Sunday, September 28, 2008

TV: One ticket gets a pass, the other doesn't

The stereotype is the Republicans don't have a sense of humor but Democrats do. (The stereotype leaves out all people who are not part of the two-party system.) Last week, one stereotype was re-enforced and another was debunked.


As we noted last week, Saturday Night Live did a classic sketch. After the election, it will probably join the canon of SNL great moments that did not involve a recurring character. But it will have to wait until then because some Republicans cried foul.

The skit had James Franco playing an assignment editor at The New York Times. He informed a large gathering of reporters that, for the next six weeks, they'd be going to Alaska and, basically, looking for dirt on Governor Sarah Palin who is the GOP's vice presidential nominee.

It was all too much for the declawed tabby's at The Times. One fretted repeatedly over Polar Bear attacks. Others assumed they'd travel around, as they do in NYC, by taxi. None could identify a snow mobile or a shot gun when shown photos of them.

The joke was that The New York Times is staffed by an inbred, elitist group of people who reinforce their own stereotypes, add a lot of rumor into the mix as 'fact' and generally miss the point in the bulk of what they cover.

As part of getting that across, one reporter in the skit repeatedly wanted to insist that Alaska was so 'backwater' that they must all sleep with one another, wanted to offer his belief that Todd Palin (the governor's husband) must sleep with his daughters. The skit ends with a headline noting that rumor could not be disproved and it was the perfect encapsulation of the paper that falsely smeared Wen Ho Lee among others.

But some Republicans took to their blogs immediately and insisted that Saturday Night Live was actually advancing a rumor of incest. They missed the point of the skit. In fairness to those who cried "foul," it needs to be noted that Saturday Night Live has long carried water for Barack Obama. With the show's history from last season and the indicators from this season, it's understandable that some Republicans might be thin skinned when it comes to sketches.

But in crying "foul," they denied themselves a viral moment that would have resonated with many. By crying "foul," Saturday Night Live not only pulled the skit from their website, they also demanded YouTube take it down. We're not voting for the McCain-Palin ticket so maybe we're missing some strategy on the part of those Republicans crying "foul." Maybe they've got some longterm plan in which SNL pulling a skit out of circulation (it's still a part of the full show hosted by Franco and you can download it at a price at the SNL site) means victory for McCain-Palin?

If so, lots of luck with that. But for two who are not voting for either the Republican or the Democratic ticket, we're scratching our heads over the move and having a hard time grasping how this goes down as a 'win' for the GOP.

Scratching our heads was what we did repeatedly Sunday night following the Emmys as we went from party to party and were repeatedly confronted with shocked performers asking did we hear what Tina Fey said?

The first time, we wrongly thought we had and offered that while it wasn't an earth shattering acceptance speech (Fey won the Emmy for Best Actress in a comedy), it wasn't anything that was going to end up on a reel of embarrassing moments.

Only the first time were we in the dark. Tina Fey, after winning her 30 Rock Emmy, went backstage and declared, "I want to be done playing this lady November 5th. So, if anyone can help me be done playing her on November 5th . . ."

That's actually the moment Republicans should be screaming about.

They haven't. All week we waited for the Republican 'thinkers' to get what actors and actresses (three of whom were once on Saturday Night Live) repeatedly found offensive post-Emmys.

Performers caught on because they have to inhabit to a character and, pay attention, to play the role as required, they have to find themselves in the role. It may be a serial killer, it may be someone vile. But to be successful, they have to find some way to identify with the character they play, some quality that makes the character likable to them. This is especially true if it is a character you will play more than once.

Dana Carvey did a wonderful George H.W. Bush on SNL many years ago. He did that by exploring the character. His amazing performance did not result from necessarily agreeing with the politics of George H.W. Bush, it resulted from finding the humanity of the character. During the war on Vietnam, Lily Tomlin was once asked why she didn't do a character based on Pat Nixon and she explained that she wouldn't know how to relate to that mind set. Tomlin, one of the most amazing comedians the country has ever produced, knew that if you can't find a way to relate, you can't do a character.

