The future of satire in a politically divided public

During the course of one of my university subjects, BCM312: Emerging Issues in Media and Communication, we were asked to select and research an issue that interests us. I have selected “The Politician” due to emerging trends concerning media and communication and how it is used and abused by politicians. Specifically, I am interested in the relationship between satire and its place in politics and how it has affected the current political leaderships and the consequential societal polarisation.

There has been a long history of political satire being used throughout the society with roots called back to the Old Comedies of Aristophanes in order to separate genuine political advocates from the frauds (Hall, 2015). According to Jamie Noelle Smith (2018), there are four prominent functions of political satire, which include the purposes of teaching, discipline and ridicule, news-gathering, and as a democratic practice. However, the aspect of satire that proves the most interesting, yet most dangerous, is it’s argued normalising effect.

As we live in the current ‘Trump era” of politics, tensions are highly strung as societal polarisation has hit a peak in a ‘left-wing’ versus ‘right-wing’ showdown. A question arises in how the media, and satire programs in particular, affected Trump’s 2016 election win and the moral implications of making light of his inflammatory comments and hate speech. Late night programs such as Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and more all played a hand in giving Donald Trump an arguably undeserved spotlight to spew his hateful opinions as fact in the name of comedy and satire. Although these programs are not the only perpetrators in giving Trump a disproportionate platform, there are those creating memes and tweets with the goal of normalising Trump’s bigotry. However, for the purposes of my research I am much more interested in the relationship between Saturday Night Live, Donald Trump, and his 2016 presidential election win.

Saturday Night Live is an American late night sketch programme that has been a long running point of reference for everything pop-culture. It’s an upheld rite of passage for the American politician to be mocked on the show or to appear on SNL themselves since 1976 (Smith, 2018). Politics in general has always been an ever-giving source of content and the 2016 election cycle was no exception.

Donald Trump’s long history under the limelight as a high profile New York businessman, means he was no stranger to Saturday Night Live or it’s show-runner, Lorne Michaels. Trump has been impersonated, mentioned and lampooned on Saturday Night Live for more than 30 years and had a seemingly civil if not friendly relationship with the show. So much so that on April 3, 2014 Trump went on to host Saturday Night Live when his show The Apprentice was just beginning and it was a hit in the ratings. He went on to host again on November 17, 2015 as a fierce contender for the Republican presidential nomination, a decision that resulted in a Latin-American lead protest running down 5th Ave from Trump Tower to the doors of NBC Universal Studios. Considering Trump had previously made inflammatory and fascist comments against Mexican people in his 2016 presidential bid this was unsurprising and long foreshadowed since the announcement that Trump would be hosting.

During SNL‘s 42nd season, cast member Kate McKinnon and guest star Alec Baldwin played the presidential frontrunners Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. Smith (2018) asks if the mockery of the obvious portrayed on Saturday Night Live was devoid of the crucial “underlying thread of social criticism and consciousness.” In contrast to more politically invested contemporary programs, the genre of fake news on Saturday Night Live has been largely emptied to serve the needs of the larger show, maintaining its status as just topical, hip, and unthreatening enough to attract celebrities and politicians, as well as a mass audience (Day & Thompson, 2012). This rather neutral mockery that SNL has historically portrayed could be seen as striving for an objective satire in an attempt to retain viewership (it is a tv show after all). SNL features impersonations and guest appearances from across the political spectrum whether the politician reflects the viewpoints of the program’s cast and crew or not. 

Satire is a slippery slope and trying to appeal with the widest audience possible when the views are so violently polarised can be dangerous – such is the case with President Trump. This then leads me into my proposed research question: Is there a future for so-called ‘objective satire’ and where do we, as a society, draw the line?


References:

Hall, E. (2015, June). The birth of comedy. History Today, 65(6), 10-17.

Day,A & Thompson, E (2012), “Live From New York, It’s the Fake News! Saturday Night Live and the (Non)Politics of Parody”, Popular Communication, 10:1-2, 170-182, DOI: 10.1080/15405702.2012.638582

Smith, J.N (2018), “No Laughing Matter: Failures of Satire During the 2016 Presidential Election” Honors Theses and Capstones. 381, 21-40, https://scholars.unh.edu/honors/381

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