My wife has been enjoying the recent skits about the Trump administration on Saturday Night Live. I can see why. Even Melissa McCarthy has managed to be funny in her impressions of Sean Spicer. Until now I would have sworn that reports of McCarthy having a sense of humor were some sort of urban legend. SNL has a long history of generating memorable Presidential impressions: Chevy Chase (sort of Gerald Ford), Dana Carvey (Bush the Elder) and Will Ferrell (Bush the Lesser) come to mind.
But poking fun at Presidents has a long and storied history, and is probably a good thing. I enjoy comedy a lot, and I can safely say that every President in my lifetime has been the butt of a lot of jokes. Well, every President but one. It seems to me that almost nobody made fun of Barack Obama.
I thought it was interesting, so I did some searching. I found this NY Post article which has a bit of commentary from SNL’s Jim Downey:
Yes, data nerds, there is empirical evidence that Barack Obama gets a free ride from comics.
In a new book, “Politics Is a Joke!” three academics tabulated 100,000 jokes told by late-night comics over the last 20 years. They found that in 2008 only 6% of the jokes were about Obama (Palin attracted nearly as many jokes in four months as a public figure as he did all year). And those jokes had a tendency to be about as barbed as cotton candy. Example cited by Tevi Troy in The Wall Street Journal: Jon Stewart said Obama visited Bethlehem so he could see “the manger where he was born.”
In every presidential campaign since 1992, the researchers found, comedians aimed more jokes at Republicans than they did at Democrats. Overall, twice as many barbs flew at the GOP.
“Our job is, whoever is in power, we’re opposed,” “SNL” chief Lorne Michaels told The New York Times in 2008. Agreed. And so they’ve been doing their job badly. Says who? Says . . . Downey.
Now that he has retired from the show and gained a little perspective, Downey comments in “Live from New York,” “I have to say, and even [Al] Franken agrees with me — I’ve talked to him about this — that the last couple seasons of the show were the only two in the show’s history where we were totally like every other comedy show: basically, an arm of the Hollywood Democratic establishment. . . . We just stopped doing anything which could even be misinterpreted as a criticism of Obama.”
But I don’t know if this is being deferential to the Democrats, or to Obama. After all, comedians had a lot of fun at the expense of Clinton, and Jimmy Carter before him.
Another possibility was raised by no less an expert than than Dana Carvey, namely that making fun of Obama is seen as not PC and possibly racist. I suspect there is something there. For instance, NPR carried an article with this title:
Portraying Obama As Chimp Not Like Showing Bush As One
Personally, I think that regardless of the reason making fun of Obama was off limits, the fact that people mostly didn’t do it wasn’t healthy. Humor, particularly at the expense of the ruling class, is a safety valve for dissatisfaction. The victories that Obama provided the American people were sparse and weak. They were not great or grand, and they provided no justification for treating a leader like a holy man. And unearned privilege does nothing more than generate resentment. I think it created an “emperor has no clothes” mentality in a substantial segment of the electorate, many of whom had previously voted for Mr. Obama. I think that in turn helped elect a successor whose campaign essentially came down to repudiating Obama and everything for which he stood.