Sunday, January 16, 2011

Parody and Politics: The “Saturday Night Live” Paradigm

Saturday Night Live’s (SNL) broadcast of Tina Fey portraying the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, in the now infamous Katie Couric interview, is an artifact that lends itself to public discourse and is worthy of analysis.  Behind the presence of witty comedic impression and spot-on verbal and non-verbal cues, Saturday Night Live’s broadcast becomes the quintessential link between parody and political rhetoric, and the underlining ideology behind the artifact proves as a necessary component of contemporary United States politics.  Through ideological criticism, I will prove that the aforementioned clip represents a liberal, democratic ideology that seeks to attack the ineptitude of Sarah Palin as the Vice-Presidential nominee.

Artifact Description
One late September Saturday night, during the height of the historical 2008 United States Presidential Election between Senator Barrack Obama (Democrat) and Senator John McCain (Republican), the late night variety sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live broadcasted a clip that would forever draw questions regarding the link and impact of political parody and its rhetorical significance in political campaigns.

The clip itself aired during the opening scene of SNL on the night of September 27, 2008.  It starred alumni cast member and once head writer Tina Fey, portraying Sarah Palin, and veteran cast member Amy Poehler as Katie Couric.  The scene aired for just less than seven minutes and was “written by Seth Myers, SNL headwriter” (Scholibo 65).  Both Myers and Fey are the rhetoricians responsible for the parody.  While Myers has mostly remained in the shadow to Fey’s celebrity, rhetorical execution was only possible through a working verbal platform.  In essence, Fey is the rhetorician of non-verbal and verbal execution; Myers is the architect of the rhetorical frame; and America is the audience to which the parody was presented.  

It is crucial to identify who is being portrayed to fully appreciate the parody, while also considering the context as well.  Sarah Palin, the VP Republican nominee in the 2008 McCain Campaign, was a relatively political no-body until she accepted the Republican bid.  Fellow politicians, the media, and Washington insiders knew little or nothing about her except that she was the Governor of Alaska, which is far, far away from the beltway of D.C.  The press and media alike fell into a literal love-hate relationship with the VP nominee.  She had charisma, spunk, folksy banter, used or knew little political jargon, and was a pro-life, anti-same-sex marriage, Evangelical gun enthusiast. 

In a way, Palin was the female equivalent of George W. Bush in the 2000 campaign.  Nevertheless, the truth of what Palin thought and how much actual knowledge she had of politics, economics, and foreign policy was widely unknown.  The Republican Party limited Palin’s involvement and cooperation with the media, which ultimately turned out to be counter-productive to the campaign.  Dr. Shaun Treat, a communication studies professor at The University of North Texas, states: “this sequestering of a political candidate from questioning is politically unprecedented and, as Fey’s wildly popular portrayal demonstrates amidst Palin’s sinking poll numbers, probably counter-productive when the satire gets more play than the politician being satirized” (“SNL" satire of Sarah Palin feeds the media's "cult of personality”).  It was not until the Katie Couric interview on September 24, 2008, that Palin’s true colors were revealed.  Palin took Couric’s basic political questions, questions that were routine and any candidate would have been able to address somewhat cohesively, and in a matter of minutes, made it clear why the Republican Party kept the media from interviewing her for so long. The VP-nominee systematically stammered through the interview, often times referring to obvious pre-memorized paragraphs that took shape in the form of incomplete sentences and incomprehensible thoughts on politics.

The SNL scene parodying Sarah Palin in the now infamous Katie Couric interview has brought into question the impact of comedy in a presidential race.  In a public opinion survey conducted by FirstView, “two-thirds of voters saw SNL’s political parodies this election season” ('Saturday Night Live' Political Skits Make Real Impact on Voters).  Moreover, the survey found “that 10 percent of voters said they were influenced by the skits.”  The resonating political impact of these draws into question the inherent ideological nature of the artifact.  It is therefore important to conduct an ideological criticism of the parody.

