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Sarah Palin: A Gift From God for East Coast Comics

For a while, with the Bush era coming to an end, it looked like the US would face a severe comedy crunch, a boom and bust of punchlines and impersonations. With the termination of Dubya’s second term looming, cartoonists, sketchwriters, … Read More

By / October 23, 2008

For a while, with the Bush era coming to an end, it looked like the US would face a severe comedy crunch, a boom and bust of punchlines and impersonations. With the termination of Dubya’s second term looming, cartoonists, sketchwriters, talk-show hosts and stand-up acts were losing their sense of purpose. The exit of the stoopid, monkey-faced commander-in-chief posed a long-term threat to gag writers’ careers.

Enter Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate. A moose-hunting anti-abortionist whose unmarried daughter got pregnant at 17. A ‘hockey mom’ who only applied for a passport last year, aged 43. A former beauty queen and a smalltown Alaskan who says things like ‘You betcha’ and ‘I’ll tell ya’.

Pure comedy gold.

As actress Tina Fey’s recent impersonations of Palin on the comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live (SNL) have shown, poking fun at gun-toting, smalltown-minded, redneck Republicans has not fallen out of favour. Fey, of 30 Rock fame, has become an international household name as a result of her Palin skits, and SNL has achieved its highest ratings in 14 years.

In fact, Fey’s impersonations of Palin may now be better known than Palin’s own media appearances. True, it was Palin herself who, at the Republican National Convention, famously confessed that she is a regular ‘hockey mom’, comparing herself to a ‘pitbull with lipstick’. And it was the real Palin who said that the proximity of Alaska (where she is governor) to Russia shows that she has ‘foreign policy experience’.

The lines ‘I can see Russia from my house’ and ‘I am looking forward to a portion of your questions’ are equally well known now – but they were spoken by Tina Fey spoofing Palin. Fey’s impersonations have become bigger news than the real campaign. On this side of the Atlantic, Fey made it on to the front pages of both the Independent and the Guardian, who called her ‘the real star of the US election’.

Tina Fey and Sarah Palin on SNL

Last Saturday, the Fey-as-Palin mania reached a climax as Palin herself appeared on SNL alongside Fey. In the skit, as her mimic addressed a mock press conference, Palin watched from backstage, together with SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels. Actor Alec Baldwin joined them, apparently mistaking the real Palin for Fey, and proceeded to scold Michaels for letting Fey join ‘that horrible woman’ onstage. ‘She goes against everything we stand for!’ he exclaimed. Michaels awkwardly pointed out that the woman next to them was, in fact, that ‘horrible woman’, Governor Palin, and Baldwin mumbled an apology.

SNL has come under fire for giving Palin a spot on its programme. Some argued that it gave her unnecessary, and possibly positive, media exposure. Baldwin retorted: "If you think an appearance on SNL would sway voters… you may have more contempt for the electorate of this country than the Republican National Committee does. And that’s a lot of contempt."

Fair enough. Yet the idea that Palin stands against everything we stand for, as Baldwin put it – that’s ‘we’ as in the smug SNL world – also expresses a sense of contempt. Sure, Baldwin’s comment on SNL was a joke. But the joke worked because it reflected a very real attitude, namely that the media-savvy, big-city, sophisticated Democrats (‘we’) are frightened that gun-loving Joe-shmos (‘they’) might actually choose to exercise their democratic right to vote on 4 November and put a cross next to Palin’s name.

Post-Bush, bashing Palin has become a cheap way for apparently erudite celebrities and commentators to distance themselves from redneck America. For what informs the outbreak of comedic attacks on Palin is a not-so-funny snobbery towards small towns and religious people, and fear that America might lose its moral authority to boss around dodgy foreign regimes.

Matt Damon talks about Sarah Palin

In an interview on CBS soon after John McCain announced Palin as his running mate, actor Matt Damon said the prospect of her possibly becoming president was a ‘really scary thing’ – even though he admitted, in the next breath, that "I don’t know anything about her. I know she was mayor of a really, really small town and she was governor of Alaska for less than two years," he said.

For Damon, all we need to know is that America could be a heartbeat away (if McCain croaks) from being ruled by someone from a really small town who has the audacity to go to Washington and – even worse – think she can tell big-city folk like Damon what to do. On Palin’s alleged creationist beliefs, Damon went on: "I need to know if she thinks dinosaurs were here 4,000 years go. I really want to know because she’s gonna have the nuclear codes."

