Laughing Matters: “Saturday Night Live” Bush campaign ad, 1988

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Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter matters, too.

Lorne Michaels smartly maintains that everyone’s favorite Saturday Night Live cast is the one that was in place while they were in high school. The creator and longtime producer (with only a brief interruption in the early nineteen-eighties) of the venerable late night sketch comedy program is certainly correct in identifying the perception bias that compromises any individual attempt to identify one era’s superiority over another’s. Still, when I watch the redundant, obvious, soft-striking political commentary of most current SNL offerings that snatch a viral moment or two in the digital popcorn popper of our shared cultural community, I can’t help but feel that there’s been an unfortunate deterioration in comedic cunning since the mid-to-late-nineteen-eighties, when the program arguably hit a peak in that particular realm. Yes, that coincides with my high school years.

There are plenty of sketches from that era that get dusted off for various retrospectives. Some of them, like a presidential debate between George H.W. Bush (Dana Carvey, in the first instance of a Saturday Night Live impression superseding the public persona of the political figure) and Michael Dukakis (Jon Lovitz), justly hold a hallowed place in the lore of the show. Even so, viewed now, that debate sketch has the first stirrings of the blemishes that would plague future political sketches, notably a deference to catch phrases in place of punchlines and an overreliance on precise parroting of the actual event, lessening the capability of the piece to bore in to mine deeper truths. Instead, a sketch that aired two weeks later has long stuck with me as a more effective demonstration of the revelatory harshness that can spring from comedy. The sketch was brief and simple, favorably comparing Bush’s ancestral background to former presidents who were of “white, Northern European heritage” before highlighting Dukasis’s slightly different background, information presented wth a menacing undertone. The directness of the fake ad’s conclusion took the longstanding “Southern Strategy” of the GOP and made it explicit. The sketch was a clear response to the notorious (and, it must be added, repugnantly effective) Willie Horton ad run in support of Bush’s candidacy, yet draws no direct line to its inspiration.

Compare the plainspoken confidence of the 1988 sketch to the recent “Racists for Trump” parody ad which hits its points with the panicked, repetitive urgency of someone striking the ringside bell at the end of a uncomfortably brutal boxing round. The older sketch is marked by creativity offering a fresh, angry argument. The newer one is catching up to an already prevalent conversation, piling on with self-satisfied impishness that mistakes hollow provocation for insight. Even if I prefer the Bush campaign ad sketch in part due to a touch of nostalgia, as Michaels would suggest with clucking disapproval, it’s entirely possible I’m not incorrect in that judgment.

The original sketch can currently be viewed at NBC’s Saturday Night Live site.

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