Tina Fey can't do Sarah Palin. Not only can she not do the character, she shouldn't. And Republicans crying "foul" last week would have been better off calling it on Fey who should not be allowed to portray a character she has now indicated she is out to defeat.

Tina's remarks were offensive and they offended apolitical performers and they offended Democratic performers. (We only spoke with two Republican performers on Sunday night. Their attitude was that Fey's remarks backed up what they always suspected, that SNL isn't about having 'fun,' it's about pushing an agenda. For the record, that is not how SNL has seen their role in the past but we do understand why the two Republicans felt that way.)

As two have who begun the slow walk away from Fey (starting with the release of Baby Mama when we agreed with suits at NBC that if 30 Rock can't get ratings this year it needs to be yanked off the schedule), her remarks were embarrassing. For her and for us.

As we've long noted, we've been called out by friends (especially with Mad TV) for praising and defending Fey. The strongest criticism of Fey (from a Mad TV performer) was that she wasn't a performer. The feeling was that she might be able to write a pithy line (he said "bitchy") but she couldn't do a character. Prior to 30 Rock, Tina's TV duties were as Weekend Update anchor. We praised Liz Lemmon (offline and online) as a strong character and proof that Fey was indeed an actress. Maybe, as the man insisted, Liz Lemmon just works because the character is Tina Fey with funnier lines?

The slow walk away began when Fey gave an interview to Reuters promoting her bad film in which she tried to walk it back from her "Bitches Get Stuff Done" sketch when she guest hosted Saturday Night Live. It was cowardly and hearing that the studio was really, really worried because Barack allegedly had the "youth vote" and young people are the ones who buy movie tickets and, oh my goodness, what will this do the box office if Tina doesn't walk it back . . . It was all so damn pathetic. Fey, at the height of her strength, decided to cower.

That's when we began the slow walk away.

Then came the season opening sketch of Saturday Night Live which was offensive for so many reasons but we were among the few calling it out.

Let's go over what was so offensive about that skit since it continues to garner false praise.

The most basic point to note is the SNL cast includes only two women this year. (An all time low and a featured player is not part of the cast.) One of the two women is pregnant and will be off shortly. That would be the one who plays Hillary. As we were told last April by a writer with SNL, the show believed they had comedy gold in skewering Hillary throughout the lead up to the general election even if she didn't get her party's nomination. So the female character they planned to utilize the most is played by one of the show's two female cast members and she'll be off the show shortly. That leaves Kristen Wiig.

Sarah Palin was not a character SNL planned for last spring. She became a character they were required to do once John McCain picked her as his running mate. In that role, she is ripe for portrayals on SNL. With one of the two women already playing Hillary, that was obviously the role for Kristen.

But Kristen didn't get to play her, did she? At a time when women are less than one third of the cast and are too often cast in the role of the girlfriend (who gets little to no lines), there was excitement for Kristen (who is very well liked by past SNL cast members). This was going to provide her with the character, it was thought, that would elevate her up with Jane Curtain, Jan Hooks, Molly Shannon, Cheri Oteri and a few other female SNL cast members. (Gilda Radner remains in a superstar class by herself.) One of the first calls we got the day after the announcement was made about Palin was from one of SNL's big name former male cast members who said, "Watch and see. This is Kristen's moment."

And it damn well should have been.

But Tina Fey, who has her own damn sitcom that she acts on and writes, decided to be a glory hog and play the part. Among former SNL cast members, it's compared to Audrey Hepburn stealing Julie Andrews' role (My Fair Lady) and Barbra Streisand stealing Carol Channing's (Hello Dolly). It has created a lot of ill will because cast members remember how hard they had to fight each week for air time. It was Kristen's role and it was stolen from her.

Considering the faltering ratings (as a 70s SNL cast member pointed out to us) for 30 Rock, Fey could better spend her time trying to promote her own show, which so few watch, instead of poaching roles on another show. That's the cleaned up version of his profanity laced critique. Thing is, we agreed with every word he said.

A male cast member who found fame in the 90s expressed the belief that even if Kristen had sucked in the role, "So what? Do you know how many times we sucked?" The feeling was that Kristen was up for the role but, even if she wasn't, it was her role. He began referring to how Tina was known as "teacher's pet" and the worst suck up the series had ever had.

