those who seek to rule us aren't all bad, especially if they laugh along with the comics portraying them.

Michael O'Donoghue used to tell me how socially acceptable comedy was killing real satire. Comics wanted money and fame, and pissing on powerful people was not the surest route to success. As much as I admired -- hell, worshipped him, there were times when I thought that Michael was stuck in his National Lampoon past. I wanted him to write for the present. But Michael was worn down, aghast at what was considered "satirical," fearing that his style of cut-throat humor was passé, or worse, being dumbed down for wider appeal. No wonder he kept going back to that room where the likes of Doug Kenney, Henry Beard, Anne Beatts, George Trow, Sean Kelly, and Brian McConnachie were throwing knives with frightening accuracy. How do you maintain that kind of satirical aggression in a thoroughly corrupt era, where the jesters eagerly kiss their masters' asses?

Michael, you're not missing anything.

Today's clowns toss Nerf balls in a cluster bomb age. Don't hold your breath for "The Afghan Baby Book."