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Sarah Palin grits her teeth on SNL, Amy Poehler raps an instant classic

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

October 19th, 2008

My first impression of GOP VP nominee Sarah Palin’s appearance on Saturday Night Live last night? Well, I suppose the cold open was more fun than a moose hunt (says the city dweller who favors gun control).

While there was some entertainment value in the hall-of-mirrors aspect to Palin looking on as Tina Fey skewered her with that instant-classic impersonation, the opening segment wasn’t nearly as amusing as I’d hoped it would be (the Weekend Update bit killed, though, which I’ll discuss below). A pre-press conference request from her spoof campaign manager to the media to “be cool, seriously, guys, just be cool” and Fey’s always hilarious mockery (”And now I’d like to entertain everybody with some fancy pageant walkin’”) nothwithstanding, watching Palin watch herself being sent up was at least as uncomfortable as it was funny… maybe more so. Seemed to me like Palin was gritting her teeth through it, trying to suck it up and put her best “I’m a good sport” face on, yet filled with disgust on the inside… like a racist at a newly integrated country club:

Stopping by SNL has become de rigueur for politicians, especially in election years. Simply arriving on set doesn’t prove to me that said politician has a good sense of humor. Sure, it’s got to anger up the blood a little bit for Sarah to watch Tina portray her as a simpering idiot every week… but it must have been equally (perhaps more) frustrating for former Attorney General Janet Reno to watch Will Farrell play her as mannish and ugly in those infamous “Janet Reno’s Dance Party” sketches, too. Yet when Reno ended up crashing the dance party in 2001 to shimmy with a drag-wearing Farrell, she did so with the kind of self-deprecating flair that showed that she wasn’t just in on the joke, she owned it. (If anyone knows where I can find that link, please post it in the comments below and I’ll add it here.)

Last night was Palin’s moment to “pull a Reno,” to control that 30 Rock stage and flip the script. But for the most part it just didn’t feel like she owned the joke. In the cold open she came off as a bit stiff and detached, surprising for a woman for whom relatability and folksiness are among her strongest attributes. She was still the butt of the joke, now all the more discomfiting because she was standing right there, offering little in the way of cutting rebuttal. Take the bit where Alec Baldwin rushes up to Palin and SNL producer Lorne Michaels backstage and, pretending to confuse Sarah for Tina, implores Michaels not to “let Tina go out there with that woman. She goes against everything we stand for. I mean, good Lord… this is the most important election in our nation’s history. And you want her, our Tina, to go out there and stand there with that horrible woman!?!” Sure, Sarah supplied the nickname “Caribou Barbie” when Alec’s script called for him to forget it. But when it came time to reveal that she was the real Palin, her only retort was that Stephen was her favorite Baldwin brother. Ooohhh, burn? Um… not really.

As someone who finds Palin’s hard-right, anti-feminist ideology extremely disturbing, I certainly enjoyed the open on a political level. After all, how could it not be fun to see an opponent come off as the kid who just stands there and takes it when she gets picked on in class, occasionally offering some lame comeback that never helps change her rep? But on a comedic level, the sketch could have been much more effective if SNL had allowed Palin to actually drive the humor, not just smile vacantly while it was aimed at her. (Chicago Sun Times Washington Bureau Chief Lynn Sweet has the full script here.)

But as with most SNL episodes, the real laughs came during Weekend Update, when an extremely pregnant Amy Poehler brought the house down with a riotous “Sarah Palin rap” (standout lyrics: “I’m Jeremiah Wright cuz tonight I’m the preacher/ I got a bookish look and you’re all hot for teacher!” and “When I say ‘Obama’ you say ‘Ayers’/ Obama! Ayers!/ Obama! Ayers!/ I built me a bridge and it ain’t goin’ nowhere!”):

Hot for teacher? No… but for Amy Poehler, well, yeah, a little. Having seen the comic perform live countless times at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater, the improv comedy joint she founded about a decade ago in Manhattan, it’s no surprise to me that she’d deliver one of the funniest moments of the late campaign season. (In fact, for all the deserved props Tina Fey got her her spot-on performance in SNL’s season opener, the sketch wouldn’t have been nearly as brilliantly satiric without the pairing of Poehler’s disgruntled Hillary Clinton alongside Fey’s cutesy Palin.) But I wish Palin had offered more than just her mere presence in the building. Sure, she bopped to the beat and raised her arms when Amy sang, “All the mavericks in the house, put your hands up!” But imagine how much more in control of the satire she would have been if Palin herself had been the one to sing about how she’s “gonna put the nail in the coffin of the media elite” and “shoot a mother humpin’ moose eight days of the week”?

Let me be clear about something: I’m not knocking Palin’s lackluster showing based on partisan motives. I’m a huge fan of astute satire, and it would have impressed me if Palin had been able to offer up something with some real bite — even if my progressive politics were the butt of her jokes. No such luck. But unlike Palin’s only passable performance, John McCain has had honestly funny moments on SNL over the years, moments where he owned the humor, mocking himself and the Democrats simultaneously — like this Weekend Update sketch back in May, in which he urged Democrats “do not, under any circumstances, pick a candidate too soon.” When Poehler and Seth Meyers bickered in response, McCain deadpanned, “That’s right — fight amongst yourselves.”

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that McCain’s V.P. didn’t match his wit on Weekend Update. Palin is a disappointing choice for the V.P. slot, from her lack of foreign policy experience to her now-proven ethics violations as governor of Alaska (ethics probe report PDF here). Why should we expect her to be competent as a comedian when she’s hardly competent as a politician?

How do you think Palin did? Did you think she was funny, and I’m just missing the joke? Or, do you agree that she should stick to the campaign trail and leave the comedy to, well, anyone else?

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