This is an updated version of one of the key arguments deployed against Reagan: that he was a dumb, overly Christian former actor who might plummet the world into nuclear meltdown on a whim. But perhaps Damon can tell us if he really believes polar bears and penguins are dying out because of global warming, and if he really thinks that representing the planet as a naked woman is a progressive view of the female sex. Because these trendy visions of climate chaos being visited upon Mother Earth appeared in a recent nature documentary narrated by Damon. Plenty of Prius-driving celebrity environmentalists who slam creationists for their backward views – from Damon to Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt – preach their own secular version of Kingdom Come. They tell us that we must repent for our sins against Nature or else we will be visited by floods and pestilence. Yet while they pray for Al Gore to deliver us from evil and bring salvation to those who join his ‘genuine moral and spiritual challenge,’ they see Palin as a backward Bible-basher.

Palin’s lack of foreign-policy experience, and her talk of how close Alaska is to Russia, is another joke that keeps on running. In a particularly funny sequence on SNL, Fey-as-Palin said that Alaskans "Keep an eye on" their Russian neighbors: "Every morning, when Alaskans wake up, one of the first things they do is look outside to see if there are any Russians hanging around. And if there are, you gotta go up to them and ask, ‘What are you doing here?’ And if they can’t give you a good reason, it’s our responsibility to say, you know, ‘Shoo! Get back over there!’"

 

The SNL spoof of Katie Couric’s Palin interview

Yet some seem to believe that this really is how Palin plans to deal with foreigners. The prospect of Palin as president is, according to Damon, "like a really bad Disney movie — a hockey mom facing down Putin’. A Facebook group called ‘I have more foreign policy experience than Sarah Palin’ has attracted over 240,000 members.

However, when it comes to Disneyfying foreign policy, no one – not even Palin – can beat celebrities themselves. Celebs are forever turning complex international conflicts into simplistic morality tales of good guys v bad guys, with America and the ‘international community’ as the knights in shining armour who must rescue the destitute.

Along with stars like George Clooney (who once said of the conflict in Darfur: ‘It’s not a political issue. There’s only right and wrong’), East Coast celebrities like Damon and Mia Farrow have displayed a gung-ho attitude that would make even Palin blush. Their ‘Save Darfur’ campaign recently parked a black military helicopter on Second Avenue in New York with a banner saying ‘Send me to Darfur’. Farrow has reportedly been in talks with Blackwater, the private military firm that caused so much destruction in Iraq, about sending men to Darfur. Indeed, Damon’s central concern about Palin – that she is too flimsy a politician to face down the likes of Putin – shows what lies behind Palin-bashing over foreign policy: the notion that she isn’t experienced enough to deal with those dodgy Russians, murderous Africans and other lunatics on the world stage.

Of course, it’s not surprising that comedians have jumped on Palin – she hands it to them on a plate, with a folksy wink and a side serving of cheesy one-liners. She’s easy to imitate and easy to mock. But mocking Republicans is hardly risqué or controversial after eight years of Bush. A real challenge would be to take the piss out of Barack Obama.

Yet when The New Yorker magazine recently tried to mix Obama with satire on its front page – with a cartoon showing the Democratic presidential hopeful and his wife as fist-bumping bin Laden-worshippers in the Oval Office – it was greeted with outrage and disgust from Democrats and Republicans alike. Obama has been untouchable in the largely white world of American late-night comedy. When Daily Show host Jon Stewart quipped about Obama changing his position on campaign financing during his leadership race against Hillary Clinton, the audience didn’t appreciate the joke. ‘You know, you’re allowed to laugh at him’, Stewart said. He later told the New York Times: "People have a tendency to react as far as their ideology allows them." For now, Obama, it seems, is untouchable. As Mike Sweeney, head writer for Conan O’Brien on Late Night, said in July: "We’re hoping he picks an idiot as vice president."

Well, Biden is no Palin. But at least the Alaskan hockey mom has bought American comedians some time and given the East Coast and Hollywood celebrity set a renewed sense of purpose, someone to direct their anger at. In the process, they have provided some laughs, while exposing what lies behind cheap and easy Palin-bashing: hostility towards smalltown people, a desire to protect American prestige in humanitarian military affairs, and a blind fear of making any jokes about the main man: Obama.

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