Fey's really damn lucky that the Emmy voting took place before she stole the role from Kristen. Looking around after her name was announced, we were surprised by how many were not applauding (we applauded).

The competition for air time at SNL is intense and Lorne (unlike Dick Ebersol) loves pitting performers against one another. He's always thought it keeps them 'on their toes' and maintains the 'high energy' needed for a live broadcast. But performers tend to view it differently, especially after they leave the show for other opportunities and find out that the normal work experience is not so cut throat. But as any performer will tell you (male or female), the females in the cast especially have to fight. So for Tina to swoop in and pluck the strongest female character of the fall from a cast member is appalling.

Appalling was the first skit she played Palin in. Some women claiming to be feminists have taken to posting that garbage online and insisting it's funny. It's not funny at all. It's nothing but stereotypes of women. Hillary's so bitter she's ripping apart a podium? She seethes over Palin's nomination? Uh, where in the public record is anything indicating that? (Outside of the crackpot and fact-free rants of Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich.)

Women posting that awful skit on blogs in the name of 'sisterhood' should instead be asking why SNL portrayed two women as incapable? Palin was an airhead and Hillary's a jealous bitch. That's what the skit says. It's offensive as hell and does nothing but plaster over the 18 million cracks Hillary put in that glass ceiling.

Now let's deal with Tina's performance. Since she's poaching a role from a woman who doesn't have her own sitcom, Fey was required to be damn amazing. She wasn't. She wasn't even good. Your eight-year-old niece could have given that performance with minimal coaching. And what it really underscored was how bad a performer Fey was. At one point, she attempted to cock a shotgun which only drove home how she could not inhabit a physical space.

What could she do? Apparently Mean Girls wasn't just an idea she once had, it's the way she lives her life. It was the bitchiest portrayal of a woman -- of any woman -- that SNL has ever aired which is saying a great deal and you can include the nonsense David Spade and Adam Sandler did as 'girls' in the 90s.

There's this idiot refrain that Fey looks like Palin. Now all these years, we've always scoffed at the idea that Diana Prince or Clark Kent in glasses was enough to conceal that they were Wonder Woman and Superman. Apparently we were wrong because glasses is all it took for people to insist that Palin and Fey look alike. Palin's a beautiful woman. Fey can pass for pretty on a good day. Most days, she just passes for well scrubbed. Their eyes are nothing alike, their noses are nothing alike and Palin doesn't have Fey's lengthy face. In terms of facial shape, Palin more closely resembles Victoria Principal (another very beautiful woman). If you're missing it, Fey not only never entered a beauty contest, she couldn't have placed in one.

But the two wear glasses! So they must be twins!

We were appalled by the bitchiness so obvious in Fey's performance so we weren't all that shocked that Fey felt the way about Palin that she did. We were surprised she was stupid enough to express it publicly and, since she's done so, she should step away from the role. It was all snark, no character, and she's admitted why that is publicly. SNL needs to wish Tina all the best with 30 Rock and stop inviting her on the show to stand there reciting lines and pretending she's Palin. When you make a point of telling the world that you don't want to see Palin become the vice president, you're no longer allowed to play the character in the lead up to an election. You will always cheat the skit a little.

It's a problem made all the more evident when your bad head writer is in the tank for Barack Obama. (Pay attention, Seth, you'll get a cheat sheet before we end.) As Rebecca noted September 17th, an idiot writer for The New York Times (Brian Stelter) decided to tongue bathe the series with "SNL's Goals: Funny and Evenhanded." Stelter runs to Seth (among others) and then types up stenography and calls it 'reporting.' Not only is Stelter a moron, he's apparently illiterate.


We would strongly suggest that someone on staff at The Times grab the front page of the Tuesday, July 15th edition of the paper and read aloud (for non-reader Stelter) Bill Carter's "Want Obama in a Punch Line? First, Find a Joke." July 15th was when the paper finally discovered what we'd documented months ago: You can't make fun of Barack.