An ideological criticism is a method of analysis that seeks to look beyond an artifacts surface to discover the hidden ideological assumptions of the rhetor(s).  There are many perspectives that have led to the development of ideological criticism, all of which contribute to a collective study of the philosophies behind communication and rhetoric and “looks beyond the surface structure of an artifact to discover the beliefs, values, and assumptions it suggests” (Foss 209).  Because of the explicit ideological tendencies of the SNL skit, an ideological criticism would best reveal the hidden assumptions, values, and beliefs of Fey, Myers, and SNL as a whole.

The section of the parody I will analyze will be a verbatim oral depiction of Sarah Palin’s answers to Katie Couric in the SNL skit as well as an examination of the comedic non-verbal cues of Tina Fey.  The said portion of the parody goes as follows:  “But ultimately what the bailout does is, help those that are concerned about the healthcare reform that is needed to help shore up our economy to's gotta be all about job creation, too (<>).”

The methodology behind revealing the ideology of a democratic and liberal ideal of the SNL parody will be based on both the verbal and non-verbal communication within the artifact.  First, I will identify the non-verbal presented elements that contribute to said artifact’s ideology through a basic observable list and correlate my findings to a non-verbal suggested element cluster. Secondly, I will articulate the verbal presented elements with the suggested elements of the parody by analyzing the aforementioned portion of the verbatim section of the parody.  Lastly, I will group the list based on ideological clusters that will provide an easily understandable framework towards the inherent democratic/liberal ideology. 

An ideological criticism of SNL’s Tina Fey/Sarah Palin parody effectively reveals the sketch to be deeply rooted in a democratic/liberal ideology that views Sarah Palin unworthy to be on the 2008 Election ticket.
In order to categorize both the verbal and non-verbal suggested and presented elements, I analyzed first the non-verbal presented clusters alongside the non-verbal suggested clusters in the SNL skit. 

Non-Verbal Presented Elements                                  Non-Verbal Suggested Elements
Stylish Pink Blouse, Short Black Skirt, Legs Folded  -->Woman in politics, sex symbol, classic cultural ideologue of feminine sitting posture
American flag draped in the background and flowers stage left ---> Patriotic women
Glasses, brown hair with hues of blond styled up above the shoulders ----> Professional woman
Lick of lips, constant smile, battering of her eyes, winking -----> Sex symbol, flirt, a distraction from the content of her answers
Slightly tilted head to stage right, excessive index finger movement and hand movement on both sides when speaking ---->Doesn’t have confidence in the words spoken, a ditz 
The artifact in questions presents a real depiction of Sarah Palin’s attire during her interview.  Her ticks and non-verbal cues are embellished and exaggerated to create a heavier comedic impact.  However, a cluster of those presented and suggested cues shows the rhetor to have a deep disapproval of Palin as a VP contender.  

Fey accentuates Palin’s wide, somewhat flirty smile, often acting out the trademark wink and battering of her eyes.  Such presented elements provided evidence for a suggested element clustering depicting a political sex symbol; a flirt, someone who uses their appearance and folksy, somewhat suggestive personality as a distraction from the content of their verbal communications.  When speaking, Fey portrays Palin’s lack of confidence in the content and credibility of her verbal presented elements by slightly tilting her head to stage right and excessively moving both hands arbitrarily while also systematically pointing with both index fingers.  This creates a comedic framework that is inherently a democratic/liberal ideologue.  The ideology sees Sarah Palin’s political and social ineptitude and lack of communication skills as key components to her lack of credibility and experience for the office in which she seeks. 

In considering the verbal communication present in the artifact, it is important to identify character traits in relation to the script.  In this case, the script is a representation of Palin’s message as well as a comedic tool used to illuminate her political incompetence.  

The verbal presented element cluster is as follows: the improper use of coordinating conjunctions (but), slight stammering, incomplete sentences, run on sentences, incomplete thoughts, improper grammar, pausing, and an excessive use of demonstrative pronouns (that, those).  While on the surface level the aforementioned clusters provide for a humorous comedic framework, but when compared to my findings regarding the verbal suggested elements, one will see how evidentially apparent the SNL liberal/democratic ideology becomes.

