“SNL” Obama Sketch Gets Truth Squad Treatment

Skit wasn’t 100 percent accurate – but does a comedy show need to get all its facts straight?

By Jere Hester
|  Thursday, Oct 8, 2009  |  Updated 9:43 AM EDT
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"SNL" Highlights: The New Season

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Fred Armisen touched a nerve as President Obama.

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On the latest “Saturday Night Live,” President Obama – as played by Fred Armisen – goes through a checklist of presidential promises and determines he’s done “nothing, nada” since taking office.

The opening sketch marked the show’s toughest shot yet at Obama, who some critics contend has drawn little fire from the comedy world. But, perhaps more notably, the skit has garnered scrutiny over whether the “SNL” portrayal of a do-nothing president was rooted in reality.

PolitiFact.com, a non-partisan site that won a Pulitzer Prize for “separating rhetoric from truth” during the 2008 campaign, parsed the Obama spoof, and found mixed results. “SNL” might have jumped the gun on slamming Obama for not closing Guantanamo Bay or pulling out of Iraq, the site suggests, though the show might have been more on target about his lack of progress on immigration reform and ending the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

But does a comedy show need to get all its facts straight?

 “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” a child prodigy of the “SNL” staple “Weekend Update,” derives much of its humor – and credibility – from clips of news events and reports. A July Time magazine poll found that Stewart is the most trusted newscaster in the U.S. – likely in no small part to viewers’ belief that they’re getting real news, albeit from a comic point of view.

Stewart’s Comedy Central comrade, Stephen Colbert, has a tougher job – lampooning newsmakers in his guise as conservative commentator on “The Colbert Report.” But he pulls it off by using his pompous character to expose the absurdities of the day in news.

Political satire is at its most powerful when grounded in basic truth. But comedy also thrives on exaggeration and playing on perceptions – something the folks at “SNL” know very well.

The show surged back to life last year during the presidential campaign, producing many great moments – none as memorable Tina Fey, in Sarah Palin guise, chirping, “I can see Russia from my house!”

That’s not exactly what Palin said – but the audience knew exactly what Fey meant. The “SNL” Obama bit touched a nerve because it hit upon the belief in some circles that the president, mired in a health-care reform battle, has been stalled on fulfilling campaign pledges.

PolitiFact.com said it examined the “SNL” sketch “just for fun.” Still, the story has been picked up in a bunch of places, including CNN and The Huffington Post.

“This is not a fair of portrayal of what Obama's done,” PolitiFact.com editor Bill Adair told CNN. “But it's comedy. It doesn’t have to be fair.”

Comedy, as Steve Martin told us many years ago, also isn’t pretty. The true test of the power of pointed political humor doesn’t come in the fact checking, but in the audience’s reaction: If we laugh, it means we get the joke.

 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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