SNL’s “Incest Joke”: The Bridge to Exaggeration is Nowhere

Filed Under Satire, Sketch Comedy

The revelation that Al Franken took time out from his Senate campaign to pen SNL’s opening sketch about McCain’s advertising appeared to be the real political lightning rod. But another sketch from the show appears to be drawing a bit more conservative ire. More remarkable, it was a sketch that, to my mind, seemed to be written to appeal to conservatives.

Here’s the sketch. NBC has had it taken down from YouTube, so it’ll likely disappear here as well.

If it is deleted and you missed it, the sketch involved New York Times reporters gathered to go to Alaska to do digging into Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s past. The bulk of the sketch was detailing how elitist and out of touch they were - unable to recognize a shotgun and a snow machine as well as unable to deal with a place with little psychotherapists or Thai food. The reporters are also eager to dig up any sort of dirt they can on Sarah Palin, particularly of the impossible-to-verify prejudiced-to-small-towns kind. It leads one of the reporters to say this:

“What about that husband? You know he’s doing those daughters. C’mon, it’s Alaska!”

And that’s the crux of the problem for some conservatives. Even joking about a frothing liberal desire to find salacious dirt about the Governor is a sensitive subject. Suggesting incest in the Palin family makes SNL a part of, rather than a voice against, the media feeding frenzy that embattles conservatives.

There’s definitely more than a little over-sensitivity going on here. The point was lost - and will be lost - on some of those who want to be offended by any media. But I think the sketch points to an interesting problem some talk about in contemporary comedy: namely that the truth has gotten so insane, it’s impossible to exaggerate.

The level of stories about Governor Palin for a time had a “can you believe this?” quality - a quality that makes joking about them, exaggerating them, particularly hard. The line couldn’t have been, “I’d like to know if one of her daughters is pregnant? Because it’s Alaska! What else is there to do?” A simple play off the facts wouldn’t have worked and also would have undermined the point of the sketch - that the media doesn’t have interest in the truth, but rather in stories that confirm their biases about small town folk. Evoking the truth muddies that point.

So they had to go for an exaggeration. And I’m unsure any exaggeration would have worked in the eyes of those who see Palin as a media target. Too tepid and you’re just repeating a blog rumor - i.e. no exaggeration at all. So they erred on the big exaggeration, going as large as possible to ensure that nobody could ever possibly think they believe it. Except it our hyper-sensitive political culture, they did.

The sketch, besides that one point, is a near-perfect model for being evenhanded (a goal expressed only last week, in the Times of all places, by head writer Seth Meyers). The sketch gives voice to the media bias seen by some of Palin’s defenders. But the sketch is also an exaggerated cartoon of elitism that it makes liberals laugh because they recognize that’s what some conservatives think a newsroom works like. It’s almost like a reverse version of Hee Haw.

if they could have found a different exaggeration, I could easily have seen this sketch as having been as much of a conservative rallying cry as the primary’s Hillary Clinton/Barack Obama sketch.

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Posted by Keithrh on 09/23  at  11:11 PM

I think one thing that is being overlooked in all of this was the overall tepid reaction by the audience to what was an exceedingly long skit with very few laughs.  There were some chuckles here and there, but it was a one joke premise stretched incredibly thin. The Times staff is elitist and out of touch, got it, now let’s continue with it for another 6 minutes or so. That should be long enough for you to forget the premise and then remember it again. “What the hell’s been going on for the last four minutes? I nodded off.  Oh yeah, they’re out of touch elitists. I got it.”

Brevity is the soul of wit. Was it necessary to begin with 50 people in the room? Was the joke of them leaving worth the extra set-up needed?  The sexual harassment joke really never panned out and in the end lengthened a too long skit. She should have at least been eaten by a polar bear as well.

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