The suggested elements of the verbal cluster becomes more complicated and a further explanation of my clustering needs to be addressed.  When reading over the transcript of the interview, the incomprehensible thought and unclear message of Palin becomes clear.  Instead of breaking down the original transcript and identifying the various grammatical errors, incomplete thoughts, and sentences, I chose to revise the message in a form that represents what Palin was trying to say.  The revision is a systematic removal of incomplete sentences, grammatical errors, run on sentences, coordinating conjunctions, and the superfluous presence of demonstrative pronouns. The following revision allows me to better analyze the suggested elements of the SNL parody and how the artifact lends itself to an ideologue.  The suggested elemental cluster revision: “Ultimately, the Federal bailout helps reconcile those citizens’ concerned about the state of Health Care Reform and its impact on economic growth.  The bailout must also seek to create jobs.” 

When analyzing the revised cluster sentence and its message, it becomes apparent how little Sarah Palin understands politics, economics, and the global financial crisis.  From the suggested element cluster, it becomes clear how a liberal/ demographic ideologue is present in the verbal cues.  By using Palin’s own words during the interview, Fey, Myer’s, and SNL sought to illuminate Palin’s miscomprehension of politics.  

Through an ideological criticism of said artifact, it is found that SNL sought to expose Palin’s fallacies.  SNL used comedy to show that the Federal Bailout is in no way linked to Health Care Reform.The fact that Palin’s answer links the bailout to Health Care Reform, and Health Care Reform to a complete economic recovery initiative to stimulate the creation of jobs, is a fallacious notion.  Fey, Myers, and SNL’s ideology, although explicitly liberal and democratic, is also a perpetuation of Palin’s lack of political credibility and unworthiness to serve in the Executive as VP.

Incorporating the non-verbal suggested and presented elements with the verbal presented elements and the cluster revised suggested element provides strong evidence for the argument that SNL’s hidden political ideology is representative of a liberal/democratic ideology, which views Sarah Palin as an unworthy candidate of the Republican Vice-Presidential nomination.    

Through an ideological criticism of SNL’s parody of the Sarah Palin/ Katie Couric interview, one can see the true detest the SNL writers and Tina Fey have in regards to Sarah Palin being named the Republican VP nominee.  Using Palin’s own words and own character traits, SNL reveals Palin’s ineptitude's through a shared comedic experience that assumes an ideology of a liberal/democratic nature.  As Robert Hariman of the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern describes, “Comedy is both a part of the ongoing contestation of ideas and a critique of how they are being discussed – how the debate is being shaped by the characters, attitudes, emotions, social identities, discourses and media involved in public speech” (Wainhouse).  Satires, parodies, comics, stand-up comedians, political cartoons, late-night talk and variety shows such as Saturday Night Live, all have an inherently rhetorical purpose, whether that purpose is obvious or not.  Humor, satire, and parody would not be entertaining or rhetorically relevant to public discourse, if they were not intended to illuminate known or unknown truths.  SNL used a truthful representation of Sarah Palin’s character traits and illuminated them to the nation, ultimately imposing their ideology on the audience.
Work Cited
Foss, Sonja K. Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice. 4th ed. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland P, Inc., 2009.
"'Saturday Night Live' Political Skits Make Real Impact on Voters." On The Hill. 5 Nov. 2008. 27 Feb. 2009.
Scholibo, Corey. "Tina Fey." Advocate (13 Jan. 2009): 65-65. Academic Search Premier. 16 Mar. 
2009. < px?direct=true&db=aph&AN=35730983&site=ehost-live&scope=site>.
""SNL" satire of Sarah Palin feeds the media's "cult of personality," UNT communications studies 
professor says." University of North Texas News Service. 09 Oct. 2008. University of North 
Texas. 28 Feb. 2009 < close>.
Wainhouse, Olivia. "Satire important in politics, profs say." 11 Nov. 2008. 
The Daily Northwestern. 27 Feb. 2009 < 1/11/Campus/Satire.Important.In.Politics.Profs.Say-3535945.shtml>.

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