Barack exists in a bubble. Any embarrassing moment by his family members or friends never becomes a skit on SNL or even the basis for a punchline on Weekend Update. He can, and did, declare that the United States had 57 states and even that doesn't result in a joke. Last night, SNL felt the need to bring on 'Bill Clinton' and it was the same garbage they've long tossed Bill's way.

But (pay attention here, Seth), as awful as those skits are and as unrealistic, they flesh out a person. By keeping Barack in a vacuum, Seth Myers is as responsible for America feeling they don't know Barack as anyone else. During PBS' coverage of the Democratic National Convention, Senator Chuck Schumer tried to insist that the American people don't know Barack or where he comes from. Judy Woodruff rightly countered, "But he's been campaigning, with all due respect, for a year and a half."

Yes, he has been and he's been treated with kid gloves by the press throughout. SNL has followed suit. They've kept him in a bubble. While they had a field day with Bill Clinton during the Democratic Party primaries, they ignored Michelle Obama (who said she'd like to scratch Bill's eyes out -- the sort of statement that generally gets a full skit on SNL). Jeremiah Wright was Jermiah Who? to SNL. Barack was brought out and existed in his own little protective bubble whether Barack was playing himself or Fred was playing him.

Seth ran interference for his political crush all last season and intends to do so this year as well. How's that working out because last time we checked the polling, a significant number of Americans were saying last week that they had a hard time relating to Barack?

Barack refused to define himself, the press refused to attempt to pin him down and SNL (the most watched sketch show) regularly took a pass on presenting him as anything other than a reciter of lines. And you want to wonder why a number of Americans still have trouble relating to him?

In one of the worst skits last year -- naturally insisting Hillary was a power hungry bitch -- SNL did a 'spoof' of a 3:00 a.m. phone call. For that skit, they decided to peer into Hillary's brain. They decided to impose their judgments upon her and put their own motivations to her. They've never done that with Barack. And what the candidate failed to do and what the press failed to do, SNL could have. With Seth, it would have been a valentine to Barack but, please note, Idiot Meyers wasn't even smart enough to do that. While working overtime to push his candidate all last year, he wasn't even intelligent enough to create an inner or outer life for the Barack character.

Empty suit is the charge against Barack and it's been the charge for some time. We're not voting for Barack but if we'd hijacked SNL for a full season to promote him, we would have been smart enough to write a character. We would have been smart enough to give him a life off the debate stage. Seth's such an idiot that the joke around the entertainment industry these days is that Josh is the talented Meyers brother.

Though we're sure Seth will soon be hard at work trying to think of favorable settings to drop the character Barack into, it's really too late for that now. The impressions of Barack are now firmly set. That's Seth's fault at SNL. And it's a crime against comedy to refuse to be the class clown picking off all the targets. But that's what Seth does which is why there were no skits this week where Biden started crying while speaking or where he began saying things that were blatantly false. Biden was once a ripe target for SNL but that changed when Barack picked him as his running mate. That's what's hurting the show. If it's seen as a Democratic Party Saturday Night Live, it not only loses Republican viewers, it also loses the increasing number of people who are damn sick of both parties.

The death of SNL is elevating the Democratic Party up to sacred cow status. There was no concern, you may remember, about elevating when Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House. When that happened, it was time to trot out sex 'jokes.' Pelosi and her assistant (an apparently gay man into bondage and domination) were ha-ha funny. There were no concerns of "she's a first!" They went to town on her. But for Barack, its been kid gloves all along.

You can't comedically cover a political race when you only hurl invective at one side. We have long made that point to friends currently with SNL. As they begin assembling a clip show of election coverage, a few have started to get our point. One admitted he was "dead wrong" about our criticism last year. There's no crime in being wrong. There's crime in not admitting it. We were wrong ourselves. We thought Tina Fey was a performer and not just a "Mean Girl" dashing off bitchy, little lines. But a performer knows they have to like the characters they portray, they know they have to find some element to identify with. We were wrong because we also thought Tina Fey was intelligent. But an intelligent woman doesn't try to return to her old stomping ground after she's moved on in order to steal a role from another woman and an intelligent woman certainly doesn't add to the perception that SNL is in the tank for Barack by making the ridiculous statement that Fey did to the press backstage at the Emmys.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Poll1 { display:none; }